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Characterisation of an inflammation-related epigenetic score and its association with cognitive ability

By Anna J Stevenson, Daniel McCartney, Robert Francis Hillary, Archie Campbell, Stewart W Morris, Mairead L. Bermingham, Rosie M Walker, Kathryn Evans, Thibaud S. Boutin, Caroline Hayward, Allan F. McRae, Barry W McColl, Tara L Spires-Jones, Andrew M McIntosh, Ian J Deary, Riccardo E Marioni

Posted 13 Oct 2019
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/802009 (published DOI: 10.1186/s13148-020-00903-8)

Results from large cohort studies investigating the association between inflammation and cognition have been mixed, possibly due to methodological disparities. However, a key issue in research utilising inflammatory biomarkers is their typically phasic responses. C-reactive protein (CRP) is widely used to investigate the association between chronic inflammation and cognition, but its plasma concentrations can markedly deviate in response to acute infection. Recently a large-scale epigenome-wide association study identified DNA methylation correlates of CRP. DNA methylation is thought to be relatively stable in the short term, marking it as a potentially useful signature of exposure. Here, we generate an epigenetic CRP score and investigate its trajectories with age, and associations with cognitive ability, in comparison to serum CRP in two cohorts: a longitudinal study of older adults (the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936, n=889) and a large, cross-sectional cohort (Generation Scotland, n=7,028). We identified differing trajectories of serum CRP across the cohorts, with no homogeneous trends seen with age. Conversely, the epigenetic score was consistently found to increase with age, and to do so more rapidly in males compared to females. Higher levels of serum CRP were found to associate with poorer cognition in Lothian Birth Cohort 1936, but not in Generation Scotland. However, a consistent negative association was identified between cognition and the epigenetic score in both cohorts. Furthermore, the epigenetic score accounted for a greater proportion of variance in cognitive ability. Our results suggest that epigenetic signatures of acute inflammatory markers may provide an enhanced signature of chronic inflammation, allowing for more reliable stratification of individuals, and thus clearer inference of associations with incident health outcomes.

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