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Schizophrenia genome-wide association (GWA) studies have identified over 150 regions of the genome that are associated with disease risk, yet there is little evidence that coding mutations contribute to this disorder. To explore the mechanism of non-coding regulatory elements in schizophrenia, we performed ATAC-seq on adult prefrontal cortex brain samples from 135 individuals with schizophrenia and 137 controls, and identified 118,152 ATAC-seq peaks. These accessible chromatin regions in brain are highly enriched for SNP-heritability for schizophrenia (10.6 fold enrichment, P=2.4x10-4, second only to genomic regions conserved in Eutherian mammals) and replicated in an independent dataset (9.0 fold enrichment, P=2.7x10-4). This degree of enrichment of schizophrenia heritability was higher than in open chromatin found in 138 different cell and tissue types. Brain open chromatin regions that overlapped highly conserved regions exhibited an even higher degree of heritability enrichment, indicating that conservation can identify functional subsets within regulatory elements active in brain. However, we did not identify chromatin accessibility differences between schizophrenia cases and controls, nor did we find an interaction of chromatin QTLs with case-control status. This indicates that although causal variants map within regulatory elements, mechanisms other than differential chromatin may govern the contribution of regulatory element variation to schizophrenia risk. Our results strongly implicate gene regulatory processes involving open chromatin in the pathogenesis of schizophrenia, and suggest a strategy to understand the hundreds of common variants emerging from large genomic studies of complex brain diseases.

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