Genetics of neuromuscular disorders

Nigel G Laing
Critical Reviews in Clinical Laboratory Sciences 2012, 49 (2): 33-48
Neuromuscular disorders affect the peripheral nervous system and muscle. The principle effect of neuromuscular disorders is therefore on the ability to perform voluntary movements. Neuromuscular disorders cause significant incapacity, including, at the most extreme, almost complete paralysis. Neuromuscular diseases include some of the most devastating disorders that afflict mankind, for example motor neuron disease. Neuromuscular diseases have onset any time from in utero until old age. They are most often genetic. The last 25 years has been the golden age of genetics, with the disease genes responsible for many genetic neuromuscular disorders now identified. Neuromuscular disorders may be inherited as autosomal dominant, autosomal recessive, or X-linked traits. They may also result from mutations in mitochondrial DNA or from de novo mutations not present in the peripheral blood DNA of either parent. The high incidence of de novo mutation has been one of the surprises of the recent increase in information about the genetics of neuromuscular disorders. The disease burden imposed on families is enormous including decision making in relation to presymptomatic diagnosis for late onset neurodegenerative disorders and reproductive choices. Diagnostic molecular neurogenetics laboratories have been faced with an ever-increasing range of disease genes that could be tested for and usually a finite budget with which to perform the possible testing. Neurogenetics has moved from one known disease gene, the Duchenne muscular dystrophy gene in July 1987, to hundreds of disease genes in 2011. It can be anticipated that with the advent of next generation sequencing (NGS), most, if not all, causative genes will be identified in the next few years. Any type of mutation possible in human DNA has been shown to cause genetic neuromuscular disorders, including point mutations, small insertions and deletions, large deletions and duplications, repeat expansions or contraction and somatic mosaicism. The diagnostic laboratory therefore has to be capable of a large number of techniques in order to identify the different mutation types and requires highly skilled staff. Mutations causing neuromuscular disorders affect the largest human proteins for example titin and nebulin. Successful molecular diagnosis can make invasive and expensive diagnostic procedures such as muscle biopsy unnecessary. Molecular diagnosis is currently largely based on Sanger sequencing, which at most can sequence a small number of exons in one gene at a time. NGS techniques will facilitate molecular diagnostics, but not for all types of mutations. For example, NGS is not good at identifying repeat expansions or copy number variations. Currently, diagnostic molecular neurogenetics is focused on identifying the causative mutation(s) in a patient. In the future, the focus might move to prevention, by identifying carriers of recessive diseases before they have affected children. The pathobiology of many of the diseases remains obscure, as do factors affecting disease severity. The aim of this review is to describe molecular diagnosis of genetic neuromuscular disorders in the past, the present and speculate on the future.

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