Brain Behav Immun. 2023 Oct 24:S0889-1591(23)00319-7. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2023.10.019. Online ahead of print.
BACKGROUND: Neuroinflammation and aberrant immune regulation are increasingly implicated in the pathophysiology of white matter hyperintensities (WMH), an imaging marker of cerebrovascular pathologies and predictor of cognitive impairment. The role of human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genes, critical in immunoregulation and associated with susceptibility to neurodegenerative diseases, in WMH pathophysiology remains unexplored.
METHODS: We performed association analyses between classical HLA alleles and WMH volume, derived from MRI scans of 38 302 participants in the UK Biobank. To identify independent functional alleles driving these associations, we conducted conditional forward stepwise regression and lasso regression. We further investigated whether these functional alleles showed consistent associations with WMH across subgroups characterized by varying levels of clinical determinants. Additionally, we validated the clinical relevance of the identified alleles by examining their association with cognitive function (n = 147 549) and dementia (n = 460 029) in a larger cohort.
FINDINGS: Four HLA alleles (DQB1*02:01, DRB1*03:01, C*07:01, and B*08:01) showed an association with reduced WMH volume after Bonferroni correction for multiple comparisons. Among these alleles, DQB1*02:01 exhibited the most significant association (β = -0.041, 95 % CI: -0.060 to -0.023, p = 1.04 × 10-5). Forward selection and lasso regression analyses indicated that DQB1*02:01 and C*07:01 primarily drove this association. The protective effect against WMH conferred by DQB1*02:01 and C*07:01 persisted in clinically relevant subgroups, with a stronger effect observed in older participants. Carrying DQB1*02:01 and C*07:01 was associated with higher cognitive function, but no association with dementia was found.
INTERPRETATION: Our population-based findings support the involvement of immune-associated mechanisms, particularly both HLA class I and class II genes, in the pathogenesis of WMH and subsequent consequence of cognitive functions.