Complement C4 associations with altered microbial biomarkers exemplify gene-by-environment interactions in schizophrenia

Emily G. Severance, Flora Leister, Ashley Lea, Shuojia Yang, Faith Dickerson, Robert H. Yolken

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Schizophrenia is a complex brain disorder with genetic and environmental factors contributing to its etiology. Complement C4 genes are schizophrenia susceptibility loci and are activated in response to infections and gut microbiome imbalances. We hypothesize that C4 genetic susceptibility predisposes individuals to neuropathological effects from pathogen exposures or a microbiome in dysbiosis. In 214 individuals with schizophrenia and 123 non-psychiatric controls, we examined C4 gene copy number and haplotype groups for associations with schizophrenia and microbial plasma biomarkers. C4A copy number and haplotypes containing HERV-K insertions (C4A-long; C4AL-C4AL) conferred elevated odds ratios for schizophrenia diagnoses (OR 1.58–2.56, p < 0.0001), while C4B-short (C4BS) haplogroups conferred decreased odds (OR 0.43, p < 0.0001). Haplogroup-microbe combinations showed extensive associations with schizophrenia including C4AL with Candida albicans IgG (OR 2.16, p < 0.0005), C4AL-C4BL with cytomegalovirus (CMV) IgG (OR 1.79, p < 0.008), C4BS with lipopolysaccharide-binding protein (LBP) (OR 1.18, p < 0.0001), and C4AL-C4AL with Toxoplasma gondii IgG (OR = 17.67, p < 0.0001). In controls, only one haplogroup-microbe combination was significant: C4BS with CMV IgG (OR 0.52, p < 0.02). In schizophrenia only, LBP and CMV IgG levels were inversely correlated with C4A and C4S copy numbers, respectively (R2 = 0.13–0.16, p < 0.0001). C4 haplogroups were associated with altered scores of cognitive functioning in both cases and controls and with psychiatric symptom scores in schizophrenia. Our findings link complement C4 genes with a susceptibility to infections and a dysbiotic microbiome in schizophrenia. These results support immune system mechanisms by which gene-environmental interactions may be operative in schizophrenia.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)87-93
Number of pages7
JournalSchizophrenia Research
StatePublished - Aug 2021


  • Biomarkers
  • Complement system
  • Gene-environment interactions
  • Gut-brain axis
  • Microbiome
  • Pathogens

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry


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