Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Cellular, Molecular and Biomedical Sciences

First Advisor

Dawei Li


Brain disorders present a significant burden on affected individuals, their families and society at large. Existing diagnostic tests suffer from a lack of genetic biomarkers, particularly for substance use disorders, such as alcohol dependence (AD). Numerous studies have demonstrated that AD has a genetic heritability of 40-60%. The existing genetics literature of AD has primarily focused on linkage analyses in small family cohorts and more recently on genome-wide association analyses (GWAS) in large case-control cohorts, fueled by rapid advances in next generation sequencing (NGS). Numerous AD-associated genomic variations are present at a common frequency in the general population, making these variants of public health significance. However, known AD-associated variants explain only a fraction of the expected heritability. In this dissertation, we demonstrate that systems biology applications that integrate evolutionary genomics, rare variants and structural variation can dissect the genetic architecture of AD and elucidate its heritability.

We identified several complex human diseases, including AD and other brain disorders, as potential targets of natural selection forces in diverse world populations. Further evidence of natural selection forces affecting AD was revealed when we identified an association between eye color, a trait under strong selection, and AD. These findings provide strong support for conducting GWAS on brain disorder phenotypes. However, with the ever-increasing abundance of rare genomic variants and large cohorts of multi-ethnic samples, population stratification becomes a serious confounding factor for GWAS. To address this problem, we designed a novel approach to identify ancestry informative single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) for population stratification adjustment in association analyses. Furthermore, to leverage untyped variants from genotyping arrays – particularly rare variants – for GWAS and meta-analysis through rapid imputation, we designed a tool that converts genotype definitions across various array platforms.

To further elucidate the genetic heritability of brain disorders, we designed approaches aimed at identifying Copy Number Variations (CNVs) and viral insertions into the human genome. We conducted the first CNV-based whole genome meta-analysis for AD. We also designed an integrated approach to estimate the sensitivity of NGS-based methods of viral insertion detection. For the first time in the literature, we identified herpesvirus in NGS data from an Alzheimer’s disease brain sample.

The work in this dissertation represents a three-faceted advance in our understanding of brain disease etiology: 1) evolutionary genomic insights, 2) novel resources and tools to leverage rare variants, and 3) the discovery of disease-associated structural genomic aberrations. Our findings have broad implications on the genetics of complex human disease and hold promise for delivering clinically useful knowledge and resources.



Number of Pages

313 p.