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Systematic analysis of gene expression in human brains before and after death

Henriette Franz1, Claudia Ullmann2, Albert Becker2, Margaret Ryan3, Sabine Bahn3, Thomas Arendt4, Matthias Simon5, Svante Pääbo1 and Philipp Khaitovich1*

Author Affiliations

1 Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Deutscher Platz, D-04103 Leipzig, Germany

2 Department of Neuropathology and National Brain Tumor Reference Center, University of Bonn Medical Center, Sigmund-Freud-Strasse, D-53105 Bonn, Germany

3 Cambridge Centre for Neuropsychiatric Research, Institute of Biotechnology, University of Cambridge, Tennis Court Road, Cambridge CB2 1QT, UK

4 Paul Flechsig Institute for Brain Research, University of Leipzig, Jahnallee, D-04109 Leipzig, Germany

5 Department of Neurosurgery, University of Bonn Medical Center, Sigmund-Freud-Strasse, D-53105 Bonn, Germany

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Genome Biology 2005, 6:R112  doi:10.1186/gb-2005-6-13-r112

Published: 30 December 2005



Numerous studies have employed microarray techniques to study changes in gene expression in connection with human disease, aging and evolution. The vast majority of human samples available for research are obtained from deceased individuals. This raises questions about how well gene expression patterns in such samples reflect those of living individuals.


Here, we compare gene expression patterns in two human brain regions in postmortem samples and in material collected during surgical intervention. We find that death induces significant expression changes in more than 10% of all expressed genes. These changes are non-randomly distributed with respect to their function. Moreover, we observe similar expression changes due to death in two distinct brain regions. Consequently, the pattern of gene expression differences between the two brain regions is largely unaffected by death, although the magnitude of differences is reduced by 50% in postmortem samples. Furthermore, death-induced changes do not contribute significantly to gene expression variation among postmortem human brain samples.


We conclude that postmortem human brain samples are suitable for investigating gene expression patterns in humans, but that caution is warranted in interpreting results for individual genes.