CHRNA5, encoding the nicotinic α5 subunit, is implicated in multiple disorders, including nicotine addiction and lung cancer. Previous studies demonstrate significant associations between promoter polymorphisms and CHRNA5 mRNA expression, but the responsible sequence variants remain uncertain. To search for cis-regulatory variants, we measured allele-specific mRNA expression of CHRNA5 in human prefrontal cortex autopsy tissues and scanned the CHRNA5 locus for regulatory variants. A cluster of six frequent single-nucleotide polymorphisms (rs1979905, rs1979906, rs1979907, rs880395, rs905740, and rs7164030), in complete linkage disequilibrium (LD), fully account for a >2.5-fold allelic expression difference and a fourfold increase in overall CHRNA5 mRNA expression. This proposed enhancer region resides more than 13 kilobases upstream of the CHRNA5 transcription start site. The same upstream variants failed to affect CHRNA5 mRNA expression in peripheral blood lymphocytes, indicating tissue-specific gene regulation. Other promoter polymorphisms were also correlated with overall CHRNA5 mRNA expression in the brain, but were inconsistent with allelic mRNA expression ratios, a robust and proximate measure of cis-regulatory variants. The enhancer region and the nonsynonymous polymorphism rs16969968 generate three main haplotypes that alter the risk of developing nicotine dependence. Ethnic differences in LD across the CHRNA5 locus require consideration of upstream enhancer variants when testing clinical associations.
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