Recalibrating the epigenetic clock: Implications for assessing biological age in the human cortex

Gemma L. Shireby, Jonathan P. Davies, Paul T. Francis, Joe Burrage, Emma M. Walker, Grant W.A. Neilson, Aisha Dahir, Alan J. Thomas, Seth Love, Rebecca G. Smith, Katie Lunnon, Meena Kumari, Leonard C. Schalkwyk, Kevin Morgan, Keeley Brookes, Eilis Hannon, Jonathan Mill*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

70 Citations (Scopus)


Human DNA methylation data have been used to develop biomarkers of ageing, referred to as 'epigenetic clocks', which have been widely used to identify differences between chronological age and biological age in health and disease including neurodegeneration, dementia and other brain phenotypes. Existing DNA methylation clocks have been shown to be highly accurate in blood but are less precise when used in older samples or in tissue types not included in training the model, including brain. We aimed to develop a novel epigenetic clock that performs optimally in human cortex tissue and has the potential to identify phenotypes associated with biological ageing in the brain. We generated an extensive dataset of human cortex DNA methylation data spanning the life course (n = 1397, ages = 1 to 108 years). This dataset was split into 'training' and 'testing' samples (training: n = 1047; testing: n = 350). DNA methylation age estimators were derived using a transformed version of chronological age on DNA methylation at specific sites using elastic net regression, a supervised machine learning method. The cortical clock was subsequently validated in a novel independent human cortex dataset (n = 1221, ages = 41 to 104 years) and tested for specificity in a large whole blood dataset (n = 1175, ages = 28 to 98 years). We identified a set of 347 DNA methylation sites that, in combination, optimally predict age in the human cortex. The sum of DNA methylation levels at these sites weighted by their regression coefficients provide the cortical DNA methylation clock age estimate. The novel clock dramatically outperformed previously reported clocks in additional cortical datasets. Our findings suggest that previous associations between predicted DNA methylation age and neurodegenerative phenotypes might represent false positives resulting from clocks not robustly calibrated to the tissue being tested and for phenotypes that become manifest in older ages. The age distribution and tissue type of samples included in training datasets need to be considered when building and applying epigenetic clock algorithms to human epidemiological or disease cohorts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3763-3775
Number of pages13
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2020


  • age
  • brain
  • clock
  • cortex
  • DNA methylation


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