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Genetic sensitivity analysis: adjusting for genetic confounding in epidemiological associations

By Jean-Baptiste Pingault, Fruhling Rijsdijk, Tabea Schoeler, Shing Wan Choi, Saskia Selzam, Eva Krapohl, Paul F O'Reilly, Frank Dudbridge

Posted 30 Mar 2019
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/592352

Associations between exposures and outcomes reported in epidemiological studies are typically unadjusted for genetic confounding. We propose a two-stage approach for estimating the degree to which such observed associations can be explained by genetic confounding. First, we assess attenuation of exposure effects in regressions controlling for increasingly powerful polygenic scores. Second, we use structural equation models to estimate genetic confounding using heritability estimates derived from both SNP-based and twin-based studies. We examine associations between maternal education and three developmental outcomes - child educational achievement, Body Mass Index, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Polygenic scores explain between 14.3% and 23.0% of the original associations, while analyses under SNP- and twin-based heritability scenarios indicate that observed associations could be almost entirely explained by genetic confounding. Thus, caution is needed when interpreting associations from non-genetically informed epidemiology studies. Our approach, akin to a genetically informed sensitivity analysis can be applied widely.

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