Bayesian network analysis incorporating genetic anchors complements conventional Mendelian randomization approaches for exploratory analysis of causal relationships in complex data

Richard Howey, So-Youn Shin, Caroline Relton, George Davey Smith, Heather J. Cordell

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Abstract

Mendelian randomization (MR) implemented through instrumental variables analysis is an increasingly popular causal inference tool used in genetic epidemiology. But it can have limitations for evaluating simultaneous causal relationships in complex data sets that include, for example, multiple genetic predictors and multiple potential risk factors associated with the same genetic variant. Here we use real and simulated data to investigate Bayesian network analysis (BN) with the incorporation of directed arcs, representing genetic anchors, as an alternative approach to effect estimation. A Bayesian network describes the conditional dependencies/independencies of variables using a graphical model (a directed acyclic graph) and its with an accompanying joint probability. In real data, we found BN inferred could be used to infer simultaneous causal relationships that confirmed the individual causal relationships suggested by
bi-directional MR, while allowing for the existence of potential horizontal pleiotropy (that would violate MR assumptions). In simulated data, BN with two directional anchors (mimicking genetic instruments) had greater power for a fixed type 1 error than bi-directional MR, while BN with a single directional anchor performed better than or as well as bi-directional MR. Both BN and MR could be adversely affected by violations of their underlying assumptions (such as genetic confounding due to unmeasured horizontal pleiotropy). BN with no directional anchor generated inference that was no better than by chance, emphasizing the importance of directional anchors in BN (as in MR). Under highly pleiotropic simulated scenarios, BN outperformed both MR (and its recent extensions) and two recently-proposed alternative approaches: a multi-SNP mediation intersection-union test (SMUT) and a latent causal variable (LCV) test. We conclude that BN incorporating genetic anchors is a useful complementary method to conventional MR for performing causal inference exploring causal relationships in complex data sets such as those generated from modern “omics” technologies

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages22
JournalPLoS Genetics
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2 Mar 2020

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