The use of negative control outcomes in Mendelian randomization to detect potential population stratification

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Abstract

A key assumption of Mendelian randomisation (MR) analysis is that there is no association between the genetic variants used as instruments and the outcome other than through the exposure of interest. One way in which this assumption can be violated is through population stratification which can introduce confounding of the relationship between the genetic variants and the outcome and so induce an association between them. Negative control outcomes are increasingly used to detect unobserved confounding in observational epidemiological studies. Here we consider the use of negative control outcomes in MR studies to detect confounding of the genetic variants and the exposure or outcome. As a negative control outcome in an MR study we propose the use of phenotypes which are determined before the exposure and outcome but which are likely to be subject to the same confounding as the exposure or outcome of interest. We illustrate our method with a two-sample MR analysis of a preselected set of exposures on self-reported tanning ability and hair colour. Our results show that, of the 33 exposures considered, GWAS studies of adiposity and education related traits are likely to be subject to population stratification that is not controlled for through adjustment and so any MR study including these traits may be subject to bias that cannot be identified through standard pleiotropy robust methods. Negative control outcomes should therefore be used regularly in MR studies to detect potential population stratification in the data used.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberdyaa288
Number of pages12
JournalInternational Journal of Epidemiology
Early online date11 Feb 2021
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 11 Feb 2021

Keywords

  • population stratification
  • Mendelian randomization
  • negative control outcomes

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