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Establishing causal relationships in observational studies is an important step in research and policy decision making. The association between an exposure and an outcome can be confounded by multiple factors, often making it hard to draw causal conclusions. The co-twin control design (CTCD) is a powerful approach that allows for the investigation of causal effects while controlling for genetic and shared environmental confounding factors. This article introduces the CTCD and offers an overview of analysis methods for binary and continuous outcome and exposure variables. Tools for data simulation are provided, along with practical guidance and accompanying scripts for implementing the CTCD in R, SPSS, and Stata. While the CTCD offers valuable insights into causal inference, it depends on several assumptions that are important when interpreting CTCD results. By presenting a broad overview of the CTCD, this article aims to equip researchers with actionable recommendations and a comprehensive understanding of the design’s strengths and limitations.
We examine some of the genetic features of neuroticism (N) taking as an animal model the Maudsley Reactive (MR) and Maudsley Nonreactive (MNR) rat strains which were selectively bred, respectively, for high and low open-field defecation (OFD) starting in the late 1950s. To draw analogies with human genetic studies, we explore the genetic correlation of N with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). We review progress with the rat model and developments in the field of human complex trait genetics, including genetic association studies that relate to current understanding of the genetics of N. The widespread differences in the tone of the peripheral sympathetic nervous system that have been found between the Maudsley strains, particularly those observed in the colon, may underly the differences in OFD (MNR, higher sympathetic tone and zero defecation). In humans, a large genome-wide association study (GWAS) reported six genes contributing to IBS, four of which were implicated in mood and anxiety disorders or were expressed in the brain, with three of the four also expressed in the nerve fibers and ganglia of the gut. Heritability of N is estimated at around 50% in twin and family studies, and GWASs identified hundreds of loci, enabling estimation of genome-wide correlations (rg) with other traits. Significantly, the estimate for rg between risk of IBS, anxiety, N, and depression was >0.5 and suggested genetic pleiotropy without evidence for causal mechanisms. Findings on the adrenergic pharmacology of the colon, coupled with new understanding of the role of the locus ceruleus in modifying afferent information from this organ, generate hypotheses that challenge traditional cause/effect notions about the relationship of the central nervous system to peripheral events in response to stress, suggest specific targets for gene action in the Maudsley model and emphasize the value of reciprocal evaluation of genetic architecture underlying N in rodents and humans.
Individual differences in educational attainment (EA) and physical health, as indexed by body mass index (BMI), are correlated within individuals and across generations. The aim of our study was to assess the transmission of these traits from parents to their offspring in childhood and adolescence. We analyzed BMI and EA in 13,916 families from the Netherlands. Data were available for 27,577 parents (mean age 33) and 26,855 of their offspring at 4 and 12 years of age. We employed structural equation modeling to simultaneously estimate the phenotypic transmission of BMI and EA from parents to offspring, the spousal correlations, and the residual child BMI-EA associations after accounting for intergenerational transmission and testing for gender differences therein. We found a significant intergenerational transmission of BMI to BMI in childhood (age 4; standardized regression coefficient β = .10) and adolescence (age 12; β = .20), and of EA to academic achievement in adolescence (β = .19). Cross-trait parent-to-offspring transmission was weak. All transmission effects were independent of parent or offspring gender. We observed within-person EA-BMI correlations that were negative in parents (∼−.09), positive in children (∼.05) and negative in adolescents (∼−.06). Residual EA-BMI were positive in children (∼.05) and insignificant in adolescents. Spousal correlations were .46 for EA, .21 for BMI, and ∼−.09 cross-trait. After accounting for spousal correlations, the intergenerational transmission for BMI and EA is mainly predictive within, but not across, traits. The within-person correlation between BMI and EA can change in direction between childhood and adulthood.
In studies of singletons, a range of early-life characteristics have been reported to be associated with handedness, but some of these associations have failed to replicate. We examined associations between 23 early life characteristics with handedness in a large sample of 37,495 5-year-old twins. We considered three definitions of handedness: left-handedness (LH), mixed-handedness (MH), and non-right-handedness (NRH). Our main aim was to test whether the associations with sex, birth weight, gestational age, and season of birth — as reported in singletons — replicate in twins, and to examine twin-specific variables, including zygosity, chorionicity, birth order, and intertwin delivery time. Compared to previously published data from adults born as singletons (7.23%), the prevalence of NRH was higher in both twins (16.19%) and their parents (15.09%). In the twins, LH and NRH were associated with parents’ LH. Male sex and lower gestational age were associated with NRH, and LH was associated with not being breastfed. MH was related to neurodevelopmental delays and higher externalizing problems later in childhood. Other previously reported associations were not replicated, and no twin-specific characteristics were related to handedness. These results emphasize the importance of considering multiple definitions of handedness and indicate a small number of replicated associations across studies.
Strong associations between neural tube defects (NTDs) and monozygotic (MZ) twinning have long been noted, and it has been suggested that NTD cases who do not present as MZ twins may be the survivors of MZ twinning events. We have recently shown that MZ twins carry a strong, distinctive DNA methylation signature and have developed an algorithm based on genomewide DNA methylation array data that distinguishes MZ twins from dizygotic twins and other relatives at well above chance level. We have applied this algorithm to published methylation data from five fetal tissues (placental chorionic villi, kidney, spinal cord, brain and muscle) collected from spina bifida cases (n = 22), anencephalic cases (n = 15) and controls (n = 19). We see no difference in signature between cases and controls, providing no support for a common etiological role of MZ twinning in NTDs. The strong associations therefore continue to await elucidation.
There are research questions whose answers require record linkage of multiple databases that may be characterized by limited options for full data sharing. For this purpose, the Open Data Infrastructure for Social Science and Economic Innovations (ODISSEI) consortium has supported the development of the ODISSEI Secure Supercomputer (OSSC) platform that allows researchers to link cohort data to data from Statistics Netherlands and run large-scale analyses in a high-performance computing (HPC) environment. Here, we report a successful record linkage genomewide association (GWA) study on expenditure for total health, mental health, primary and hospital care, and medication. Record linkage for genotype data from 16,726 participants from the Netherlands Twin Register (NTR) with data from Statistics Netherlands was accomplished in the secure OSSC platform, followed by gene-based tests and estimation of total and single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP)-based heritability. The total heritability of expenditure ranged between 29.4% (SE 0.8) and 37.5% (SE 0.8), but GWA analyses did not identify SNPs or genes that were genomewide significantly associated with health care expenditure. SNP-based heritability was between 0.0% (SE 3.5) and 5.4% (SE 4.0) and was different from zero for mental health care and primary care expenditure. We conclude that successfully linking genotype data to administrative health care expenditure data from Statistics Netherlands is feasible and demonstrates a series of analyses on health care expenditure. The OSSC platform offers secure possibilities for analyzing linked data in large scale and realizing sample sizes required for GWA studies, providing invaluable opportunities to answer many new research questions.
We compare the power of two different approaches to detect passive genotype–environment (GE) covariance originating from cultural and genetic transmission operating simultaneously. In the traditional nuclear twin family (NTF) design, cultural transmission is estimated from the phenotypic covariance matrices of the mono- and dizygotic twins and their parents. Here, phenotyping is required in all family members. A more recent method is the transmitted–nontransmitted (T–NT) allele design, which exploits measured genetic variants in parents and offspring to test for effects of nontransmitted alleles from parents. This design requires two-generation genome-wide data and a powerful genome-wide association study (GWAS) for the phenotype in addition to phenotyping in offspring. We compared the power of both designs. Using exact data simulation, we demonstrate three points: how the power of the T–NT design depends on the predictive power of polygenic risk scores (PRSs); that when the NTF design can be applied, its power to detect cultural transmission and GE covariance is high relative to T–NT; and that, given effect sizes from contemporary GWAS, adding PRSs to the NTF design does not yield an appreciable increase in the power to detect cultural transmission. However, it may be difficult to collect phenotypes of parents and the possible importance of gene × age interaction, and secular generational effects can cause complications for many important phenotypes. The T–NT design avoids these complications.
Our current society is characterized by an increased availability of industrially processed foods with high salt, fat and sugar content. How is it that some people prefer these unhealthy foods while others prefer more healthy foods? It is suggested that both genetic and environmental factors play a role. The aim of this study was to (1) identify food preference clusters in the largest twin-family study into food preference to date and (2) determine the relative contribution of genetic and environmental factors to individual differences in food preference in the Netherlands. Principal component analysis was performed to identify the preference clusters by using data on food liking/disliking from 16,541 adult multiples and their family members. To estimate the heritability of food preference, the data of 7833 twins were used in structural equation models. We identified seven food preference clusters (Meat, Fish, Fruits, Vegetables, Savory snacks, Sweet snacks and Spices) and one cluster with Drinks. Broad-sense heritability (additive [A] + dominant [D] genetic factors) for these clusters varied between .36 and .60. Dominant genetic effects were found for the clusters Fruit, Fish (males only) and Spices. Quantitative sex differences were found for Meat, Fish and Savory snacks and Drinks. To conclude, our study convincingly showed that genetic factors play a significant role in food preference. A next important step is to identify these genes because genetic vulnerability for food preference is expected to be linked to actual food consumption and different diet-related disorders.
Loneliness is related to mental and somatic health outcomes, including borderline personality disorder. Here, we analyze the sources of variation that are responsible for the relationship between borderline personality features (including four dimensions, affective instability, identity disturbance, negative relationships, self-harm and a total score) and loneliness. Using genetically informative data from two large nonclinical samples of adult twin pairs from Australia and the Netherlands (N = 11,329), we estimate the phenotypic, genetic and environmental correlations between self-reported borderline personality features and loneliness. Individual differences in borderline personality and loneliness were best explained by additive genetic factors with heritability estimates h2 = 41% for the borderline personality total score and h2 = 36% for loneliness, with the remaining variation explained by environmental influences that were not shared by twins from the same pair. Genetic and environmental factors influencing borderline personality (total score and four subscales separately) were also partial causes of loneliness. The correlation between loneliness and the borderline personality total score was rph = .51. The genetic correlation was estimated at rg = .64 and the environmental correlation at re = .40. Our study suggests common etiological factors in loneliness and borderline personality features.
Metabolites are small molecules involved in cellular metabolism where they act as reaction substrates or products. The term ‘metabolomics’ refers to the comprehensive study of these molecules. The concentrations of metabolites in biological tissues are under genetic control, but this is limited by environmental factors such as diet. In adult mono- and dizygotic twin pairs, we estimated the contribution of genetic and shared environmental influences on metabolite levels by structural equation modeling and tested whether the familial resemblance for metabolite levels is mainly explained by genetic or by environmental factors that are shared by family members. Metabolites were measured across three platforms: two based on proton nuclear magnetic resonance techniques and one employing mass spectrometry. These three platforms comprised 237 single metabolic traits of several chemical classes. For the three platforms, metabolites were assessed in 1407, 1037 and 1116 twin pairs, respectively. We carried out power calculations to establish what percentage of shared environmental variance could be detected given these sample sizes. Our study did not find evidence for a systematic contribution of shared environment, defined as the influence of growing up together in the same household, on metabolites assessed in adulthood. Significant heritability was observed for nearly all 237 metabolites; significant contribution of the shared environment was limited to 6 metabolites. The top quartile of the heritability distribution was populated by 5 of the 11 investigated chemical classes. In this quartile, metabolites of the class lipoprotein were significantly overrepresented, whereas metabolites of classes glycerophospholipids and glycerolipids were significantly underrepresented.
Cohort studies are essential for conducting large studies of multiple exposures and outcomes in humans. Recently, the ability to combine data from multiple cohorts in, for example, meta-analyses, and the willingness in the genetics community to collaborate to enable replication studies has led to many new insights into the genetic and environmental determinants of human health and behaviors. The contribution of Professor Nicholas Martin to the development of cohort studies, particularly of twin and twin-family studies, over a period of several decades is reviewed. He has contributed to the development and use of both Australian and international resources. The contributions of Australian twin studies to genomewide association projects are multiple, and across multiple domains, from biomarkers, lifestyle and behavior to disorders and disease.
In the course of twin studies whose main focus was elucidation of genetic and environmental factors on behavioral traits, many twin researchers became aware of the strong tendency for dizygotic (DZ) twinning to run in families. Over four decades, Nick Martin and others initiated hormone and ultrasound studies, performed segregation and pedigree analyses, tested candidate genes, carried out linkage projects in sister pairs and formed large collaborations to illuminate the genetics of DZ twinning by genome-wide association studies and meta-analysis. This article summarizes the early work on hormone and genetic studies and describes the meta-analyses that have at last met with success in finding the first genes that predispose to DZ twinning, which also appear to influence many other female reproductive traits.
Life-course experiences have been postulated to program hypothalamus–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis activity, suggesting that HPA axis activity is, at least partially, stable over time. Yet, there is paucity of data on the long-term stability of cortisol production and metabolism. We performed a prospective follow-up study in twins recruited from a nationwide register to estimate the stability of cortisol production and metabolism over time, and the contribution of genetic and environmental factors to this stability. In total, 218 healthy mono- and dizygotic twins were included. At the ages of 9, 12 and 17 years, morning urine samples were collected for assessment (by gas chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry) of cortisol metabolites, enabling the calculation of cortisol metabolite excretion rate and cortisol metabolism activity. Our results showed a low stability for both cortisol metabolite excretion rate (with correlations <.20) and cortisol metabolism activity indices (with correlations of .25 to .46 between 9 and 12 years, −.02 to .15 between 12 and 17 years and .09 to .28 between 9 and 17 years). Because of the low stability over time, genetic and environmental contributions to this stability were difficult to assess, although it seemed to be mostly determined by genetic factors. The low stability in both cortisol production and metabolism between ages 9 and 17 years reflects the dynamic nature of the HPA axis.
Major depressive disorder (MDD) is a common mood disorder, with a heritability of around 34%. Molecular genetic studies made significant progress and identified genetic markers associated with the risk of MDD; however, progress is slowed down by substantial heterogeneity as MDD is assessed differently across international cohorts. Here, we used a standardized online approach to measure MDD in multiple cohorts in the Netherlands and evaluated whether this approach can be used in epidemiological and genetic association studies of depression.
Within the Biobank Netherlands Internet Collaboration (BIONIC) project, we collected MDD data in eight cohorts involving 31 936 participants, using the online Lifetime Depression Assessment Self-report (LIDAS), and estimated the prevalence of current and lifetime MDD in 22 623 unrelated individuals. In a large Netherlands Twin Register (NTR) twin-family dataset (n ≈ 18 000), we estimated the heritability of MDD, and the prediction of MDD in a subset (n = 4782) through Polygenic Risk Score (PRS).
Estimates of current and lifetime MDD prevalence were 6.7% and 18.1%, respectively, in line with population estimates based on validated psychiatric interviews. In the NTR heritability estimates were 0.34/0.30 (s.e. = 0.02/0.02) for current/lifetime MDD, respectively, showing that the LIDAS gives similar heritability rates for MDD as reported in the literature. The PRS predicted risk of MDD (OR 1.23, 95% CI 1.15–1.32, R2 = 1.47%).
By assessing MDD status in the Netherlands using the LIDAS instrument, we were able to confirm previously reported MDD prevalence and heritability estimates, which suggests that this instrument can be used in epidemiological and genetic association studies of depression.
Here we provide an update of the 2013 report on the Nigerian Twin and Sibling Registry (NTSR). The major aim of the NTSR is to understand genetic and environmental influences and their interplay in psychological and mental health development in Nigerian children and adolescents. Africans have the highest twin birth rates among all human populations, and Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa. Due to its combination of large population and high twin birth rates, Nigeria has one of the largest twin populations in the world. In this article, we provide current updates on the NTSR samples recruited, recruitment procedures, zygosity assessment and findings emerging from the NTSR.
The Netherlands Twin Register (NTR) is a national register in which twins, multiples and their parents, siblings, spouses and other family members participate. Here we describe the NTR resources that were created from more than 30 years of data collections; the development and maintenance of the newly developed database systems, and the possibilities these resources create for future research. Since the early 1980s, the NTR has enrolled around 120,000 twins and a roughly equal number of their relatives. The majority of twin families have participated in survey studies, and subsamples took part in biomaterial collection (e.g., DNA) and dedicated projects, for example, for neuropsychological, biomarker and behavioral traits. The recruitment into the NTR is all inclusive without any restrictions on enrollment. These resources — the longitudinal phenotyping, the extended pedigree structures and the multigeneration genotyping — allow for future twin-family research that will contribute to gene discovery, causality modeling, and studies of genetic and cultural inheritance.
Twin registries often take part in large collaborative projects and are major contributors to genome-wide association (GWA) meta-analysis studies. In this article, we describe genotyping of twin-family populations from Australia, the Midwestern USA (Avera Twin Register), the Netherlands (Netherlands Twin Register), as well as a sample of mothers of twins from Nigeria to assess the extent, if any, of genetic differences between them. Genotyping in all cohorts was done using a custom-designed Illumina Global Screening Array (GSA), optimized to improve imputation quality for population-specific GWA studies. We investigated the degree of genetic similarity between the populations using several measures of population variation with genotype data generated from the GSA. Visualization of principal component analysis (PCA) revealed that the Australian, Dutch and Midwestern American populations exhibit negligible interpopulation stratification when compared to each other, to a reference European population and to globally distant populations. Estimations of fixation indices (FST values) between the Australian, Midwestern American and Netherlands populations suggest minimal genetic differentiation compared to the estimates between each population and a genetically distinct cohort (i.e., samples from Nigeria genotyped on GSA). Thus, results from this study demonstrate that genotype data from the Australian, Dutch and Midwestern American twin-family populations can be reasonably combined for joint-genetic analysis.
A literature review was carried out to identify pre and perinatal characteristics associated with variation in Apgar scores in population-based studies. The parameters identified in the literature search were included in the classical twin design study to estimate effects of pre and perinatal factors shared and nonshared by twins and to test for a contribution of genetic factors in 1- and 5-min Apgar scores in a large sample of Dutch monozygotic (MZ) and dizygotic (DZ) twins. The sample included MZ and DZ twins (N = 5181 pairs) recruited by the Netherlands Twin Register shortly after birth, with data on prenatal characteristics and Apgar scores at first and/or fifth minutes. The ordinal regression and structural equation modeling were used to analyze the effects of characteristics identified in the literature review and to estimate genetic and nongenetic variance components. The literature review identified 63 papers. Consistent with the review, we observed statistically significant effects of birth order, zygosity and gestational age (GA) for 1- and 5-min Apgar scores of both twins. Apgar scores are higher in first-born versus second-born twins and DZ first-born versus MZ first-born twins. Birth weight had an effect on the 5-min Apgar of the first born. Fetal presentation and mode of delivery had different effects on Apgar scores of first- and second-born twins. Parental characteristics and chorionicity did not have significant main effects on Apgar scores. The MZ twins’ Apgar correlations equaled the DZ Apgar correlations. Our analyses suggest that individual differences in 1- and 5-min Apgar scores are attributable to shared and nonshared pre and perinatal factors, but not to genotypic factors of the newborns. The main predictors of Apgar scores are birth order, zygosity, GA, birth weight, mode of delivery and fetal presentation.
Studies on neighbourhood characteristics and depression show equivocal results.
This large-scale pooled analysis examines whether urbanisation, socioeconomic, physical and social neighbourhood characteristics are associated with the prevalence and severity of depression.
Cross-sectional design including data are from eight Dutch cohort studies (n= 32 487). Prevalence of depression, either DSM-IV diagnosis of depressive disorder or scoring for moderately severe depression on symptom scales, and continuous depression severity scores were analysed. Neighbourhood characteristics were linked using postal codes and included (a) urbanisation grade, (b) socioeconomic characteristics: socioeconomic status, home value, social security beneficiaries and non-Dutch ancestry, (c) physical characteristics: air pollution, traffic noise and availability of green space and water, and (d) social characteristics: social cohesion and safety. Multilevel regression analyses were adjusted for the individual's age, gender, educational level and income. Cohort-specific estimates were pooled using random-effects analysis.
The pooled analysis showed that higher urbanisation grade (odds ratio (OR) = 1.05, 95% CI 1.01–1.10), lower socioeconomic status (OR = 0.90, 95% CI 0.87–0.95), higher number of social security beneficiaries (OR = 1.12, 95% CI 1.06–1.19), higher percentage of non-Dutch residents (OR = 1.08, 95% CI 1.02–1.14), higher levels of air pollution (OR = 1.07, 95% CI 1.01–1.12), less green space (OR = 0.94, 95% CI 0.88–0.99) and less social safety (OR = 0.92, 95% CI 0.88–0.97) were associated with higher prevalence of depression. All four socioeconomic neighbourhood characteristics and social safety were also consistently associated with continuous depression severity scores.
This large-scale pooled analysis across eight Dutch cohort studies shows that urbanisation and various socioeconomic, physical and social neighbourhood characteristics are associated with depression, indicating that a wide range of environmental aspects may relate to poor mental health.
Severe behavioural problems (SBPs) in childhood are highly prevalent, impair functioning, and predict negative outcomes later in life. Over the last decade, clinical practice guidelines for SBPs have been developed across Europe to facilitate the translation of scientific evidence into clinical practice. This study outlines the results of an investigation into academic experts’ perspectives on the current prevalence, implementation, and utility of clinical guidelines for SBPs in children aged 6–12 across Europe.
An online semi-structured questionnaire was completed by 28 psychiatry and psychology experts from 23 countries.
Experts indicated that approximately two thirds of the included European countries use at least an unofficial clinical document such as textbooks, while nearly half possess official guidelines for SBPs. Experts believed that, although useful for practice, guidelines’ benefits would be maximised if they included more specific recommendations and were implemented more conscientiously. Similarly, experts suggested that unofficial clinical documents offer a wide range of treatment options to individualise treatment from. However, they stressed the need for more consistent, evidence-based clinical practices, by means of developing national and European clinical guidelines for SBPs.
This study offers a preliminary insight into the current successes and challenges perceived by experts around Europe associated with guidelines and documents for SBPs, acting as a stepping stone for future systematic, in-depth investigations of guidelines. Additionally, it establishes experts’ consensus for the need to develop official guidelines better tailored to clinical practice, creating a momentum for a transition towards European clinical guidelines for this population.