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Extensive research has focused on the potential benefits of education on various mental and physical health outcomes. However, whether the associations reflect a causal effect is harder to establish.
To examine associations between educational duration and specific aspects of well-being, anxiety and mood disorders, and cardiovascular health in a sample of European Ancestry UK Biobank participants born in England and Wales, we apply four different causal inference methods (a natural policy experiment leveraging the minimum school-leaving age, a sibling-control design, Mendelian randomization [MR], and within-family MR), and assess if the methods converge on the same conclusion.
A comparison of results across the four methods reveals that associations between educational duration and these outcomes appears predominantly to be the result of confounding or bias rather than a true causal effect of education on well-being and health outcomes. Although we do consistently find no associations between educational duration and happiness, family satisfaction, work satisfaction, meaning in life, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, we do not find consistent significant associations across all methods for the other phenotypes (health satisfaction, depression, financial satisfaction, friendship satisfaction, neuroticism, and cardiovascular outcomes).
We discuss inconsistencies in results across methods considering their respective limitations and biases, and additionally discuss the generalizability of our findings in light of the sample and phenotype limitations. Overall, this study strengthens the idea that triangulation across different methods is necessary to enhance our understanding of the causal consequences of educational duration.
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.
Maternal smoking during pregnancy (MSDP) has been linked to offspring's externalizing problems. It has been argued that socio-demographic factors (e.g. maternal age and education), co-occurring environmental risk factors, or pleiotropic genetic effects may account for the association between MSDP and later outcomes. This study provides a comprehensive investigation of the association between MSDP and a single harmonized component of externalizing: aggressive behaviour, measured throughout childhood and adolescence.
Data came from four prospective twin cohorts – Twins Early Development Study, Netherlands Twin Register, Childhood and Adolescent Twin Study of Sweden, and FinnTwin12 study – who collaborate in the EU-ACTION consortium. Data from 30 708 unrelated individuals were analysed. Based on item level data, a harmonized measure of aggression was created at ages 9–10; 12; 14–15 and 16–18.
MSDP predicted aggression in childhood and adolescence. A meta-analysis across the four samples found the independent effect of MSDP to be 0.4% (r = 0.066), this remained consistent when analyses were performed separately by sex. All other perinatal factors combined explained 1.1% of the variance in aggression across all ages and samples (r = 0.112). Paternal smoking and aggressive parenting strategies did not account for the MSDP-aggression association, consistent with the hypothesis of a small direct link between MSDP and aggression.
Perinatal factors, including MSDP, account for a small portion of the variance in aggression in childhood and adolescence. Later experiences may play a greater role in shaping adolescents’ aggressive behaviour.
Whether monozygotic (MZ) and dizygotic (DZ) twins differ from each other in a variety of phenotypes is important for genetic twin modeling and for inferences made from twin studies in general. We analyzed whether there were differences in individual, maternal and paternal education between MZ and DZ twins in a large pooled dataset. Information was gathered on individual education for 218,362 adult twins from 27 twin cohorts (53% females; 39% MZ twins), and on maternal and paternal education for 147,315 and 143,056 twins respectively, from 28 twin cohorts (52% females; 38% MZ twins). Together, we had information on individual or parental education from 42 twin cohorts representing 19 countries. The original education classifications were transformed to education years and analyzed using linear regression models. Overall, MZ males had 0.26 (95% CI [0.21, 0.31]) years and MZ females 0.17 (95% CI [0.12, 0.21]) years longer education than DZ twins. The zygosity difference became smaller in more recent birth cohorts for both males and females. Parental education was somewhat longer for fathers of DZ twins in cohorts born in 1990–1999 (0.16 years, 95% CI [0.08, 0.25]) and 2000 or later (0.11 years, 95% CI [0.00, 0.22]), compared with fathers of MZ twins. The results show that the years of both individual and parental education are largely similar in MZ and DZ twins. We suggest that the socio-economic differences between MZ and DZ twins are so small that inferences based upon genetic modeling of twin data are not affected.
Peer bullying and victimization are a widespread phenomenon among school-age children and can have detrimental effects on the development of children. To examine whether having a close companion during childhood increases or decreases risk of victimization and bullying, this study compared twins to singleton children. A large group of twins (n = 9,909) were included who were compared to their related non-twin siblings (n = 1,534) aged 7–12 from the Netherlands Twin Register, thus creating optimal matching between twins and non-twins. Bullying and victimization were each based on a four-item scale filled out by their teachers. Prevalence rates for either bullying or victimization did not differ between twins and singletons. In total, in the past couple of months, 36% of children bullied peers moderately to severely, and 35% suffered moderately to severely from victimization. Boys were more likely to bully and were more prone to becoming a victim than girls. The most notable finding is that female twin pairs placed together in the same classroom did not bully more often, but were victimized less often, thus pointing to a protective effect of having a close companion in the classroom.
We identified the genetic variants for eye color by Genome-Wide Association Study (GWAS) in a Dutch Caucasian family-based population sample and examined the genetic correlation between hair and eye color using data from unrelated participants from the Netherlands Twin Register. With the Genome-wide Complex Trait Analysis software package, we found strong genetic correlations between various combinations of hair and eye colors. The strongest positive correlations were found for blue eyes with blond hair (0.87) and brown eyes with dark hair (0.71), whereas blue eyes with dark hair and brown eyes with blond hair showed the strongest negative correlations (-0.64 and -0.94, respectively). Red hair with green/hazel eyes showed the weakest correlation (-0.14). All analyses were corrected for age and sex, and we explored the effects of correcting for principal components (PCs) that represent ancestry and describe the genetic stratification of the Netherlands. When including the first three PCs as covariates, the genetic correlations between the phenotypes disappeared. This is not unexpected since hair and eye colors strongly indicate the ancestry of an individual. This makes it difficult to separate the effects of population stratification and the true genetic effects of variants on these particular phenotypes.
Approximately half of the variation in wellbeing measures overlaps with variation in personality traits. Studies of non-human primate pedigrees and human twins suggest that this is due to common genetic influences. We tested whether personality polygenic scores for the NEO Five-Factor Inventory (NEO-FFI) domains and for item response theory (IRT) derived extraversion and neuroticism scores predict variance in wellbeing measures. Polygenic scores were based on published genome-wide association (GWA) results in over 17,000 individuals for the NEO-FFI and in over 63,000 for the IRT extraversion and neuroticism traits. The NEO-FFI polygenic scores were used to predict life satisfaction in 7 cohorts, positive affect in 12 cohorts, and general wellbeing in 1 cohort (maximal N = 46,508). Meta-analysis of these results showed no significant association between NEO-FFI personality polygenic scores and the wellbeing measures. IRT extraversion and neuroticism polygenic scores were used to predict life satisfaction and positive affect in almost 37,000 individuals from UK Biobank. Significant positive associations (effect sizes <0.05%) were observed between the extraversion polygenic score and wellbeing measures, and a negative association was observed between the polygenic neuroticism score and life satisfaction. Furthermore, using GWA data, genetic correlations of -0.49 and -0.55 were estimated between neuroticism with life satisfaction and positive affect, respectively. The moderate genetic correlation between neuroticism and wellbeing is in line with twin research showing that genetic influences on wellbeing are also shared with other independent personality domains.
We analyzed birth order differences in means and variances of height and body mass index (BMI) in monozygotic (MZ) and dizygotic (DZ) twins from infancy to old age. The data were derived from the international CODATwins database. The total number of height and BMI measures from 0.5 to 79.5 years of age was 397,466. As expected, first-born twins had greater birth weight than second-born twins. With respect to height, first-born twins were slightly taller than second-born twins in childhood. After adjusting the results for birth weight, the birth order differences decreased and were no longer statistically significant. First-born twins had greater BMI than the second-born twins over childhood and adolescence. After adjusting the results for birth weight, birth order was still associated with BMI until 12 years of age. No interaction effect between birth order and zygosity was found. Only limited evidence was found that birth order influenced variances of height or BMI. The results were similar among boys and girls and also in MZ and DZ twins. Overall, the differences in height and BMI between first- and second-born twins were modest even in early childhood, while adjustment for birth weight reduced the birth order differences but did not remove them for BMI.
Wellbeing (WB) is a major topic of research across several scientific disciplines, partly driven by its strong association with psychological and mental health. Twin-family studies have found that both genotype and environment play an important role in explaining the variance in WB. Epigenetic mechanisms, such as DNA methylation, regulate gene expression, and may mediate genetic and environmental effects on WB. Here, for the first time, we apply an epigenome-wide association study (EWAS) approach to identify differentially methylated sites associated with individual differences in WB. Subjects were part of the longitudinal survey studies of the Netherlands Twin Register (NTR) and participated in the NTR biobank project between 2002 and 2011. WB was assessed by a short inventory that measures satisfaction with life (SAT). DNA methylation was measured in whole blood by the Illumina Infinium HumanMethylation450 BeadChip (HM450k array) and the association between WB and DNA methylation level was tested at 411,169 autosomal sites. Two sites (cg10845147, p = 1.51 * 10−8 and cg01940273, p = 2.34 * 10−8) reached genome-wide significance following Bonferonni correction. Four more sites (cg03329539, p = 2.76* 10−7; cg09716613, p = 3.23 * 10−7; cg04387347, p = 3.95 * 10−7; and cg02290168, p = 5.23 * 10−7) were considered to be genome-wide significant when applying the widely used criterion of a FDR q value < 0.05. Gene ontology (GO) analysis highlighted enrichment of several central nervous system categories among higher-ranking methylation sites. Overall, these results provide a first insight into the epigenetic mechanisms associated with WB and lay the foundations for future work aiming to unravel the biological mechanisms underlying a complex trait like WB.
Aggressive behavior is highly heritable, while environmental influences, particularly early in life, are also important. Epigenetic mechanisms, such as DNA methylation, regulate gene expression throughout development and adulthood, and may mediate genetic and environmental effects on complex traits. We performed an epigenome-wide association study (EWAS) to identify regions in the genome where DNA methylation level is associated with aggressive behavior. Subjects took part in longitudinal survey studies from the Netherlands Twin Register (NTR) and participated in the NTR biobank project between 2004 and 2011 (N = 2,029, mean age at blood sampling = 36.4 years, SD = 12.4, females = 69.2%). Aggressive behavior was rated with the ASEBA Adult Self-Report (ASR). DNA methylation was measured in whole blood by the Illumina HM450k array. The association between aggressive behavior and DNA methylation level at 411,169 autosomal sites was tested. Association analyses in the entire cohort showed top sites at cg01792876 (chr8; 116,684,801, nearest gene = TRPS1, p = 7.6 × 10−7, False discovery rate (FDR) = 0.18) and cg06092953 (chr18; 77,905,699, nearest gene = PARD6G-AS1, p = 9.0 ×10−7, FDR = 0.18). Next, we compared methylation levels in 20 pairs of monozygotic (MZ) twins highly discordant for aggression. Here the top sites were cg21557159 (chr 11; 107,795,699, nearest gene = RAB39, p = 5.7 × 10−6, FDR = 0.99), cg08648367 (chr 19; 51,925,472, nearest gene = SIGLEC10, p = 7.6 × 10−6, FDR = 0.99), and cg14212412 (chr 6; 105,918,992, nearest gene = PREP, p = 8.0 × 10−6, FDR = 0.99). The two top hits based on the entire cohort showed the same direction of effect in discordant MZ pairs (cg01792876, Pdiscordant twins = 0.09 and cg06092953, Pdiscordant twins = 0.24). The other way around, two of the three most significant sites in discordant MZ pairs showed the same direction of effect in the entire cohort (cg08648367, Pentire EWAS = 0.59 and cg14212412, Pentire EWAS = 3.1 × 10−3). Gene ontology analysis highlighted significant enrichment of various central nervous system categories among higher-ranking methylation sites. Higher-ranking methylation sites also showed enrichment for DNase I hypersensitive sites and promoter regions, showing that DNA methylation in peripheral tissues is likely to be associated with aggressive behavior.
A trend toward greater body size in dizygotic (DZ) than in monozygotic (MZ) twins has been suggested by some but not all studies, and this difference may also vary by age. We analyzed zygosity differences in mean values and variances of height and body mass index (BMI) among male and female twins from infancy to old age. Data were derived from an international database of 54 twin cohorts participating in the COllaborative project of Development of Anthropometrical measures in Twins (CODATwins), and included 842,951 height and BMI measurements from twins aged 1 to 102 years. The results showed that DZ twins were consistently taller than MZ twins, with differences of up to 2.0 cm in childhood and adolescence and up to 0.9 cm in adulthood. Similarly, a greater mean BMI of up to 0.3 kg/m2 in childhood and adolescence and up to 0.2 kg/m2 in adulthood was observed in DZ twins, although the pattern was less consistent. DZ twins presented up to 1.7% greater height and 1.9% greater BMI than MZ twins; these percentage differences were largest in middle and late childhood and decreased with age in both sexes. The variance of height was similar in MZ and DZ twins at most ages. In contrast, the variance of BMI was significantly higher in DZ than in MZ twins, particularly in childhood. In conclusion, DZ twins were generally taller and had greater BMI than MZ twins, but the differences decreased with age in both sexes.
For over 100 years, the genetics of human anthropometric traits has attracted scientific interest. In particular, height and body mass index (BMI, calculated as kg/m2) have been under intensive genetic research. However, it is still largely unknown whether and how heritability estimates vary between human populations. Opportunities to address this question have increased recently because of the establishment of many new twin cohorts and the increasing accumulation of data in established twin cohorts. We started a new research project to analyze systematically (1) the variation of heritability estimates of height, BMI and their trajectories over the life course between birth cohorts, ethnicities and countries, and (2) to study the effects of birth-related factors, education and smoking on these anthropometric traits and whether these effects vary between twin cohorts. We identified 67 twin projects, including both monozygotic (MZ) and dizygotic (DZ) twins, using various sources. We asked for individual level data on height and weight including repeated measurements, birth related traits, background variables, education and smoking. By the end of 2014, 48 projects participated. Together, we have 893,458 height and weight measures (52% females) from 434,723 twin individuals, including 201,192 complete twin pairs (40% monozygotic, 40% same-sex dizygotic and 20% opposite-sex dizygotic) representing 22 countries. This project demonstrates that large-scale international twin studies are feasible and can promote the use of existing data for novel research purposes.
We tested a hypothesis that there is no genetic correlation between general factors of intelligence and personality, despite both having been selected for in human evolution. This was done using twin samples from Australia, the United States, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and Croatia, comprising altogether 1,748 monozygotic and 1,329 same-sex dizygotic twin pairs. Although parameters in the model-fitting differed among the twin samples, the genetic correlation between the two general factors could be set to zero, with a better fit if the U.S. sample was excepted.
The aim of the present article was to study the prevalence and the heritability of the initiation of breastfeeding in the Netherlands. The study was carried out in 5,581 participants from the Netherlands Twin Register, and included female twins, their sisters and mothers. All of the participants were born between 1911 and 1991. Breastfeeding was self-reported by the participants, and its prevalence was estimated conditional on birth cohort (born before 1955, 1955–1964, 1965–1974, 1975, or later). To estimate the heritability, we conducted extended twin-family modeling using the SEM package OpenMx in R. Mothers of twins had lower prevalence to initiate breastfeeding and the prevalence of initiation of breastfeeding increased with birth cohort: among mothers of twins 66% in the oldest (pre-1955) to 74% in the youngest (post-1974) and among mothers, who were twins themselves or sisters of twins, 79% in the oldest (pre-1955) to 85% in the youngest (post-1974). When accounting for prevalence differences between mothers of twins and other women, heritability of initiation of breastfeeding was 70%. However, the familial resemblance for sister and mother-daughter pairs was clearly lower than for DZ twin pairs, but as the number of non-twin sisters was relatively low, this observation did not lead to a significant contribution of a special shared twin environment.
Studies on the determinants of physical activity have traditionally focused on social factors and environmental barriers, but recent research has shown the additional importance of biological factors, including genetic variation. Here we review the major tenets of this research to arrive at three major conclusions: First, individual differences in physical activity traits are significantly influenced by genetic factors, but genetic contribution varies strongly over age, with heritability of leisure time exercise behavior ranging from 27% to 84% and heritability of sedentary behaviors ranging from 9% to 48%. Second, candidate gene approaches based on animal or human QTLs or on biological relevance (e.g., dopaminergic or cannabinoid activity in the brain, or exercise performance influencing muscle physiology) have not yet yielded the necessary evidence to specify the genetic mechanisms underlying the heritability of physical activity traits. Third, there is significant genetic modulation of the beneficial effects of daily physical activity patterns on strength and endurance improvements and on health-related parameters like body mass index. Further increases in our understanding of the genetic determinants of sedentary and exercise behaviors as well as the genetic modulation of their effects on fitness and health will be key to meaningful future intervention on these behaviors.
The present study examined the genetic and environmental contributions to the temporal stability of verbal, non-verbal and general intelligence across a developmental period spanning childhood and adolescence (5–18 years). Longitudinal twin data collected in four different studies on a total of 1,748 twins, comprising 4,641 measurement points in total, were analyzed using genetic adaptations of the simplex model. The heterogeneity in the type of instrument used to assess psychometric intelligence across the different subsamples and ages allowed us to address the auxiliary question of how to optimally utilize the existing longitudinal data in the context of gene-finding studies. The results were consistent across domains (verbal, non-verbal and general intelligence), and indicated that phenotypic stability was driven primarily by the high stability of additive genetic factors, that the stability of common environment was moderate, and that the unique environment contributed primarily to change. The cross-subscale stability was consistently low, indicating a small overlap between different domains of intelligence over time. The high stability of additive genetic factors justifies the use of a linear combination of scores across the different ages in the context of gene-finding studies.
This study assessed to what extent genetic and environmental factors contributed to individual differences in adolescent sleep duration, and whether genetic and environmental contributions to sleep duration changed throughout adolescence. A twin-family design was used to gain insight into the genetic and environmental contributions to variation in sleep duration. The study sample consisted of 6,319 adolescent twins (44% males) and 1,359 non-twin siblings (44% males) in the age range of 12 to 20 years (mean age = 16.85, SD = 1.40). The participants self-reported usual sleep duration, which was categorized as less than 8 hours per night, 8–9 hours per night, and more than 9 hours per night. Results showed that the prevalence of shorter than optimum sleep duration, that is, less than 8 hours per night, was high, with the highest prevalence rates in later adolescence. The contribution of genetic and environmental factors to individual differences in sleep duration was dependent on age. Variation in sleep duration at the age of 12 years was accounted for by genetic (boys: 34%, girls: 36%), shared environmental (boys: 28%, girls: 45%), and non-shared environmental factors (boys: 38%, girls: 19%). At the age of 20 years, the role of genetic (boys: 47%, girls: 33%) and non-shared environmental factors (boys: 53%, girls: 67%) was more pronounced. It can be concluded from the results that individual differences in sleep duration were accounted for by genetic and non-shared environmental factors throughout adolescence, whereas shared environmental factors account for a substantial part of variation during early adolescence only.
The Netherlands Twin Register (NTR) began in 1987 with data collection in twins and their families, including families with newborn twins and triplets. Twenty-five years later, the NTR has collected at least one survey for 70,784 children, born after 1985. For the majority of twins, longitudinal data collection has been done by age-specific surveys. Shortly after giving birth, mothers receive a first survey with items on pregnancy and birth. At age 2, a survey on growth and achievement of milestones is sent. At ages 3, 7, 9/10, and 12 parents and teachers receive a series of surveys that are targeted at the development of emotional and behavior problems. From age 14 years onward, adolescent twins and their siblings report on their behavior problems, health, and lifestyle. When the twins are 18 years and older, parents are also invited to take part in survey studies. In sub-groups of different ages, in-depth phenotyping was done for IQ, electroencephalography , MRI, growth, hormones, neuropsychological assessments, and cardiovascular measures. DNA and biological samples have also been collected and large numbers of twin pairs and parents have been genotyped for zygosity by either micro-satellites or sets of short nucleotide polymorphisms and repeat polymorphisms in candidate genes. Subject recruitment and data collection is still ongoing and the longitudinal database is growing. Data collection by record linkage in the Netherlands is beginning and we expect these combined longitudinal data to provide increased insights into the genetic etiology of development of mental and physical health in children and adolescents.
With the desire to assess genetic variation across the lifespan in large-scale collaborative projects, one question is whether inference of copy number (CN) is sensitive to the source of material for deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) analysis (e.g., blood and buccal) and another question is whether CN is stable as individuals age. Here, we address these questions by applying Affymetrix 6.0 single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) micro-arrays to 1,472 DNA samples from 710 individuals from the Netherlands Twin Register, including twin and non-twin individuals (372 with buccal and blood derived DNA and 388 with longitudinal data). Similar concordance for CN and genotype inference between samples from the same individual [or from the monozygotic (MZ) co-twins] was found for blood and buccal tissues. There was a small but statistically significant decrease in across-tissue concordance compared with concordance of samples from the same tissue type. No temporal effect was seen on CN variation from the 388 individuals sampled at two time points ranging from 1 to 12 years apart. The majority of our individuals were sampled at age younger than 20 years. Genotype concordance was very high (R2 > 99%) between co-twins from 43 MZ pairs. For 75 dizygotic (DZ) pairs, R2 was ≈65%. CN estimates were highly consistent between co-twins from MZ pairs for both deletions (R2 ≈ 90%) and duplications (R2 ≈ 86%). For DZ, these were similar for within-individual comparisons, but naturally lower between co-twins (R2 ≈ 50–60%). These results suggest that DNA from buccal samples perform as well as DNA from blood samples on the current generation of micro-array technologies.
We assessed the heritability of head circumference, an approximation of brain size, in twin-sib families of different ages. Data from the youngest participants were collected a few weeks after birth and from the oldest participants around age 50 years. In nearly all age groups the largest part of the variation in head circumference was explained by genetic differences. Heritability estimates were 90% in young infants (4 to 5 months), 85–88% in early childhood, 83–87% in adolescence, 75% in young and mid adulthood. In infants younger than 3 months, heritability was very low or absent. Quantitative sex differences in heritability were observed in 15- and 18-year-olds, but there was no evidence for qualitative sex differences, that is, the same genes were expressed in both males and females. Longitudinal analysis of the data between 5, 7, and 18 years of age showed high genetic stability (.78 > RG > .98). These results indicate that head circumference is a highly heritable biometric trait and a valid target for future GWA studies.