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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Low birth weight (LBW) can have an impact on health outcomes in later life, especially in relation to pre-disposition to metabolic disease. Several studies suggest that LBW resulting from restricted intrauterine growth leaves a footprint on DNA methylation in utero, and this influence likely persists into adulthood. To investigate this further, we performed epigenome-wide association analyses of blood DNA methylation using Infinium HumanMethylation450 BeadChip profiles in 71 adult monozygotic (MZ) twin pairs who were extremely discordant for birth weight. A signal mapping to the IGF1R gene (cg12562232, p = 2.62 × 10−8), was significantly associated with birth weight discordance at a genome-wide false-discovery rate (FDR) of 0.05. We pursued replication in three additional independent datasets of birth weight discordant MZ pairs and observed the same direction of association, but the results were not significant. However, a meta-analysis across the four independent samples, in total 216 birth-weight discordant MZ twin pairs, showed a significant positive association between birth weight and DNA methylation differences at IGF1R (random-effects meta-analysis p = .04), and the effect was particularly pronounced in older twins (random-effects meta-analysis p = .008, 98 older birth-weight discordant MZ twin pairs). The results suggest that severe intra-uterine growth differences (birth weight discordance >20%) are associated with methylation changes in the IGF1R gene in adulthood, independent of genetic effects.
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.
Tic disorders are moderately heritable common psychiatric disorders that can be highly troubling, both in childhood and in adulthood. In this study, we report results obtained in the first epigenome-wide association study (EWAS) of tic disorders. The subjects are participants in surveys at the Netherlands Twin Register (NTR) and the NTR biobank project. Tic disorders were measured with a self-report version of the Yale Global Tic Severity Scale Abbreviated version (YGTSS-ABBR), included in the 8th wave NTR data collection (2008). DNA methylation data consisted of 411,169 autosomal methylation sites assessed by the Illumina Infinium HumanMethylation450 BeadChip Kit (HM450k array). Phenotype and DNA methylation data were available in 1,678 subjects (mean age = 41.5). No probes reached genome-wide significance (p < 1.2 × 10−7). The strongest associated probe was cg15583738, located in an intergenic region on chromosome 8 (p = 1.98 × 10−6). Several of the top ranking probes (p < 1 × 10−4) were in or nearby genes previously associated with neurological disorders (e.g., GABBRI, BLM, and ADAM10), warranting their further investigation in relation to tic disorders. The top significantly enriched gene ontology (GO) terms among higher ranking methylation sites included anatomical structure morphogenesis (GO:0009653, p = 4.6 × 10−15) developmental process (GO:0032502, p = 2.96 × 10−12), and cellular developmental process (GO:0048869, p = 1.96 × 10−12). Overall, these results provide a first insight into the epigenetic mechanisms of tic disorders. This first study assesses the role of DNA methylation in tic disorders, and it lays the foundations for future work aiming to unravel the biological mechanisms underlying the architecture of this disorder.
Shorter telomere length (TL) has found to be associated with lower birth weight and with lower cognitive ability and psychiatric disorders. However, the direction of causation of these associations and the extent to which they are genetically or environmentally mediated are unclear. Within-pair comparisons of monozygotic (MZ) and dizygotic (DZ) twins can throw light on these questions. We investigated correlations of within pair differences in telomere length, IQ, and anxiety/depression in an initial sample from Brisbane (242 MZ pairs, 245 DZ same sex (DZSS) pairs) and in replication samples from Amsterdam (514 MZ pairs, 233 DZSS pairs) and Melbourne (19 pairs selected for extreme high or low birth weight difference). Intra-pair differences of birth weight and telomere length were significantly correlated in MZ twins, but not in DZSS twins. Greater intra-pair differences of telomere length were observed in the 10% of MZ twins with the greatest difference in birth weight compared to the bottom 90% in both samples and also in the Melbourne sample. Intra-pair differences of telomere length and IQ, but not of TL and anxiety/depression, were correlated in MZ twins, and to a smaller extent in DZSS twins. Our findings suggest that the same prenatal effects that reduce birth weight also influence telomere length in MZ twins. The association between telomere length and IQ is partly driven by the same prenatal effects that decrease birth weight.
In this study we examined the genetic architecture of variation in the pro-inflammatory state, using an extended twin-family design. Within the Netherlands Twin Register Biobank, fasting Tumor Necrosis Factor-α (TNF-α), Interleukin-6 (IL-6), C-Reactive Protein (CRP), and fibrinogen levels were available for 3,534 twins, 1,568 of their non-twin siblings, and 2,227 parents from 3,095 families. Heritability analyses took into account the effects of current and recent illness, anti-inflammatory medication, female sex hormone status, age, sex, body mass index, smoking status, month of data collection, and batch processing. Moderate broad-sense heritability was found for all inflammatory parameters (39%, 21%, 45%, and 46% for TNF-α, IL-6, CRP and fibrinogen, respectively). For all parameters, the remaining variance was explained by unique environmental influences and not by environment shared by family members. There was no resemblance between spouses for any of the inflammatory parameters, except for fibrinogen. Also, there was no evidence for twin-specific effects. A considerable part of genetic variation was explained by non-additive genetic effects for TNF-α, CRP, and fibrinogen. For IL-6, all genetic variance was additive. This study may have implications for future genome-wide association studies by setting a clear numerical target for genome-wide screens that aim to find genetic variants regulating the levels of these pro-inflammatory markers.
Over the past 25 years, the Adult Netherlands Twin Register (ANTR) has collected a wealth of information on physical and mental health, lifestyle, and personality in adolescents and adults. This article provides an overview of the sources of information available, the main research findings, and an outlook for the future. Between 1991 and 2012, longitudinal surveys were completed by twins, their parents, siblings, spouses, and offspring. Data are available for 33,957 participants, with most individuals having completed two or more surveys. Smaller projects provided in-depth phenotyping, including measurements of the autonomic nervous system, neurocognitive function, and brain imaging. For 46% of the ANTR participants, DNA samples are available and whole genome scans have been obtained in more than 11,000 individuals. These data have resulted in numerous studies on heritability, gene x environment interactions, and causality, as well as gene finding studies. In the future, these studies will continue with collection of additional phenotypes, such as metabolomic and telomere length data, and detailed genetic information provided by DNA and RNA sequencing. Record linkage to national registers will allow the study of morbidity and mortality, thus providing insight into the development of health, lifestyle, and behavior across the lifespan.
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