Background: Observational studies have demonstrated an association between decreased vitamin D level and risk of multiple sclerosis (MS); however, it remains unclear whether this relationship is causal. We undertook a Mendelian randomization (MR) study to evaluate whether genetically lowered vitamin D level influences the risk of MS.
Methods and findings: We identified single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) associated with 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25OHD) level from SUNLIGHT, the largest (n = 33,996) genome-wide association study to date for vitamin D. Four SNPs were genome-wide significant for 25OHD level (p-values ranging from 6 × 10-10 to 2 × 10-109), and all four SNPs lay in, or near, genes strongly implicated in separate mechanisms influencing 25OHD. We then ascertained their effect on 25OHD level in 2,347 participants from a population-based cohort, the Canadian Multicentre Osteoporosis Study, and tested the extent to which the 25OHD-decreasing alleles explained variation in 25OHD level. We found that the count of 25OHD-decreasing alleles across these four SNPs was strongly associated with lower 25OHD level (n = 2,347, F-test statistic = 49.7, p = 2.4 × 10-12). Next, we conducted an MR study to describe the effect of genetically lowered 25OHD on the odds of MS in the International Multiple Sclerosis Genetics Consortium study, the largest genetic association study to date for MS (including up to 14,498 cases and 24,091 healthy controls). Alleles were weighted by their relative effect on 25OHD level, and sensitivity analyses were performed to test MR assumptions. MR analyses found that each genetically determined one-standard-deviation decrease in log-transformed 25OHD level conferred a 2.0-fold increase in the odds of MS (95% CI: 1.7-2.5; p = 7.7 × 10-12; I2 = 63%, 95% CI: 0%-88%). This result persisted in sensitivity analyses excluding SNPs possibly influenced by population stratification or pleiotropy (odds ratio [OR] = 1.7, 95% CI: 1.3-2.2; p = 2.3 × 10-5; I2 = 47%, 95% CI: 0%-85%) and including only SNPs involved in 25OHD synthesis or metabolism (ORsynthesis = 2.1, 95% CI: 1.6-2.6, p = 1 × 10-9; ORmetabolism = 1.9, 95% CI: 1.3-2.7, p = 0.002). While these sensitivity analyses decreased the possibility that pleiotropy may have biased the results, residual pleiotropy is difficult to exclude entirely.
Conclusions: A genetically lowered 25OHD level is strongly associated with increased susceptibility to MS. Whether vitamin D sufficiency can delay, or prevent, MS onset merits further investigation in long-term randomized controlled trials.