Polygenic burden has broader impact on health, cognition, and socioeconomic outcomes than most rare and high-risk copy number variants

Mol Psychiatry. 2021 Feb 1. doi: 10.1038/s41380-021-01026-z. Online ahead of print.


Copy number variants (CNVs) are associated with syndromic and severe neurological and psychiatric disorders (SNPDs), such as intellectual disability, epilepsy, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Although considered high-impact, CNVs are also observed in the general population. This presents a diagnostic challenge in evaluating their clinical significance. To estimate the phenotypic differences between CNV carriers and non-carriers regarding general health and well-being, we compared the impact of SNPD-associated CNVs on health, cognition, and socioeconomic phenotypes to the impact of three genome-wide polygenic risk score (PRS) in two Finnish cohorts (FINRISK, n = 23,053 and NFBC1966, n = 4895). The focus was on CNV carriers and PRS extremes who do not have an SNPD diagnosis. We identified high-risk CNVs (DECIPHER CNVs, risk gene deletions, or large [>1 Mb] CNVs) in 744 study participants (2.66%), 36 (4.8%) of whom had a diagnosed SNPD. In the remaining 708 unaffected carriers, we observed lower educational attainment (EA; OR = 0.77 [95% CI 0.66-0.89]) and lower household income (OR = 0.77 [0.66-0.89]). Income-associated CNVs also lowered household income (OR = 0.50 [0.38-0.66]), and CNVs with medical consequences lowered subjective health (OR = 0.48 [0.32-0.72]). The impact of PRSs was broader. At the lowest extreme of PRS for EA, we observed lower EA (OR = 0.31 [0.26-0.37]), lower-income (OR = 0.66 [0.57-0.77]), lower subjective health (OR = 0.72 [0.61-0.83]), and increased mortality (Cox's HR = 1.55 [1.21-1.98]). PRS for intelligence had a similar impact, whereas PRS for schizophrenia did not affect these traits. We conclude that the majority of working-age individuals carrying high-risk CNVs without SNPD diagnosis have a modest impact on morbidity and mortality, as well as the limited impact on income and educational attainment, compared to individuals at the extreme end of common genetic variation. Our findings highlight that the contribution of traditional high-risk variants such as CNVs should be analyzed in a broader genetic context, rather than evaluated in isolation.