Contribution of common risk variants to multiple sclerosis in Orkney and Shetland

Eur J Hum Genet. 2021 Nov;29(11):1701-1709. doi: 10.1038/s41431-021-00914-w. Epub 2021 Jun 4.


Orkney and Shetland, the population isolates that make up the Northern Isles of Scotland, are of particular interest to multiple sclerosis (MS) research. While MS prevalence is high in Scotland, Orkney has the highest global prevalence, higher than more northerly Shetland. Many hypotheses for the excess of MS cases in Orkney have been investigated, including vitamin D deficiency and homozygosity: neither was found to cause the high prevalence of MS. It is possible that this excess prevalence may be explained through unique genetics. We used polygenic risk scores (PRS) to look at the contribution of common risk variants to MS. Analyses were conducted using ORCADES (97/2118 cases/controls), VIKING (15/2000 cases/controls) and Generation Scotland (30/8708 cases/controls) data sets. However, no evidence of a difference in MS-associated common variant frequencies was found between the three control populations, aside from HLA-DRB1*15:01 tag SNP rs9271069. This SNP had a significantly higher risk allele frequency in Orkney (0.23, p value = 8 × 10-13) and Shetland (0.21, p value = 2.3 × 10-6) than mainland Scotland (0.17). This difference in frequency is estimated to account for 6 (95% CI 3, 8) out of 150 observed excess cases per 100,000 individuals in Shetland and 9 (95% CI 8, 11) of the observed 257 excess cases per 100,000 individuals in Orkney, compared with mainland Scotland. Common variants therefore appear to account for little of the excess burden of MS in the Northern Isles of Scotland.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • HLA-DRB1 Chains / genetics
  • Haplotypes
  • Humans
  • Multifactorial Inheritance
  • Multiple Sclerosis / epidemiology
  • Multiple Sclerosis / genetics*
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide*
  • Scotland


  • HLA-DRB1 Chains