Ancestry may confound genetic machine learning: Candidate-gene prediction of opioid use disorder as an example

Drug Alcohol Depend. 2021 Dec 1;229(Pt B):109115. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2021.109115. Epub 2021 Oct 9.


Background: Machine learning (ML) models are beginning to proliferate in psychiatry, however machine learning models in psychiatric genetics have not always accounted for ancestry. Using an empirical example of a proposed genetic test for OUD, and exploring a similar test for tobacco dependence and a simulated binary phenotype, we show that genetic prediction using ML is vulnerable to ancestral confounding.

Methods: We utilize five ML algorithms trained with 16 brain reward-derived "candidate" SNPs proposed for commercial use and examine their ability to predict OUD vs. ancestry in an out-of-sample test set (N = 1000, stratified into equal groups of n = 250 cases and controls each of European and African ancestry). We rerun analyses with 8 random sets of allele-frequency matched SNPs. We contrast findings with 11 genome-wide significant variants for tobacco smoking. To document generalizability, we generate and test a random phenotype.

Results: None of the 5 ML algorithms predict OUD better than chance when ancestry was balanced but were confounded with ancestry in an out-of-sample test. In addition, the algorithms preferentially predicted admixed subpopulations. Random sets of variants matched to the candidate SNPs by allele frequency produced similar bias. Genome-wide significant tobacco smoking variants were also confounded by ancestry. Finally, random SNPs predicting a random simulated phenotype show that the bias attributable to ancestral confounding could impact any ML-based genetic prediction.

Conclusions: Researchers and clinicians are encouraged to be skeptical of claims of high prediction accuracy from ML-derived genetic algorithms for polygenic traits like addiction, particularly when using candidate variants.

Keywords: Algorithmic bias; Ancestry; Candidate genes; Machine learning; Opioid use disorder.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Black People / genetics
  • Humans
  • Machine Learning
  • Multifactorial Inheritance*
  • Opioid-Related Disorders* / genetics
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide / genetics