Individual-specific networks for prediction modelling - A scoping review of methods

BMC Med Res Methodol. 2022 Mar 6;22(1):62. doi: 10.1186/s12874-022-01544-6.


Background: Recent advances in biotechnology enable the acquisition of high-dimensional data on individuals, posing challenges for prediction models which traditionally use covariates such as clinical patient characteristics. Alternative forms of covariate representations for the features derived from these modern data modalities should be considered that can utilize their intrinsic interconnection. The connectivity information between these features can be represented as an individual-specific network defined by a set of nodes and edges, the strength of which can vary from individual to individual. Global or local graph-theoretical features describing the network may constitute potential prognostic biomarkers instead of or in addition to traditional covariates and may replace the often unsuccessful search for individual biomarkers in a high-dimensional predictor space.

Methods: We conducted a scoping review to identify, collate and critically appraise the state-of-art in the use of individual-specific networks for prediction modelling in medicine and applied health research, published during 2000-2020 in the electronic databases PubMed, Scopus and Embase.

Results: Our scoping review revealed the main application areas namely neurology and pathopsychology, followed by cancer research, cardiology and pathology (N = 148). Network construction was mainly based on Pearson correlation coefficients of repeated measurements, but also alternative approaches (e.g. partial correlation, visibility graphs) were found. For covariates measured only once per individual, network construction was mostly based on quantifying an individual's contribution to the overall group-level structure. Despite the multitude of identified methodological approaches for individual-specific network inference, the number of studies that were intended to enable the prediction of clinical outcomes for future individuals was quite limited, and most of the models served as proof of concept that network characteristics can in principle be useful for prediction.

Conclusion: The current body of research clearly demonstrates the value of individual-specific network analysis for prediction modelling, but it has not yet been considered as a general tool outside the current areas of application. More methodological research is still needed on well-founded strategies for network inference, especially on adequate network sparsification and outcome-guided graph-theoretical feature extraction and selection, and on how networks can be exploited efficiently for prediction modelling.

Keywords: Biomarker; Genomics; Graph theory; Individual-specific network; Methodological review; Network analysis; Neurology; Pathopsychology; Personalized medicine; Prediction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't