Principal Component Regression and Linear Mixed Model in Association Analysis of Structured Samples: Competitors or Complements?

Yiwei Zhang, Wei Pan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have been established as a major tool to identify genetic variants associated with complex traits, such as common diseases. However, GWAS may suffer from false positives and false negatives due to confounding population structures, including known or unknown relatedness. Another important issue is unmeasured environmental risk factors. Among many methods for adjusting for population structures, two approaches stand out: one is principal component regression (PCR) based on principal component analysis, which is perhaps the most popular due to its early appearance, simplicity, and general effectiveness; the other is based on a linear mixed model (LMM) that has emerged recently as perhaps the most flexible and effective, especially for samples with complex structures as in model organisms. As shown previously, the PCR approach can be regarded as an approximation to an LMM; such an approximation depends on the number of the top principal components (PCs) used, the choice of which is often difficult in practice. Hence, in the presence of population structure, the LMM appears to outperform the PCR method. However, due to the different treatments of fixed vs. random effects in the two approaches, we show an advantage of PCR over LMM: in the presence of an unknown but spatially confined environmental confounder (e.g., environmental pollution or lifestyle), the PCs may be able to implicitly and effectively adjust for the confounder whereas the LMM cannot. Accordingly, to adjust for both population structures and nongenetic confounders, we propose a hybrid method combining the use and, thus, strengths of PCR and LMM. We use real genotype data and simulated phenotypes to confirm the above points, and establish the superior performance of the hybrid method across all scenarios.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)149-155
Number of pages7
JournalGenetic epidemiology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.


  • Association testing
  • Confounding
  • Environmental risk
  • Population stratification
  • Probabilistic principal component analysis


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