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Open Access Open Badges Research article

A comparison of internal model validation methods for multifactor dimensionality reduction in the case of genetic heterogeneity

Jeffrey J Gory, Holly C Sweeney, David M Reif and Alison A Motsinger-Reif*

Author Affiliations

Bioinformatics Research Center, Department of Statistics, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, 27695, USA

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BMC Research Notes 2012, 5:623  doi:10.1186/1756-0500-5-623

Published: 5 November 2012



Determining the genes responsible for certain human traits can be challenging when the underlying genetic model takes a complicated form such as heterogeneity (in which different genetic models can result in the same trait) or epistasis (in which genes interact with other genes and the environment). Multifactor Dimensionality Reduction (MDR) is a widely used method that effectively detects epistasis; however, it does not perform well in the presence of heterogeneity partly due to its reliance on cross-validation for internal model validation. Cross-validation allows for only one “best” model and is therefore inadequate when more than one model could cause the same trait. We hypothesize that another internal model validation method known as a three-way split will be better at detecting heterogeneity models.


In this study, we test this hypothesis by performing a simulation study to compare the performance of MDR to detect models of heterogeneity with the two different internal model validation techniques. We simulated a range of disease models with both main effects and gene-gene interactions with a range of effect sizes. We assessed the performance of each method using a range of definitions of power.


Overall, the power of MDR to detect heterogeneity models was relatively poor, especially under more conservative (strict) definitions of power. While the overall power was low, our results show that the cross-validation approach greatly outperformed the three-way split approach in detecting heterogeneity. This would motivate using cross-validation with MDR in studies where heterogeneity might be present. These results also emphasize the challenge of detecting heterogeneity models and the need for further methods development.