ATHENA: A knowledge-based hybrid backpropagation-grammatical evolution neural network algorithm for discovering epistasis among quantitative trait Loci

Stephen D. Turner, Scott M. Dudek, Marylyn D. Ritchie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

35 Scopus citations


Background: Growing interest and burgeoning technology for discovering genetic mechanisms that influence disease processes have ushered in a flood of genetic association studies over the last decade, yet little heritability in highly studied complex traits has been explained by genetic variation. Non-additive gene-gene interactions, which are not often explored, are thought to be one source of this "missing" heritability. Methods: Stochastic methods employing evolutionary algorithms have demonstrated promise in being able to detect and model gene-gene and gene-environment interactions that influence human traits. Here we demonstrate modifications to a neural network algorithm in ATHENA (the Analysis Tool for Heritable and Environmental Network Associations) resulting in clear performance improvements for discovering gene-gene interactions that influence human traits. We employed an alternative tree-based crossover, backpropagation for locally fitting neural network weights, and incorporation of domain knowledge obtainable from publicly accessible biological databases for initializing the search for gene-gene interactions. We tested these modifications in silico using simulated datasets. Results: We show that the alternative tree-based crossover modification resulted in a modest increase in the sensitivity of the ATHENA algorithm for discovering gene-gene interactions. The performance increase was highly statistically significant when backpropagation was used to locally fit NN weights. We also demonstrate that using domain knowledge to initialize the search for gene-gene interactions results in a large performance increase, especially when the search space is larger than the search coverage. Conclusions: We show that a hybrid optimization procedure, alternative crossover strategies, and incorporation of domain knowledge from publicly available biological databases can result in marked increases in sensitivity and performance of the ATHENA algorithm for detecting and modelling gene-gene interactions that influence a complex human trait.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number5
JournalBioData Mining
Issue number1
StatePublished - Oct 25 2010


All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Computational Theory and Mathematics
  • Computational Mathematics

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