Mendelian randomization in health research: using appropriate genetic variants and avoiding biased estimates

Econ Hum Biol. 2014 Mar;13(100):99-106. doi: 10.1016/j.ehb.2013.12.002. Epub 2013 Dec 13.


Mendelian randomization methods, which use genetic variants as instrumental variables for exposures of interest to overcome problems of confounding and reverse causality, are becoming widespread for assessing causal relationships in epidemiological studies. The main purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how results can be biased if researchers select genetic variants on the basis of their association with the exposure in their own dataset, as often happens in candidate gene analyses. This can lead to estimates that indicate apparent "causal" relationships, despite there being no true effect of the exposure. In addition, we discuss the potential bias in estimates of magnitudes of effect from Mendelian randomization analyses when the measured exposure is a poor proxy for the true underlying exposure. We illustrate these points with specific reference to tobacco research.

Keywords: Causal inference; Instrumental variable; Mendelian randomization; Smoking; Tobacco.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Bias*
  • Causality
  • Confounding Factors, Epidemiologic
  • Genome-Wide Association Study / methods
  • Humans
  • Mendelian Randomization Analysis / methods*
  • Research Design*
  • Smoking / genetics