Extending Causality Tests with Genetic Instruments: An Integration of Mendelian Randomization with the Classical Twin Design

Camelia C. Minică*, Conor V. Dolan, Dorret I. Boomsma, Eco de Geus, Michael C. Neale

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Although experimental studies are regarded as the method of choice for determining causal influences, these are not always practical or ethical to answer vital questions in health and social research (e.g., one cannot assign individuals to a “childhood trauma condition” in studying the causal effects of childhood trauma on depression). Key to solving such questions are observational studies. Mendelian Randomization (MR) is an influential method to establish causality in observational studies. MR uses genetic variants to test causal relationships between exposures/risk factors and outcomes such as physical or mental health. Yet, individual genetic variants have small effects, and so, when used as instrumental variables, render MR liable to weak instrument bias. Polygenic scores have the advantage of larger effects, but may be characterized by horizontal pleiotropy, which violates a central assumption of MR. We developed the MR-DoC twin model by integrating MR with the Direction of Causation twin model. This model allows us to test pleiotropy directly. We considered the issue of parameter identification, and given identification, we conducted extensive power calculations. MR-DoC allows one to test causal hypotheses and to obtain unbiased estimates of the causal effect given pleiotropic instruments, while controlling for genetic and environmental influences common to the outcome and exposure. Furthermore, the approach allows one to employ strong instrumental variables in the form of polygenic scores, guarding against weak instrument bias, and increasing the power to detect causal effects of exposures on potential outcomes. Beside allowing to test pleiotropy directly, incorporating in MR data collected from relatives provide additional within-family data that resolve additional assumptions like random mating, the absence of the gene-environment interaction/covariance, no dyadic effects. Our approach will enhance and extend MR’s range of applications, and increase the value of the large cohorts collected at twin/family registries as they correctly detect causation and estimate effect sizes even in the presence of pleiotropy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)337-349
Number of pages13
JournalBehavior Genetics
Issue number4
Early online date7 Jun 2018
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2018


Acknowledgements This work was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse [Grant Number DA-018673].

FundersFunder number
National Institute on Drug AbuseR37DA018673


    • Causality
    • Mendelian randomization
    • Pleiotropy
    • Twin design

    Cohort Studies

    • Netherlands Twin Register (NTR)


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