Document Type


Subject Area(s)

Epidemiology and Biostatistics


Introduction: Instrumental variable (IV) methods have been used in econometrics for several decades now, but have only recently been introduced into the epidemiologic research frameworks. Similarly, Mendelian randomization studies, which use the IV methodology for analysis and inference in epidemiology, were introduced into the epidemiologist's toolbox only in the last decade.

Analysis: Mendelian randomization studies using instrumental variables (IVs) have the potential to avoid some of the limitations of observational epidemiology (confounding, reverse causality, regression dilution bias) for making causal inferences. Certain limitations of randomized controlled trials, such as problems with generalizability, feasibility and ethics for some exposures, and high costs, also make the use of Mendelian randomization in observational studies attractive. Unlike conventional randomized controlled trials (RCTs), Mendelian randomization studies can be conducted in a representative sample without imposing any exclusion criteria or requiring volunteers to be amenable to random treatment allocation.

Within the last decade, epigenetics has gained recognition as an independent field of study, and appears to be the new direction for future research into the genetics of complex diseases. Although previous articles have addressed some of the limitations of Mendelian randomization (such as the lack of suitable genetic variants, unreliable associations, population stratification, linkage disequilibrium (LD), pleiotropy, developmental canalization, the need for large sample sizes and some potential problems with binary outcomes), none has directly characterized the impact of epigenetics on Mendelian randomization. The possibility of epigenetic effects (non-Mendelian, heritable changes in gene expression not accompanied by alterations in DNA sequence) could alter the core instrumental variable assumptions of Mendelian randomization.

This paper applies conceptual considerations, algebraic derivations and data simulations to question the appropriateness of Mendelian randomization methods when epigenetic modifications are present.

Conclusion: Given an inheritance of gene expression from parents, Mendelian randomization studies not only need to assume a random distribution of alleles in the offspring, but also a random distribution of epigenetic changes (e.g. gene expression) at conception, in order for the core assumptions of the Mendelian randomization methodology to remain valid. As an increasing number of epidemiologists employ Mendelian randomization methods in their research, caution is therefore needed in drawing conclusions from these studies if these assumptions are not met.

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