The Challenge of Causal Inference in Gene-Environment Interaction Research

Leveraging Research Designs from the Social Sciences

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Combining large scale social sciences and their research methods with genetics has the potential to better understand and explain issues regarding public health concerns.

 

The Issue:
Certain environments and genetic factors affect some people in different ways than they affect others. Gene–environment (G×E) research is looking to integrate both biologic and social sciences using their approaches, data, and models to better understand how and why certain individuals are resilient to stressors and others are not. This interdisciplinary path has the potential to help address the challenge of causal inference in G×E research.

The authors highlight three research designs that could be used in G×E interaction research through the integration of the social and biological sciences, “where both sides bring important expertise to the table.”

  1. A natural experiment design examining GxE interactions between stress and genotype in predicting depressive phenotypes.
  2. Enhanced family designs used to address concerns about the population stratification in the GxE literature.
  3. Policy variation, another resource of environmental variation, has been used in the social science to examine the determinants of important health phenotypes.

This essay provides examples of research designs that would be beneficial for G×E interaction research. The data examples come from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health and from the Fragile Families Study.