Bioethics Blogs

A Decade’s Worth of Gene-Environment Interaction Studies, in Hindsight

In the early 2000s, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie Moffitt, and their colleagues published two papers (here and here), which suggested that we could finally begin to tell rather simple but evidence-based stories about how genetic and environmental variables interact to influence the emergence of complex phenotypes. It’s hard to exaggerate the level of interest those papers generated. According to Google Scholar, they’ve now been cited more than 7,000 times.  To put that in perspective, Watson and Crick’s paper on the structure of DNA has been cited only about 9,500 times.    

In 2011, however, Laramie Duncan and Matthew Keller published a paper in the American Journal of Psychiatry, which told psychiatrists about the results of their meta-analysis of the 103 gene-environment interaction (GxE) studies that had been done in the first decade of this millennium. The news wasn’t good. According to Duncan and Keller, the results of their meta-analysis “were consistent with the existence of publication bias, low statistical power, and a high false discovery rate.”

This month, Laramie Duncan published a piece with Alisha Pollastri and Jordan Smoller in the American Psychologist that aims to inform psychologists about the results that Duncan and Matthew broke to psychiatrists in 2011. The new piece is called “Mind the Gap: Why Many Geneticists and Psychological Scientists Have Discrepant Views about Gene-Environment Interaction Research.” A franker, tad-longer title would have been, “Psychologists (and Everybody Else) Need to Get Up To Speed on What Psychiatric Geneticists Already Know: Gene-Environment Interaction Research Hasn’t Panned Out Yet.” Or as the new piece puts it, “the first decade of cGxE research has produced few, if any, reliable results.”   

The “c” before the GxE in the previous sentence is intended to emphasize that the studies in the meta-analysis all purported to investigate how single “candidate” genes interacted with some environmental variable.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.