Cambridge University Press, Twin Research and Human Genetics, 6(21), p. 485-494, 2018
The Barker hypothesis states that low birth weight (BW) is associated with higher risk of adult onset diseases, including mental disorders like schizophrenia, major depressive disorder (MDD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The main criticism of this hypothesis is that evidence for it comes from observational studies. Specifically, observational evidence does not suffice for inferring causality, because the associations might reflect the effects of confounders. Mendelian randomization (MR) — a novel method that tests causality on the basis of genetic data — creates the unprecedented opportunity to probe the causality in the association between BW and mental disorders in observation studies. We used MR and summary statistics from recent large genome-wide association studies to test whether the association between BW and MDD, schizophrenia and ADHD is causal. We employed the inverse variance weighted (IVW) method in conjunction with several other approaches that are robust to possible assumption violations. MR-Egger was used to rule out horizontal pleiotropy. IVW showed that the association between BW and MDD, schizophrenia and ADHD is not causal (all p > .05). The results of all the other MR methods were similar and highly consistent. MR-Egger provided no evidence for pleiotropic effects biasing the estimates of the effects of BW on MDD (intercept = -0.004, SE = 0.005, p = .372), schizophrenia (intercept = 0.003, SE = 0.01, p = .769), or ADHD (intercept = 0.009, SE = 0.01, p = .357). Based on the current evidence, we refute the Barker hypothesis concerning the fetal origins of adult mental disorders. The discrepancy between our results and the results from observational studies may be explained by the effects of confounders in the observational studies, or by the existence of a small causal effect not detected in our study due to weak instruments. Our power analyses suggested that the upper bound for a potential causal effect of BW on mental disorders would likely not exceed an odds ratio of 1.2.