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Do natural experiments have an important future in the study of mental disorders?

Thapar, Anita ORCID: and Rutter, Michael 2019. Do natural experiments have an important future in the study of mental disorders? Psychological Medicine 49 (7) , pp. 1079-1088. 10.1017/S0033291718003896

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There is an enormous interest in identifying the causes of psychiatric disorders but there are considerable challenges in identifying which risks are genuinely causal. Traditionally risk factors have been inferred from observational designs. However, association with psychiatric outcome does not equate to causation. There are a number of threats that clinicians and researchers face in making causal inferences from traditional observational designs because adversities or exposures are not randomly allocated to individuals. Natural experiments provide an alternative strategy to randomized controlled trials as they take advantage of situations whereby links between exposure and other variables are separated by naturally occurring events or situations. In this review, we describe a growing range of different types of natural experiment and highlight that there is a greater confidence about findings where there is a convergence of findings across different designs. For example, exposure to hostile parenting is consistently found to be associated with conduct problems using different natural experiment designs providing support for this being a causal risk factor. Different genetically informative designs have repeatedly found that exposure to negative life events and being bullied are linked to later depression. However, for exposure to prenatal cigarette smoking, while findings from natural experiment designs are consistent with a causal effect on offspring lower birth weight, they do not support the hypothesis that intra-uterine cigarette smoking has a causal effect on attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and conduct problems and emerging findings highlight caution about inferring causal effects on bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Item Type: Article
Date Type: Publication
Status: Published
Schools: Medicine
MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics (CNGG)
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
ISSN: 0033-2917
Funders: Wellcome Trust
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 21 November 2018
Date of Acceptance: 7 November 2018
Last Modified: 05 May 2023 20:18

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