An interview with Dr. Rachel Yehuda on biological and conscious responses to stress

How Trauma and Resilience Cross Generations

“The purpose of epigenetic changes, I think, is simply to increase the repertoire of possible responses.

So let’s say, for some reason, your parents transmitted to you biologic changes that are very appropriate to starvation, but you don’t live in a culture where food is not plentiful.

You’re just not optimized, but I think that if we develop an awareness of what the biologic changes from stress and trauma are meant to do, then I think we can develop a better way of explaining to ourselves what our true capabilities and potentials are.

What I hear from trauma survivors — what I’m always struck with is how upsetting it is when other people don’t help, or don’t acknowledge, or respond very poorly to needs or distress.

Feel it instead of running to someone to give you a sleeping pill.”



Telomere dynamics, stress, and aging across generations

This 2015 Pennsylvania/North Dakota animal and human review noted:

“The mechanisms linking stress exposure to disease progression and ageing either within individuals or across generations are still unclear, but recent work suggests that telomere dynamics (length and loss rate) may play an important role.

Parental stress may directly influence the parental germline telomeres pre-fertilization, affecting the telomere length inherited by offspring. Alternatively, parental stress may affect telomere dynamics indirectly either pre- or post-natally. The physiological mechanisms by which stress elicits changes in telomere length are also diverse.

We need more information about how these effects vary between developmental stages, among individuals, and within tissues of mitigate the effects of early life adversity on human health.”

I was disappointed that the reviewers chose Problematic research with telomere length as a reference. Then again, maybe their statement:

“how these traits are related to one another clearly deserves more study”

is a polite way of saying that study’s methodology was flawed?

Regarding evolutionary biology:

“While most evidence suggests that the effect of parental stress exposure on offspring telomeres is negative, it is important to remember that this is just one trait that can contribute to parental and offspring fitness.

Investment in traits that increase fitness is expected to be favoured, even if they come at a cost to traits associated with longevity, such as telomere length.”

A similar point was made in a reference of A study of DNA methylation and age that:

“Aging has no purpose (neither for individuals nor for group), no intention. Nature does not select for quasi-programs. It selects for robust developmental growth.” “Telomere dynamics may link stress exposure and ageing across generations”

Psychological therapy and DNA methylation

This 2015 worldwide human study was:

“The largest study to date investigating the role of HPA [hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal] axis related genes in response to a psychological therapy. Furthermore, this is the first study to demonstrate that DNA methylation changes may be associated with response to psychological therapies in a genotype-dependent manner.

In this study, we tested the association between polymorphisms of FKBP5 [a gene that produces a protein that dampens glucocorticoid receptor sensitivity primarily in areas of the limbic system such as the hippocampus and amygdala] and GR [glucocorticoid receptor gene] and response to CBT [cognitive behavior therapy] in children with anxiety disorders (N = 1,152), and examined change in DNA methylation at specific regions of these genes during the course of CBT in a subset of the sample (n = 98).

No significant association was found between GR methylation and response. Allele-specific change in FKBP5 methylation was associated with treatment response.”

Regarding “treatment response:”

“Subjects aged 5–18 (mean: 9.8 years) met DSM-IV criteria for primary diagnosis of an anxiety disorder.

Clinical severity ratings (CSRs) were usually based on composite parent and child reports, and were assigned on a scale of 0–8. [36] [linked below]

Treatment response was defined as the change in primary anxiety disorder severity from pretreatment to follow-up. A diagnosis was made when the child met diagnostic criteria and received a CSR of 4 or more. Remission was regarded as the absence of the primary anxiety according to diagnostic criteria, as determined by the clinicians at the follow-up interview.”

Scenarios where nine-year-olds and their parents may have benefited from skewing their “composite parent and child reports” either way:

  1. Parents benefited from an anxious-child report (financial support provided, social services provided, avoided undesirable activities like going to work, continued psychological dependence, provided victim celebrity, enabled their own problems)
  2. Parents benefited from a well-child report (freed up time to pursue desirable activities, financial relief, relief from court-ordered or social-services-required activities, covered up their own contributions to the child’s problems)
  3. Nine-year-olds benefited from an anxious report (relief from undesirable activities like school attendance, continued psychological dependence, provided victim celebrity, activities structured around their condition, enabled the parents’ problems)
  4. Nine-year-olds benefited from a well report (symptom reduction, met parental expectations, freed up time to pursue desirable activities, covered up the parents’ contributions to the child’s problems).

I wonder what “treatment response” criteria were available other than self-serving reports and “diagnostic criteria, as determined by the clinicians.” Every day medical personnel hear patients self-report conditions where biological measurements may confirm or indicate something different. Did the “diagnostic criteria, as determined by the clinicians” include comparisons to relevant biological measurements?

The related study linked below points out:

“Although CBT has been established as an efficacious treatment, roughly 40% of children retain their disorder after treatment.”

Its focus was also on predictors (other than genetic) of CBT outcomes.

Neither study provided evidence of attempts to find originating causes for the children’s conditions. Were the international CBT approaches only interested in treating symptoms? “HPA AXIS RELATED GENES AND RESPONSE TO PSYCHOLOGICAL THERAPIES: GENETICS AND EPIGENETICS”

Related 2015 study: “Clinical Predictors of Response to Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy in Pediatric Anxiety Disorders: The Genes for Treatment (GxT) Study”

A review of epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of reproductive disease

This 2015 Washington review of epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of reproductive disease defined transgenerational effects as follows:

“In considering transgenerational phenomena it is important to distinguish between direct exposure effects versus germline (sperm or egg) mediated transgenerational events.

When a gestating F0 generation female is exposed the F0 generation female, the F1 generation fetus and the germ cell (sperm or egg) that is inside the fetus and that will produce the F2 generation are all directly exposed. Any effects in the F0, F1 and F2 generations may be due to direct exposure toxicity or to environmentally induced epigenetic changes in the directly exposed cells. Examination of the F3 generation (great grand-offspring) is needed to determine if a transgenerational phenomenon has occurred, since the F3 generation has had no direct exposure effects.

In contrast, in the event an adult male or non-pregnant female is exposed, the F0 generation adult and the germ cells that will generate the F1 generation are directly exposed, such that examination of the F2 generation (grand-offspring) is required to demonstrate a transgenerational phenomenon.”

This review was an example of a government agency commissioning science that narrowly supported their view. NIEHS funded this review, and the authors interpreted “environment” in “Environmentally Induced Epigenetic Transgenerational Inheritance of Reproductive Disease” to fit this conduit of public funds.

The problem was that this interpretation of “environment” limited the subject to the categories pictured in this Venn diagram. The authors’ tailoring of “environmentally induced” to the government agency’s interests should have similarly restricted the title.

F3 sperm epimutations

Other interpretations of “environment” were in studies such as:

and their references. Such studies demonstrated both that:

  1. Environmental factors like stress and nutrition – especially in early life – cause diseases in later life; and
  2. These diseases may be inherited by the subjects’ descendants.

The authors elsewhere referred generally and specifically (nutrition) to studies of other environmental factors.

Have you ever heard that our children and then their children could possibly inherit our diseases caused by stressful environments? Wouldn’t that research be of equal to or greater importance in our lives than pesticides’ harmful effects? “Environmentally Induced Epigenetic Transgenerational Inheritance of Reproductive Disease”

Fetal exposure to sex hormones and female anxiety

This 2015 Swedish rodent study found:

“Women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) display high circulating androgen levels that may affect the fetus and increase the risk of mood disorders in offspring.

Although clinical data are inconsistent, there are indications that androgens play a crucial role in behavior and mood regulation in females.

Studies on the link between testosterone and anxiety behavior in males have generated inconsistent results.

Higher circulating testosterone has previously been reported in female rat PNA [prenatal androgen] offspring. This discrepancy may be a result of the higher doses of maternal testosterone (5 mg) used in the previous study compared with the present study (0.5 mg).

Although the anxiety-like behavior observed in the female PNA offspring in the present study cannot be directly explained by high circulating androgens, the reduced AR [androgen receptor] expression in the amygdala suggests a compensatory response to the high prenatal testosterone exposure, a result implicating the amygdala as the CNS site underlying the changes in anxiety in the PNA offspring. This idea is further strengthened by our experiment showing that subchronic testosterone exposure into amygdala is sufficient to produce anxiety-like behavior in adult females.

Maternal testosterone exposure causes anxiety-like behavior in female, and to a lesser extent male offspring, an effect that seems to occur during fetal life and to be mediated via AR in the amygdala, together with changes in ER [estrogen receptor] and in the serotonergic and GABAergic pathways in the amygdala and hippocampus of female PNA rats.”

The news coverage – too much testosterone caused anxiety-like symptoms in females whether they are adults or fetuses – was NOT what the study found. The headlines disregarded its caveat:

“The anxiety-like behavior observed in the female PNA offspring in the present study cannot be directly explained by high circulating androgens.”

I look forward to research on floor levels of testosterone, below which there are also adverse effects on females. There is such evidence, but would it play well with popular memes?

See Sex hormone exposure to the developing female fetus causes infertility in adulthood for another study that used the PCOS phenotype. “Maternal testosterone exposure increases anxiety-like behavior and impacts the limbic system in the offspring”

A study of methylation’s mechanical effects on DNA molecules

This 2015 Italian study investigated effects of DNA methylation on mechanical properties of single DNA molecules:

As a consequence of cytosine methylation, the binding of proteins that are implicated in transcription to gene promoters is severely hindered, which results in gene regulation and, eventually, gene silencing. To date, the mechanisms by which methylation biases the binding affinities of proteins to DNA are not fully understood; however, it has been proposed that changes in double-strand conformations, such as stretching, bending, and over-twisting, as well as local variations in DNA stiffness/flexibility may play a role.

We observe that methylation induces no relevant variations in DNA contour lengths, but produces measurable incremental changes in persistence lengths [stiffness/flexibility].

The results reported herein support the claim that the biological consequences of the methylation process, specifically difficulties in protein-DNA binding, are at least partially due to DNA conformation modifications.” “Effects of cytosine methylation on DNA morphology: An atomic force microscopy study”