Using an epigenetic clock to assess liver disease

This 2018 UC San Diego human study investigated the capability of the epigenetic clock methodology to detect biological aging with nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) patients:

“The ability to measure a surrogate marker of liver aging from a peripheral blood sample has broad implications for assessing clinically “silent” chronic diseases, such as NASH, and, potentially, their response to interventions.

In the current study, we validate the utility of the Horvath clock in measuring age acceleration in a defined cohort of NASH patients with moderate to severe liver fibrosis.”

The study demonstrated several aspects of age acceleration and disease conditions, including:

– Use of clinical trial data.

“This study, however, included patients who were part of a clinical trial in which protocol-obtained biopsies were read by a central pathologist (ZG) and morphometric quantification of collagen standardized.”

– Continuous measures were more relevant than “Stage X” measures.

“The findings in the current work are in contrast to an earlier study that found no association of DNAm with the NAFLD activity score or stage of liver fibrosis in patients with NASH. Importantly, that study assessed liver fibrosis based on conventional histological staging only, using the ordinal METAVIR classification. Similarly, we also found no difference in age acceleration between patients with stage 2 and 3 fibrosis according to the NASH Clinical Research Network (CRN) classification.

On the contrary, by evaluating two continuous measures of fibrosis (hepatic collagen content by morphometry and the serum ELF test), which have a greater dynamic range than traditional histological staging, we found that patients with higher age acceleration have increased hepatic fibrosis.”

– Causalities may not necessarily be ascribed.

“Although these reports establish a potential relationship between fibrosis and specific epigenetic modifications, targeted individual CpG sites may not accurately reflect the complex interaction between causal and compensatory measures in chronic diseases such as NASH.” “DNA methylation signatures reflect aging in patients with nonalcoholic steatohepatitis”


An emotional center of our brains

This 2018 McGill/UC San Diego rodent study was on the dentate gyrus area of the hippocampus:

“Early life experience influences stress reactivity and mental health through effects on cognitive-emotional functions that are, in part, linked to gene expression in the dorsal and ventral hippocampus. The hippocampal dentate gyrus (DG) is a major site for experience-dependent plasticity associated with sustained transcriptional alterations, potentially mediated by epigenetic modifications.

Peripubertal environmental enrichment increases hippocampal volume and enhances dorsal DG-specific differences in gene expression..Overall, our transcriptome and DNA methylation data support a model of regional and environmental effects on the molecular profile of DG neurons.”

The study thoroughly investigated several areas. I’ll quote a few parts with the section heading.


“The dorsal hippocampus, corresponding to the posterior hippocampus in primates, associates closely with cognitive functions and age-related cognitive impairments. In contrast, the ventral hippocampus, (anterior region in primates) is implicated in the regulation of emotional states and vulnerability for affective disorders. This functional specialization is reflected in patterns of gene expression.”

Results subsections:

“Environmental enrichment promotes hippocampal neurogenesis – hippocampal volume is enlarged in mice raised in an enriched environment (EE) compared with standard housing (SH) in both the dorsal and ventral poles..EE also associates with >60% more newborn neurons.

Specialization of gene expression in dorsal and ventral DG – Gene expression was more affected by EE in dorsal than ventral DG, and dorsal DG has twice as many differentially-expressed genes.

DNA methylation differences between dorsal and ventral DG – Each of the three forms of methylation [CpG, non-CpG, and hmC (hydroxymethylation)] exhibited a distinct genomic distribution in dorsal and ventral DG..A key advantage of whole-genome DNA methylation profiling is the ability to identify differentially methylated regions (DMRs), often far from any gene body, that mark tissue-specific gene regulatory elements..This strong bias, with ~40-fold more hypomethylated regions in the dorsal DG, contrasts with the balanced number of differentially expressed genes in dorsal and ventral DG, suggesting an asymmetric role for DNA methylation in region-specific gene regulation. Despite their small number, ventral hypomethylated DMRs marked key developmental patterning transcription factors..which are linked to the proliferation, maintenance and survival of neural stem cells.

DNA methylation correlates with repression at some genes – CG and non-CG DNA methylation are associated with reduced gene expression, while hmC associates with increased expression..dorsal DMRs were also enriched at genes that were up- and down-regulated in EE, although over half of dorsal up-regulated genes, and >98.5% of ventral up-regulated genes, contained no DMRs that could explain their region-specific differential expression.”


  • “a The cell stages occurring within the subgranular zone of the dentate gyrus are shown together with a schematic illustration of possible relative proportions consistent with our data. RGL Radial glia-like progenitor, NSC Neural stem cell.
  • b Key genes associated with the RGL stage are up-regulated in ventral DG relative to dorsal DG.
  • c We propose that mCH [non-CpG methylation] accumulates mainly in mature neurons.”

Why do human brain studies that include the hippocampus overwhelmingly ignore its role in our emotions? For example, the researchers of Advance science by including emotion in research could find only 397 suitable studies performed over 22 years from 1990 to 2011. There were tens or hundreds of times more human brain studies done during the same period that intentionally excluded emotional content!

The current study provided physiological bases for dialing back the bias of human brain research focusing exclusively on cognitive functions without also investigating attributes of emotional processing. I look forward to seeing 2018 human studies that are designed to correct this recurring research deficiency. “Environmental enrichment increases transcriptional and epigenetic differentiation between mouse dorsal and ventral dentate gyrus”

The impact of the last snowflake

Was the recent Swiss avalanche’s cause the last, triggering snowflake, or the billions of snowflakes before it?

There’s been a slight increase in the number of PNAS studies that included the “catastrophic” search word from October 2016 to mid-January 2018 compared to the January 2014 to mid-April 2015 period referenced in How well can catastrophes be predicted?.

What are the drivers?

Or is the main driver something else?

Non-CpG DNA methylation

This 2017 Korean review compared and contrasted CpG and non-CpG DNA methylation:

“Non-CpG methylation is restricted to specific cell types, such as pluripotent stem cells, oocytes, neurons, and glial cells..accumulation of methylation at non-CpG sites and CpG sites in neurons seems to be involved in development and disease etiology.

Non-CpG methylation is established during postnatal development of the hippocampus and its levels increase over time. Similarly, non-CpG methylation is scarcely detected in human fetal frontal cortex, but is dramatically increased in later life. This increase in non-CpG methylation occurs simultaneously with synaptic development and increases in synaptic density.

In contrast, CpG methylation occurs during early development and does not increase over time.

Neurons have considerably higher levels of non-CpG methylation than glial cells..The human male ES [embryonic stem] cell line (H1) is more highly methylated than the female ES cell line (H9).

Among the different types of non-CpG methylation (CpA [adenosine], CpT [thymine], and CpC), methylation is most common at CpA sites. For instance, in human iPS [induced pluripotent stem] cells, 5mCs are found in approximately 68.31%, 7.81%, 1.99%, and 1.05% of CpG, CpA, CpT, and CpC sites, respectively.”

The reviewers’ referenced statement:

“..CpG methylation occurs during early development and does not increase over time.”

was presented outside of its context. The 2013 cited source’s statement was restricted to selected points in the rodent hippocampus:

“Consistent with a recent study of the cortex, time-course analyses revealed that CpH [non-CpG] methylation at the selected loci was established during postnatal development of the hippocampus and was then present throughout life, whereas CpG methylation was established during early development. Maturing mouse hippocampal neurons in vitro also showed a gradual increase in CpH, but not CpG, methylation over time.”

Epigenetic study methodologies improved in 2017 had more information on CpA methylation. “CpG and Non-CpG Methylation in Epigenetic Gene Regulation and Brain Function”

DNA methylation and childhood adversity

This 2017 Georgia human review covered:

“Recent studies, primarily focused on the findings from human studies, to indicate the role of DNA methylation in the associations between childhood adversity and cardiometabolic disease in adulthood. In particular, we focused on DNA methylation modifications in genes regulating the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis as well as the immune system.”

Recommendations in the review’s Epigenetics inheritance and preadaptation theory section included:

“Twin studies offer another promising design to explore the mediation effect of DNA methylation between child adversity and cardiometabolic outcomes..which could rule out heterogeneity due to genetic and familia[l]r environmental confounding.”

As it so happened, the below 2018 study provided some evidence. “The role of DNA methylation in the association between childhood adversity and cardiometabolic disease” (not freely available) Thanks to lead author Dr. Guang Hao for providing the full study.

This 2018 UK human study:

“Tested the hypothesis that victimization is associated with DNA methylation in the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Study, a nationally representative 1994-1995 birth cohort of 2,232 twins born in England and Wales and assessed at ages 5, 7, 10, 12, and 18 years. Multiple forms of victimization were ascertained in childhood and adolescence (including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; neglect; exposure to intimate-partner violence; bullying; cyber-victimization; and crime).

Hypothesis-driven analyses of six candidate genes in the stress response (

  1. NR3C1 [glucocorticoid receptor],
  2. FKBP5 [a regulator of the stress hormone system],
  3. BDNF [brain-derived neurotrophic factor],
  4. AVP [arginine vasopressin],
  5. CRHR1 [corticotropin-releasing hormone receptor 1],
  6. SLC6A4 [serotonin transporter]

) did not reveal predicted associations with DNA methylation.

Epigenetic epidemiology is not yet well matched to experimental, nonhuman models in uncovering the biological embedding of stress.”

One of the sad findings was that as the types of trauma inflicted by other people on the subjects increased, so did the percentage of subjects who hurt themselves by smoking. Two-thirds of teens who reported three or more of the seven adolescent trauma types also smoked by age 18. Self-harming behaviors other than smoking weren’t considered.

Another somber finding was:

“Childhood sexual victimization is associated with stable DNA methylation differences in whole blood in young adulthood.

These associations were not observed in relation to sexual victimization in adolescence.”

The researchers guided future studies regarding the proxy measurements of peripheral blood DNA methylation:

“The vast majority of subsequent human studies, including the present one, have relied on peripheral blood. This choice is expedient, but also scientifically reasonable given the aim of detecting effects on stress-related physical health systems that include peripheral circulating processes (immune, neuroendocrine).

But whole blood is heterogeneous, and although cell-type composition can be evaluated and controlled, as in the present study, it does raise the question of whether peripheral blood is a problematic surrogate tissue for research on the epigenetics of stress.

Comparisons of methylomic variation across blood and brain suggest that blood-based EWAS may yield limited information relating to underlying pathological processes for disorders where brain is the primary tissue of interest.”

1. The comment on “epigenetic epidemiology” overstated the study’s findings because the epigenetic analysis, although thorough, was limited to peripheral blood DNA methylation. Other consequential epigenetic effects weren’t investigated, such as histone modifications and microRNA expression.

2. An unstated limitation was that the DNA methylation analyses were constrained by budgets. Studies like The primary causes of individual differences in DNA methylation are environmental factors point out restrictions in the methodology:

“A main limitation with studies using the Illumina 450 K array is that the platform only covers ~1.5 % of overall genomic CpGs, which are biased towards promoters and strongly underrepresented in distal regulatory elements, i.e., enhancers.

WGBS [whole-genome bisulfite sequencing] offers single-site resolution CpG methylation interrogation at full genomic coverage.

Another advantage of WGBS is its ability to access patterns of non-CpG methylation.”

I’d expect that in the future, researchers with larger budgets would reanalyze the study samples using other DNA methylation techniques.

3. The researchers started and ended the study presenting their view of human “embedding of stress” as a fact rather than a paradigm. Epigenetic effects of early life stress exposure compared and contrasted this with another substantiated view.

4. An outstanding opportunity to advance science was missed regarding intergenerational and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance:

  • Wouldn’t the parents’ blood samples and histories – derived from administering the same questionnaires their twins answered at age 18 – likely provide distant causal evidence for some of the children’s observed effects?
  • And lay the groundwork for hypotheses about aspects of future grandchildren’s physiologies and behaviors? “Analysis of DNA Methylation in Young People: Limited Evidence for an Association Between Victimization Stress and Epigenetic Variation in Blood” (not freely available) Thanks to coauthor Dr. Helen Fisher for providing the full study.

Can researchers make a difference in their fields?

The purpose and finding of this 2017 UK meta-analysis of human epigenetics and cognitive abilities was:

“A meta-analysis of the relationship between blood-based DNA methylation and cognitive function.

We identified [two] methylation sites that are linked to an aspect of executive function and global cognitive ability. The latter finding relied on a relatively crude cognitive test..which is commonly used to identify individuals at risk of dementia.

One of the two CpG sites identified was under modest genetic control..there are relatively modest methylation signatures for cognitive function.”

The review’s stated limitations included:

“It is, of course, possible that a reliable blood-based epigenetic marker of cognitive function may be several degrees of separation away from the biological processes that drive cognitive skills.

There are additional limitations of this study:

  • A varying number of participants with cognitive data available for each test;
  • Heterogeneity in relation to the ethnicity and geographical location of the participants across cohorts; and
  • Relating a blood-based methylation signature to a brain-based outcome.

A 6-year window [between ages 70 and 76] is possibly too narrow to observe substantial changes in the CpG levels.”

All of these limitations were known before the meta-analysis was planned and performed. Other “possible” limitations already known by the 47 coauthors include those from Genetic statistics don’t necessarily predict the effects of an individual’s genes.

The paper referenced studies to justify the efforts, such as one (cited twice) coauthored by the lead author of A problematic study of DNA methylation in frontal cortex development and schizophrenia:

“Epigenome-wide studies of other brain-related outcomes, such as schizophrenia, have identified putative blood-based methylation signatures.”

Was this weak-sauce meta-analysis done just to plump up 47 CVs? Why can’t researchers investigate conditions that could make a difference in their fields?

Was this meta-analysis done mainly because the funding was available? I’ve heard that the primary reason there are papers like the doubly-cited one above is that the US NIMH funds few other types of research outside of their biomarker dogma.

The opportunity costs of this genre of research are staggering. Were there no more productive topics that these 47 scientists could have investigated?

Here are a few more-promising research areas where epigenetic effects can be observed in human behavior and physiology:

I hope that the researchers value their professions enough to make a difference with these or other areas of their expertise. And that sponsors won’t thwart researchers’ desires for difference-making science by putting them into endless funding queues. “Meta-analysis of epigenome-wide association studies of cognitive abilities”