Transgenerational effects of early environmental insults on aging and disease

The first paper of Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance week was a 2017 Canadian/Netherlands review that’s organized as follows:

“First, we address mechanisms of developmental and transgenerational programming of disease and inheritance. Second, we discuss experimental and clinical findings linking early environmental determinants to adverse aging trajectories in association with possible parental contributions and sex-specific effects. Third, we outline the main mechanisms of age-related functional decline and suggest potential interventions to reverse negative effects of transgenerational programming.”

A transgenerational phenotype was defined as an epigenetic modification that was maintained at least either to the F2 grandchildren in the paternal lineage or to the F3 great-grandchildren in the maternal lineage.

The reviewers noted that the mechanisms of transgenerational programming are complex and multivariate.  The severity, timing, and type of exposure, lineage of transmission, germ cell exposure, and gender of an organism were the main factors that may determine the consequences. The mechanisms reviewed were:

  1. Parental exposure to an adverse environment;
  2. Altered maternal behavior and care of the offspring; and
  3. Experience-dependent modifications of the epigenome.

There was a long list of diseases and impaired functionalities that were consequences of ancestral experiences and exposures. Most of the studies were animal, but a few were human, such as those done on effects of extended power outages during the Quebec ice storm of January 1998.


One intervention that was effective in reversing a transgenerational phenotype induced by deficient rodent maternal care was to place pups with a caring foster female soon after birth. It’s probably unacceptable in human societies to preemptively recognize all poor-care human mothers and remove the infant to caring foster mothers, but researchers could probably find enough instances to develop studies of the effectiveness of the placements in reversing a transgenerational phenotype.

The review didn’t have suggestions for reversing human transgenerational phenotypes, just  “..potential interventions to reverse negative effects of transgenerational programming.” The interventions suggested for humans – exercise, enriched lifestyle, cognitive training, dietary regimens, and expressive art and writing therapies – only reduced the impact of transgenerational epigenetic effects.

The tricky wording of “..reverse negative effects of transgenerational programming” showed that research paradigms weren’t aimed at resolving causes. The review is insufficient for the same reasons mentioned in How one person’s paradigms regarding stress and epigenetics impedes relevant research, prompting my same comment:

“Aren’t people interested in human treatments of originating causes so that their various symptoms don’t keep bubbling up? Why wouldn’t research paradigms be aligned accordingly?”

When reversals of human transgenerational phenotypes aren’t researched, the problems compound as they’re transmitted to the next generations.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014976341630714X “Transgenerational effects of early environmental insults on aging and disease incidence” (not freely available)

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Parental lying thwarted both their children and researchers

This 2017 German human study explored the relationship between birth stress and handedness. The authors summarized previous research which, among other points, estimated epigenetic contributions to handedness as great as 75%.

The study hit a snag in its reliance on the sixty participants (average age 24) completing, with the assistance of their parents and medical records, a 24-item questionnaire of maternal health problems during pregnancy, substance use during pregnancy, and birth complications. The subjects didn’t provide accurate information. For example:

  • Only one of the subjects reported maternal alcohol use during pregnancy. An expected number would have been 26.
  • None of the subjects reported maternal mental illness during pregnancy. An expected number would have been at least 7.

The subjects’ parents willingly misled their children about facts of their child’s important earliest development periods. This is unethical to the children in that once it is recognized, it diminishes or destroys the society among family members. This study’s example is also of general interest to anyone who values not being lied to, like me.

As I mentioned on the Welcome page, lies and omissions ruin the standard scientific methodology of surveying parents and caregivers. The absence of evidence greatly increased the difficulty for researchers in determining causes of epigenetic effects still present in the subjects’ lives.

The parental lying is again unethical in that it diminished or destroyed the society between the sources of information – the research subjects – and the users of the information. It adversely affected anyone who values evidence-based research. The research hypothesis itself was worthwhile based on the prior studies cited and elsewhere such as Is what’s true for a population what’s true for an individual?.

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1357650X.2017.1377726 “DNA methylation in candidate genes for handedness predicts handedness direction” (not freely available)

Epigenetic stress effects in preterm infants

This 2017 Italian review selected 9 human studies on the epigenetic effects of:

“..one of the major adverse events in human development. Preterm infants are hospitalized in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where they are exposed to life-saving yet pain-inducing procedures and to protective care.”

Highlights of the referenced studies included:

  • “..early exposure to adverse events during the third trimester of pregnancy is capable to alter the epigenetic status of imprinted and placenta-related genes which have relevant implications for fetal development and preterm infants’ HPA [hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal] stress reactivity during infancy.”
  • “..there was an association between DNAm [DNA methylation] and white matter tract tissue integrity and shape inferred from dMRI [diffusion MRI], suggesting that epigenetic variation may contribute to the cerebral phenotype of preterm birth.”

Limitations of the referenced studies included:

  • “A multiple sampling design that includes parental samples, placental tissue, cord blood and extends across the life-course would be required to investigate the relative contributions of in utero and postnatal exposures to changes in DNAm, and the extent to which preterm birth leaves a legacy on the methylome.”
  • Saliva, blood, and other tissues’ DNA methylation may not produce valid links to brain tissue DNA methylation of the same gene, which may hamper conclusive inferences about behavior, etc.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763417302117 “Preterm Behavioral Epigenetics: A systematic review” (not freely available)

http://www.nature.com/tp/journal/v6/n1/full/tp2015210a.html “Epigenomic profiling of preterm infants reveals DNA methylation differences at sites associated with neural function” (one of the studies selected, quoted above)

The hypothalamus couples with the brainstem to cause migraines

This 2016 German human study with one subject found:

“The hypothalamus to be the primary generator of migraine attacks which, due to specific interactions with specific areas in the higher and lower brainstem, could alter the activity levels of the key regions of migraine pathophysiology.”

The subject underwent daily fMRI scans, and procedures to evoke brain activity. She didn’t take any medications, and suffered three migraine attacks during the 31-day experimental period.

Neuroskeptic commented:

“The dorsal pons has previously been found to be hyperactive during migraine. It’s been dubbed the brain’s ‘migraine generator.’ Schulte and May’s data suggest that this is not entirely true – rather, it looks like the hypothalamus may be the true generator of migraine, while the brainstem could be a downstream mediator of the disorder.

A hypothalamic origin of migraines would help to explain some of the symptoms of the disorder, such as changes in appetite, that often accompany the headaches.”


The above graphic looks like the result of feedback mechanisms that either didn’t exist or inadequately handled the triggering event. Other examples of the hypothalamus lacking feedback or being involved in a deviated feedback loop include:

There are many unanswered questions with a one-person study, of course. Addressing the cause of this painful condition would find out when, where, and how a person’s hypothalamus became modified to express migraine tendencies.

I’d guess that migraine tendencies may appear as early as the first trimester of pregnancy, given that a highly functional hypothalamus is needed for survival and development in our earliest lives. Gaining as much familial and historical information as possible from the person would be necessary steps in therapies that address migraine causes.

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/2016/05/22/pinpointing-origins-of-migraine/ “Pinpointing the Origins of Migraine in the Brain”

Observing pain in others had long-lasting brain effects

This 2016 Israeli human study used whole-head magnetoencephalography (MEG) to study pain perception in military veterans:

Our findings demonstrate alterations in pain perception following extreme pain exposure, chart the sequence from automatic to evaluative pain processing, and emphasize the importance of considering past experiences in studying the neural response to others’ states.

Differences in brain activation to ‘pain’ and ‘no pain’ in the PCC [posterior cingulate cortex] emerged only among controls. This suggests that prior exposure to extreme pain alters the typical brain response to pain by blurring the distinction between painful and otherwise identical but nonpainful stimuli, and that this blurring of the ‘pain effect’ stems from increased responses to ‘no pain’ rather than from attenuated response to pain.”


Limitations included:

  • “The pain-exposed participants showed posttraumatic symptoms, which may also be related to the observed alterations in the brain response to pain.
  • We did not include pain threshold measurements. However, the participants’ sensitivity to experienced pain may have had an effect on the processing of observed pain.
  • The regions of interest for the examination of pain processing in the pain-exposed group were defined on the basis of the results identified in the control group.
  • We did not detect pain-related activations in additional regions typically associated with pain perception, such as the anterior insula and ACC. This may be related to differences between the MEG and fMRI neuroimaging approaches.”

The subjects self-administered oxytocin or placebo per the study’s design. However:

“We chose to focus on the placebo condition and to test group differences at baseline only, in light of the recent criticism on underpowered oxytocin administration studies, and thus all following analyses are reported for the placebo condition.”


A few questions:

  1. If observing others’ pain caused “increased responses to ‘no pain’,” wouldn’t the same effect or more be expected from experiencing one’s own pain?
  2. If there’s evidence for item 1, then why aren’t “increased responses to ‘no pain'” of affected people overtly evident in everyday life?
  3. If item 2 is often observed, then what are the neurobiological consequences for affected people’s suppression of “increased responses to ‘no pain’?”
  4. Along with the effects of item 3, what may be behavioral, emotional, and other evidence of this suppressed pain effect?
  5. What would it take for affected people to regain a normal processing of others’ “‘pain’ and ‘no pain’?”

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/299546838_Prior_exposure_to_extreme_pain_alters_neural_response_to_pain_in_others “Prior exposure to extreme pain alters neural response to pain in others” Thanks to one of the authors, Ruth Feldman, for providing the full study

Empathy, value, pain, control: Psychological functions of the human striatum

This 2016 US human study found:

“A link between existing data on the anatomical and physiological characteristics of striatal regions and psychological functions.

Because we did not limit our metaanalysis to studies that specifically targeted striatal function, our results extend previous knowledge of the involvement of the striatum in reward-related decision-making tasks, and provide a detailed functional map of regional specialization for diverse psychological functions, some of which are sometimes thought of as being the exclusive domain of the PFC [prefrontal cortex].”

The analysis led to dividing the striatum into five segments:

Ventral striatum (VS):

  • Stimulus Value
  • Terms such as “reward,” “losses,” and “craving”
  • The most representative study reported that monetary and social rewards activate overlapping regions within the VS.
  • Together with the above finding of a reliable coactivation with OFC [orbitofrontal cortex] and ventromedial PFC, this finding suggests a broad involvement of this area in representing stimulus value and related stimulus-driven motivational states.

Anterior caudate (Ca) Nucleus:

  • Incentive Behavior
  • Terms such as “grasping,” “reaching,” and “reinforcement”
  • The most representative study reported a stronger blood-oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) response in this region during trials in which participants had a chance of winning or losing money in a card guessing game, in comparison to trials where participants merely received feedback about the accuracy of their guess.
  • This result suggests a role in evaluating the value of different actions, contrasting with the above role of the VS in evaluating the value of stimuli.

Posterior putamen (Pp):

  • Sensorimotor Processes
  • Terms such as “foot,” “noxious,” and “taste”
  • The most representative study reported activation of this region in response to painful stimulation at the back of the left hand and foot of participants. Anatomically, the most reliable and specific coactivation is with sensorimotor cortices, and the posterior and midinsula and operculum (secondary somatosensory cortex SII) in particular, some parts of which are specifically associated with pain.
  • Together, these findings suggest a broad involvement of this area in sensorimotor functions, including aspects of their affective qualities.

Anterior putamen (Pa):

  • Social- and Language-Related Functions
  • Terms such as “read,” “vocal,” and “empathic”
  • The most representative study partially supports a role of this area in social- and language-related functions; it reported a stronger activation of the Pa in experienced singers, but not when novices were singing.
  • It is coactivated with frontal areas anterior to the ones coactivated with the Pp, demonstrating topography in frontostriatal associations. These anterior regions have been implicated in language processes.

Posterior caudate (Cp) Nucleus:

  • Executive Functions
  • Terms such as “causality,” “rehearsal,” and “arithmetic”
  • The representative study reported this region to be part of a network that included dorsolateral PFC and ACC, which supported inhibitory control and task set-shifting.
  • These results suggest a broad, and previously underappreciated, role for the Cp in cognitive control.

The authors presented comparisons of the above striatal segments with other analyses of striatal zones.


One of the coauthors was the lead researcher of the 2015 Advance science by including emotion in research. The current study similarly used a coactivation view rather than a connectivity paradigm of:

“Inferring striatal function indirectly via psychological functions of connected cortical regions.”

Another of the coauthors was a developer of the system used by the current study and by The function of the dorsal ACC is to monitor pain in survival contexts, and he provided feedback to those authors regarding proper use of the system.


The researchers’ “unbiased, data-driven approach” had to work around the cortical biases evident in many of the 5,809 human imaging studies analyzed. The authors referred to the biases in statements such as:

“The majority of studies investigating these psychological functions report activity preferentially in cortical areas, except for studies investigating reward-related and motor functions.”

The methods and results of research with cortical biases influenced the study’s use of:

“Word frequencies of psychological terms in the full text of studies, rather than a detailed analysis of psychological tasks and statistical contrasts.”

http://www.pnas.org/content/113/7/1907.full “Regional specialization within the human striatum for diverse psychological functions”

Does vasopressin increase mutually beneficial cooperation?

This 2016 German human study found:

“Intranasal administration of arginine vasopressin (AVP), a hormone that regulates mammalian social behaviors such as monogamy and aggression, increases humans’ tendency to engage in mutually beneficial cooperation.

AVP increases humans’ willingness to cooperate. That increase is not due to an increase in the general willingness to bear risks or to altruistically help others.”


One limitation of the study was that the subjects were all males, ages 19-32. The study’s title was “human risky cooperative behavior” while omitting subjects representing the majority of humanity.

Although the researchers claimed brain effects from vasopressin administration, they didn’t provide direct evidence for the internasally administered vasopressin in the subjects’ brains. A similar point was made about studies of vasopressin’s companion neuropeptide, oxytocin, in Testing the null hypothesis of oxytocin’s effects in humans.

A third limitation was that although the researchers correlated brain activity with social behaviors, they didn’t carry out all of the tests necessary to demonstrate the claimed “novel causal evidence for a biological factor underlying cooperation.” Per Confusion may be misinterpreted as altruism and prosocial behavior, the researchers additionally needed to:

“When attempting to measure social behaviors, it is not sufficient to merely record decisions with behavioral consequences and then infer social preferences. One also needs to manipulate these consequences to test whether this affects the behavior.”

http://www.pnas.org/content/113/8/2051.full “Vasopressin increases human risky cooperative behavior”