Prenatal stress heightened adult chronic pain

This 2019 McGill rodent study found:

Prenatal stress exacerbates pain after injury. Analysis of mRNA expression of genes related to epigenetic regulation and stress responses in the frontal cortex and hippocampus, brain structures implicated in chronic pain, showed distinct sex and region-specific patterns of dysregulation.

In general, mRNA expression was most frequently altered in the male hippocampus and effects of prenatal stress were more prevalent than effects of nerve injury. Recent studies investigating chronic pain-related pathology in the hippocampus in humans and in rodent models demonstrate functional abnormalities in the hippocampus, changes in associated behavior, and decreases in adult hippocampal neurogenesis.

The change in expression of epigenetic- and stress-related genes is not a consequence of nerve injury but rather precedes nerve injury, consistent with the hypothesis that it might play a causal role in modulating the phenotypic response to nerve injury. These findings demonstrate the impact of prenatal stress on behavioral sensitivity to a painful injury.

Decreased frontal mRNA expression of BDNF and BDNF IV in male offspring following neuropathic pain or prenatal stress respectively. Relative mRNA expression of other stress-related genes (GR17, FKBP5) and epigenetic-related genes (DNMTs, TETs, HDACs, MBDs, MeCP2) in male offspring.

A drastic decrease in expression of HDAC1 was observed in all groups compared to sham-control animals. CCI: chronic constriction injury.”

The study’s design was similar to the PRS (prenatal restraint stress) model, except that the PRS procedure covered gestational days 11 to 21 (birth):

“Prenatal stress was induced on Embryonic days 13 to 17 by restraining the pregnant dams in transparent cylinder with 5 mm water, under bright light exposure, 3 times per day for 45 min.”

None of the French, Italian, and Swiss PRS studies were cited.

The limitation section included:

  1. “Although our study shows significant changes in expression of epigenetic enzymes, it didn’t examine the impact of these changes on genes that are epigenetically regulated by this machinery or their involvement in intensifying pain responses.
  2. The current study is limited by the focus on changes in gene expression which do not necessarily correlate with changes in protein expression.
  3. Another limitation of this study is the inability to distinguish the direct effects of stress in utero vs. changes in the dam’s maternal behavior due to stress during pregnancy; cross-fostering studies are needed to address this issue.
  4. Functional experiments that involve up and down regulation of epigenetic enzymes in specific brain regions are required to establish a causal role for these processes in chronic pain.”

What do you think about possible human applicability of this study’s “effects of prenatal stress were more prevalent than effects of nerve injury” finding?

What professional would recognize that if a person’s mother was stressed while pregnant, a painful injury could cause less prevalent biological and behavioral effects than their prenatal experiences? “Prenatal maternal stress is associated with increased sensitivity to neuropathic pain and sex-specific changes in supraspinal mRNA expression of epigenetic- and stress-related genes in adulthood” (not freely available)

An epigenetic clock review by committee

This 2019 worldwide review of epigenetic clocks was a semi-anonymous mishmash of opinions, facts, hypotheses, unwarranted extrapolations, and beliefs. The diversity of viewpoints among the 21 coauthors wasn’t evident.

1. Citations of the coauthors’ works seemed excessive, and they apologized for omissions. However, Challenge 5 was titled “Single-cell analysis of aging changes and disease” and Table 1 “Major biological and analytic issues with epigenetic DNA methylation clocks” had single-cell analysis as the Proposed solution to five of the Significant issues. Yet studies such as High-Resolution Single-Cell DNA Methylation Measurements Reveal Epigenetically Distinct Hematopoietic Stem Cell Subpopulations were unmentioned.

2. Some coauthors semi-anonymously expressed faith that using current flawed methodologies in the future – only more thoroughly, with newer equipment, etc. – would yield better results. If the 21 coauthors were asked their viewpoints of Proposed solutions to the top three Significant issues of epigenetic clocks, what would they emphasize when quoted?

3. Techniques were praised:

“Given the precision with which DNA methylation clock age can be estimated and evolving measures of biological, phenotype-, and disease-related age (e.g., PhenoAge, GrimAge)..”

Exactly why these techniques have at times produced inexplicable results wasn’t examined, though. Two examples:

  • In Reversal of aging and immunosenescent trends, the Levine PhenoAge methodology estimated that the 51-65 year old subjects’ biological ages at the beginning of the study averaged 17.5 years less than their chronological age. Comparing that to the Horvath average biological age of 3.95 years less raised the question: exactly why did PhenoAge show such a large difference?
  • The paper mentioned the GrimAge methodology findings about “smoking-related changes.” But it didn’t explain why the GrimAge methylation findings most closely associated with smoking history also accurately predicted future disease risk with non-smokers.

Eluding explanations for these types of findings didn’t help build confidence in the methodologies.

4. A more readable approach to review by committee could have coauthors – in at least one section – answer discussion questions, as Reversing epigenetic T cell exhaustion did with 18 experts. “DNA methylation aging clocks: challenges and recommendations”

A review of fetal adverse events

This 2019 Australian review subject was fetal adversities:

“Adversity during the perinatal period is a significant risk factor for the development of neurodevelopmental disorders long after the causative event. Despite stemming from a variety of causes, perinatal compromise appears to have similar effects on the developing brain, thereby resulting in behavioural disorders of a similar nature.

These behavioural disorders occur in a sex‐dependent manner, with males affected more by externalizing behaviours such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and females by internalizing behaviours such as anxiety. The term ‘perinatal compromise’ serves as an umbrella term for intrauterine growth restriction, maternal immune activation, prenatal stress, early life stress, premature birth, placental dysfunction, and perinatal hypoxia.

The above conditions are associated with imbalanced excitatory-inhibitory pathways resulting from reduced GABAergic signalling. Methylation of the GAD1/GAD67 gene, which encodes the key glutamate‐to‐GABA synthesizing enzyme Glutamate Decarboxylase 1, resulting in increased levels of glutamate is one epigenetic mechanism that may account for a tendency towards excitation in disorders such as ADHD.

The posterior cerebellum’s role in higher executive functioning is becoming well established due to its connections with the prefrontal cortex, association cortices, and limbic system. It is now suggested that disruptions to cerebellar development, which can occur due to late gestation compromises such as preterm birth, can have a major impact on the region of the brain to which it projects.

Activation of the maternal hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis and placental protection. Psychological stress is perceived by the maternal HPA axis, which stimulates cortisol release from the maternal adrenal gland.

High levels of maternal cortisol are normally prevented from reaching the fetus by the 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase 2 (HSD11B2) enzyme, which converts cortisol to the much less active cortisone. Under conditions of high maternal stress, this protective mechanism can be overwhelmed, with the gene encoding the enzyme becoming methylated, which reduces its expression allowing cortisol to cross the placenta and reach the fetus.”

The reviewers extrapolated many animal study findings to humans, although most of their own work was with guinea pigs. The “suggest” and “may” qualifiers were used often – 22 and 37 times, respectively. More frequent use of the “appears,” “hypothesize,” “propose,” and “possible” terms was justified.

As a result, many reviewed items such as the above graphic and caption should be viewed as hypothetical for humans rather than reflecting solid evidence from quality human studies.

The reviewers focused on the prenatal (before birth) period more than the perinatal (last trimester of pregnancy to one month after birth) period. There were fewer mentions of birth and early infancy adversities. “Perinatal compromise contributes to programming of GABAergic and Glutamatergic systems leading to long-term effects on offspring behaviour” (not freely available)

A GWAS meta-analysis of two epigenetic clocks

This 2019 UK human study conducted a meta-analysis of genome-wide association studies of two epigenetic clocks using 13,493 European-ancestry individuals aged between ten and 98 years:

“Horvath-EAA, described in previous publications as ‘intrinsic’ epigenetic age acceleration (IEAA), can be interpreted as a measure of cell-intrinsic ageing that exhibits preservation across multiple tissues, appears unrelated to lifestyle factors, and probably indicates a fundamental cell ageing process that is largely conserved across cell types.

In contrast, Hannum-EAA, referred to in previous studies as ‘extrinsic’ epigenetic age acceleration (EEAA), can be considered a biomarker of immune system ageing, explicitly incorporating aspects of immune system decline such as age-related changes in blood cell counts, correlating with lifestyle and health-span related characteristics, and thus yielding a stronger predictor of all-cause mortality.

The meta-analysis of Horvath-EAA identified ten independent associated SNPs [single nucleotide polymorphisms], doubling the number reported to date, and highlighted 21 genes involved in Horvath-based epigenetic ageing. Four of the ten Horvath-EAA-associated SNPs are mQTL [methylation quantitative trait loci] for CpGs used in the Horvath/Hannum epigenetic clocks. A possible interpretation of this is that the functional mechanism by which these SNPs influence the rate of biological ageing is via altering methylation levels.

Father’s age at death, a rough proxy for lifespan, was nominally significantly correlated with both EAA measures, and parents’ age at death was additionally correlated with Hannum-EAA. Aside from these, genetic correlations with age-related traits were surprisingly few: it is possible that this could reflect an overly conservative correction for the multiple tests carried out, or low statistical power, rather than a genuine lack of correlations.

Genetic correlation analysis should be restricted to GWAS with a heritability Z-score of 4 or more, on the grounds of interpretability and power, so the Horvath-based results particularly should be interpreted with caution.”

A non-apologetic way to explain the above graphic is that NONE of these 218 “health and behavioral traits” were any more associated with the studied genetic measurements than would be expected by chance!

Fervent believers in the GWAS methodology’s capability to exactly predict individual phenotypes eventually become victims of the scientific method. These GWAS researchers griped about “overly conservative correction, or low statistical power” and other predictable shortfalls, and ended a long limitations statement with:

“While we have identified a number of SNPs and genes significantly associated with EAA, including genes already known to be related to ageing, the analyses presented here fall short of providing a mechanistic explanation for how these variants and genes act to influence biological age.”

Outside of beliefs, it’s hard to understand why research money keeps pouring into the GWAS dead end. If these researchers and their employing institution and sponsors want to make a difference in human lives, they need to get busy in other areas.

These researchers were employed by the same institution that couldn’t be bothered to scrape together six more weeks of funds to study the transgenerational damaging effects of acetaminophen – an analgesic available to billions of people – in Epigenetics research that was designed to fall one step short of wonderful. “A meta-analysis of genome-wide association studies of epigenetic age acceleration”

Restrict information in the name of science?

A Stanford researcher was annoyed that we live in the 21st century, and advocated we return to previous centuries’ information-flow check valves of wise old men. No doubt the publishers of and subscribers to the Journal of the American Medical Association applauded the same old tired prescription.

Ten instances of the word “should” in the final two paragraphs provided ample evidence of the paper’s intent. Mirroring the current political climate, accusations made of others were items the accusers were guilty of themselves, such as:

“When these scientists act as investigators in the hundreds of observational studies that they publish, or as editors and peer reviewers in evaluating submissions from others, would they tolerate publishing analyses and funding proposals that might contradict their belief system?” “Neglecting Major Health Problems and Broadcasting Minor, Uncertain Issues in Lifestyle Science”

One of the paper’s references included an informative graphic:

“A histogram of the total number of rumor cascades in our data across the seven most frequent topical categories.” “The spread of true and false news online”

I’ll borrow from the curation of another Stanford paper Online dating cuts out the middlemen in conclusion:

“Are there examples where it wouldn’t potentially improve a person’s life to choose their information sources? Friends, family, and other social groups – and religious, educational, and other institutions – have had their middlemen/guarantor time, and have been found lacking.

Make your own choices for your one precious life.”

Perinatal stress and sex differences in circadian activity

This 2019 French/Italian rodent study used the PRS model to investigate its effects on circadian activity:

“The aim of this study was to explore the influence of PRS on the circadian oscillations of gene expression in the SCN [suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus] and on circadian locomotor behavior, in a sex-dependent manner.

Research on transcriptional rhythms has shown that more than half of all genes in the human and rodent genome follow a circadian pattern. We focused on genes belonging to four functional classes, namely the circadian clock, HPA axis stress response regulation, signaling and glucose metabolism in male and female adult PRS rats.

Our findings provide evidence for a specific profile of dysmasculinization induced by PRS at the behavioral and molecular level, thus advocating the necessity to include sex as a biological variable to study the set-up of circadian system in animal models.”

“There was a clear-cut effect of sex on the effect of PRS on the levels of activity:

  • During the period of lower activity (light phase), both CONT and PRS females were more active than males. During the light phase, PRS increased activity in males, which reached levels of CONT females.
  • More interestingly, during the period of activity (dark phase), male PRS rats were more active than male CONT rats. In contrast, female PRS rats were less active than CONT females.
  • During the dark phase, CONT female rats were less active than CONT male rats.

The study presented evidence for sex differences in circadian activity of first generation offspring that was caused by stress experienced by the pregnant mother:

“Exposure to gestational stress and altered maternal behavior programs a life-long disruption in the reactive adaptation such as:

  •  A hyperactive response to stress and
  • A defective feedback of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis together with
  • Long-lasting modifications in stress/anti-stress gene expression balance in the hippocampus.”

It would advance science if these researchers carried out experiments to two more generations to investigate possible transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of effects caused by PRS. What intergenerational and transgenerational effects would they possibly find by taking a few more months and extending research efforts to F2 and F3 generations? Wouldn’t these findings likely help humans?

One aspect of the study was troubling. One of the marginally-involved coauthors was funded by the person described in How one person’s paradigms regarding stress and epigenetics impedes relevant research. Although no part of the current study was sponsored by that person, there were three gratuitous citations of their work.

All three citations were reviews. Unlike study researchers, reviewers aren’t bound to demonstrate evidence from tested hypotheses. Reviewers are free to:

  • Express their beliefs as facts;
  • Over/under emphasize study limitations; and
  • Disregard and misrepresent evidence as they see fit.

Fair or not, comparisons of reviews with Cochrane meta-analyses of the same subjects consistently show the extent of reviewers’ biases. Reviewers also aren’t obligated to make post-publication corrections for their errors and distortions.

As such, reviews can’t be cited for reliable evidence. Higher-quality studies that were more relevant and recent than a 1993 review could have elucidated points.

Sucking up to the boss and endorsing their paradigm was predictable. Since that coauthor couldn’t constrain themself to funder citations only in funder studies, it was the other coauthors’ responsibilities to edit out unnecessary citations. “Perinatal Stress Programs Sex Differences in the Behavioral and Molecular Chronobiological Profile of Rats Maintained Under a 12-h Light-Dark Cycle”

Would you return a lost wallet?

The researchers in this 2019 Swiss/US study intentionally “lost” > 17,000 wallets under experimental conditions:

“We conducted field experiments in 40 countries to examine whether people act more dishonestly when they have a greater economic incentive to do so, and we found the opposite to be true. Citizens were more likely to return wallets that contained relatively larger amounts of money. Neither nonexperts nor professional economists were able to predict this result.

When people stand to heavily profit from engaging in dishonest behavior, the desire to cheat increases but so do the psychological costs of viewing oneself as a thief.”

The study did well in some aspects, including publicity. However:

1. The researchers admitted in the final paragraph:

“Using average reporting rates across countries, we find substantial variation in rates of civic honesty, ranging from 14 to 76%. This variation largely persists even when controlling for a country’s gross domestic product, suggesting that other factors besides a country’s wealth are also at play.”

Yet the paper’s first page contained the above graphic, which used each country’s GDP as a dependent variable! Wasn’t a behavioral economics study of honesty required to present their data honestly, and use factors that were experimentally significant?

2. “Other play” were relegated to the supplementary materials. The paper was only three-and-a-half pages long, so there was room for further explanations.

Here’s one comment on cultural differences from a Chinese PhD student:

“Biased design. In China (and Asian countries), people seldom use email, and our merit is to leave things untouched (“路不拾遗“:no one picks up lost articles in the street (idiom)).”

3. The study design had nothing to do with avoiding taxes, but three of the four sentences in the paper’s first paragraph did. This impressed as pointless. “Civic honesty around the globe” (not freely available)