Do you have your family’s detailed medical histories?

Imagine that you were a parent who puzzled over the mystery of your pre-teen daughter’s hyperactive behavior. Without detailed family medical histories, would anyone recognize this as a preprogammed phenotype? Could anyone trace the daughter’s behavior back to her maternal great-grandmother being treated with glucocorticoids near the end of the second trimester of carrying her grandfather?

Such was a finding of a 2017 Canadian guinea pig study that was undertaken to better inform physicians of the transgenerationally inherited epigenetic effects of glucocorticoid treatments commonly prescribed during human pregnancies:

“This study presents the first evidence that prenatal treatment with sGC [synthetic glucocorticoid] results in transgenerational paternal transmission of hyperactivity and altered hypothalamic gene expression through three generations of young offspring. Female offspring appear to be more sensitive than male offspring to the programming effects of sGC, which suggests an interaction between sGC and sex hormones or sex-linked genes. Paternal transmission to F3 strongly implicates epigenetic mechanisms in the process of transmission, and small noncoding RNAs likely play a major role.”

Some details of the study included:

Veh[icle] was the control group initially treated with saline.

The study was informative and conclusive for the aspects studied. From the Methods section:

“Data from same-sex littermates were meaned to prevent litter bias. Sample sizes (N) correspond to independent litters, and not to the total number of offspring across all litters.

Power analyses based on previous studies determined N ≥ 8 sufficient to account for inter-litter variability and detect effects in the tests performed.” “Prenatal Glucocorticoid Exposure Modifies Endocrine Function and Behaviour for 3 Generations Following Maternal and Paternal Transmission”


What is a father’s role in epigenetic inheritance?

The agenda of this 2017 Danish review was to establish a paternal role in intergenerational and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of metabolic diseases:

“There are four windows of susceptibility which have major importance for epigenetic inheritance of acquired paternal epigenetic changes:

  1. paternal primordial germ cell (PGC) development,
  2. prospermatogonia stages,
  3. spermatogenesis, and
  4. during preimplantation.”

The review was a long read as the authors discussed animal studies. When it came to human studies near the paper’s end, though, the tone was of a “we know this is real, we just have to find it” variety. The authors acknowledged:

“To what extent the described DNA methylation changes influence the future health status of offspring by escaping remodeling in the preimplantation period as well as in future generations by escaping remodeling in PGC remodeling has yet to be determined.

These studies have not yet provided an in-depth understanding of the specific mechanisms behind epigenetic inheritance or exact effect size for the disease risk in offspring.

Pharmacological approaches have reached their limits..”

before presenting their belief that a hypothetical series of future CRISPR-Cas9 experiments will demonstrate the truth of their agenda.

The review focused on 0.0001% of the prenatal period for what matters with the human male – who he was at the time of a Saturday night drunken copulation – regarding intergenerational and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of metabolic diseases. The human female’s role – who she was at conception AND THEN what she does or doesn’t do during the remaining 99.9999% of the prenatal period to accommodate the fetus and prevent further adverse epigenetic effects from being intergenerationally and transgenerationally transmitted  – wasn’t discussed.

Who benefits from this agenda’s narrow focus?

If the review authors sincerely want to:

“..raise societal awareness of behavior to prevent a further rise in the prevalence of metabolic diseases in future generations..”

then earn it! Design and implement human studies to test what’s already known from epigenetic inheritance animal studies per Experience-induced transgenerational programming of neuronal structure and functions. “DNA methylation in epigenetic inheritance of metabolic diseases through the male germ line”

An update on brain zapping

This 2017 general-audience article entitled Ultrasound for the brain provided a hyped update on brain zapping:

“Ultrasound could potentially treat other movement disorders, as well as depression, anxiety and a host of intract­able neuropsychiatric disorders..

This could be a breakthrough..

Researchers hope one day to help people with neuropsychiatric conditions by repairing or resetting the relevant neural pathways..

The potential advantages, especially for deep brain areas, are huge..”

Though not the main thrust of the article, another potential use of ultrasound would be to activate drugs delivered to a specific area, as this image portrays:

Vanderbilt University was again at the forefront of brain zapping, as noted in What’s an appropriate control group for a schizophrenia study? for example. I hope the disclaimers for subjects participating in Vanderbilt’s brain-zapping studies made it clear that:

“At high intensities, such as those used to relieve essential tremor, ultrasound’s effects are largely thermal: the tissue heats up and cells die.”

Beliefs about genetic and environmental influences in twin studies

This 2017 Penn State simulation found:

“By taking advantage of the natural variation in genetic relatedness among identical (monozygotic: MZ) and fraternal (dizygotic: DZ) twins, twin studies are able to estimate genetic and environmental contributions to complex human behaviors.

In the standard biometric model when MZ or DZ twin similarity differs from 1.00 or 0.50, respectively, the variance that should be attributed to genetic influences is instead attributed to nonshared environmental influences, thus deflating the estimates of genetic influences and inflating the estimates of nonshared environmental influences.

Although estimates of genetic and nonshared environmental influences from the standard biometric model were found to deviate from “true” values, the bias was usually smaller than 10% points indicating that the interpretations of findings from previous twin studies are mostly correct.”

The study model’s input was five phenotypes that varied the degrees of:

  1. Genetic and epigenetic heritability;
  2. Shared environmental factors; and
  3. Nonshared environmental factors.

Item 1 above was different than the standard model’s treatment of heritable factors, which considers only additive genetic influences.

The authors cited studies for moderate and significant shared environmental influences in child and adolescent psychopathology and parenting to support the model’s finding that overall, item 2 above wasn’t underestimated.

I wasn’t satisfied with the simulation’s description of item 1 above. With environmental influences accounted for elsewhere, and no references to transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, randomness seemed to be the only remaining explanation for an epigenetic heritability factor.

Inserting the model’s non-environmental randomness explanation for epigenetic heritability into the abstract’s statement above exposes the non sequitur:

In the standard biometric model when MZ or DZ twin similarity differs from 1.00 or 0.50, respectively, the variance that should be attributed to genetic [and non-environmental stochastic heritability] influences is instead attributed to nonshared environmental influences, thus deflating the estimates of genetic [and non-environmental stochastic heritability] influences and inflating the estimates of nonshared environmental influences.

Why did the researchers design their model with an adjustment for non-environmental epigenetic heritability? Maybe it had something to do with:

“..estimates of genetic and nonshared environmental influences from the standard biometric model were found to deviate from “true” values.”

Empirical rather than simulated findings in human twin study research are more compelling, such as The primary causes of individual differences in DNA methylation are environmental factors with its finding:

“Differential methylation is primarily non-genetic in origin, with non-shared environment accounting for most of the variance. These non-genetic effects are mainly tissue-specific.

The full scope of environmental variation remains underappreciated.”

In any event, I didn’t see that this simulation was much more than an attempt to reaffirm a belief that:

“..the interpretations of findings from previous twin studies are mostly correct.” “The Impact of Variation in Twin Relatedness on Estimates of Heritability and Environmental Influences” (not freely available)

One example of how experience changes the brain

This 2017 California rodent study found:

“Neural representations within the mouse hypothalamus, that underlie innate social behaviours, are shaped by social experience.

In sexually and socially experienced adult males, divergent and characteristic neural ensembles represented male versus female conspecifics [members of the same species]. However, in inexperienced adult males, male and female intruders activated overlapping neuronal populations.

Sex-specific neuronal ensembles gradually separated as the mice acquired social and sexual experience. In mice permitted to investigate but not to mount or attack conspecifics, ensemble divergence did not occur. However, 30 minutes of sexual experience with a female was sufficient to promote the separation of male and female ensembles.

These observations uncover an unexpected social experience-dependent component to the formation of hypothalamic neural assemblies controlling innate social behaviours. More generally, they reveal plasticity and dynamic coding in an evolutionarily ancient deep subcortical structure that is traditionally viewed as a ‘hard-wired’ system.”

Hat tip to Neuroskeptic for both alerting me to the study and simplifying its overly-dense graphics. “Social behaviour shapes hypothalamic neural ensemble representations of conspecific sex” (not freely available)

Do preventive interventions for children of mentally ill parents work?

The fifth and final paper of Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance week was a 2017 German/Italian meta-analysis of psychiatric treatments involving human children:

“The transgenerational transmission of mental disorders is one of the most significant causes of psychiatric morbidity. Several risk factors for children of parents with mental illness (COPMI) have been identified in numerous studies and meta-analyses.

There is a dearth of high quality studies that effectively reduce the high risk of COPMI for the development of mental disorders.”

I found the study by searching a medical database on the “transgenerational” term. The authors fell into the trap of misusing “transgenerational” instead of “intergenerational” to describe individuals in different generations.

Per the definitions in A review of epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of reproductive disease and Transgenerational effects of early environmental insults on aging and disease, for the term “transgenerational transmission” to apply, the researchers needed to provide evidence in at least the next 2 male and/or 3 female generations of:

“Altered epigenetic information between generations in the absence of continued environmental exposure.”

The meta-analysis didn’t provide evidence for “transgenerational transmission of mental disorders.”

Several aspects of the meta-analysis stood out:

  1. Infancy was the earliest period of included studies, and studies of treatments before the children were born were excluded;
  2. Parents had to be diagnosed with a mental illness for the study to be included;
  3. Studies with children diagnosed with a mental illness were excluded; and
  4. Studies comparing more than one type of intervention were excluded.

Fifty worldwide studies from 1983 through 2014 were selected for the meta-analysis.

Per item 1 above, if a researcher doesn’t look for something, it’s doubtful that they will find it. As shown in the preceding papers of Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance week, the preconception and prenatal periods are when the largest epigenetic effects on an individual are found. There are fewer opportunities for effective “preventive interventions” in later life compared with these early periods.

Science provides testable explanations and predictions. The overall goal of animal studies is to help humans.

Animal studies thus provide explanations and predictions for the consequences of environmental insults to the human fetus – predictable disrupted neurodevelopment with subsequent deviated behaviors and other lifelong damaging effects in the F1 children. The first four papers I curated during Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance week provided samples of which of these and/or other harmful effects may be predictably found in F2 grandchildren, F3 great-grandchildren, and future human generations.

When will human transgenerational epigenetic inheritance be taken seriously? Is the root problem that human societies don’t give humans in the fetal stage of life a constituency, or protection against mistreatment, or even protection against being arbitrarily killed?

The default answer to the meta-analysis title “Do preventive interventions for children of mentally ill parents work?” is No. As for the “dearth of high quality studies” complaint: when treatments aren’t effective, is the solution to do more of them?


The researchers provided an example of the widespread belief that current treatments for “psychiatric morbidity” are on the right path, and that the usual treatments – only done more rigorously – will eventually provide unquestionable evidence that they are effective.

This belief is already hundreds of years old. How much longer will this unevidenced belief survive? “Do preventive interventions for children of mentally ill parents work? Results of a systematic review and meta-analysis” (not freely available)

Transgenerationally inherited epigenetic effects of fetal alcohol exposure

The fourth paper of Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance week was a 2016 German rodent study of transgenerational epigenetic effects of alcohol:

“We investigated 2 generations of offspring born to alcohol-treated mothers. Here, we show that memory impairment and reduced synthesis of acetylcholine occurs in both F1 (exposed to ethanol in utero) and F2 generation (never been exposed to ethanol). Effects in the F2 generation are most likely consequences of transgenerationally transmitted epigenetic modifications in stem cells induced by alcohol.

The results further suggest an epigenetic trait for an anticholinergic endophenotype associated with cognitive dysfunction which might be relevant to our understanding of mental impairment in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders.”

F0 generation mothers modeled human fetal alcohol syndrome. They were exposed to ethanol gradually up to 20%, then mated. The 20% ethanol intake level was maintained until the F1 generation pups were born, then gradually diminished to 0%. After a ten-day wait, an eight-week handling and shaping period started, followed by five weeks of behavioral testing.

The F1 children and F2 grandchildren started an eight-week handling and shaping period after young adulthood, followed by five weeks of behavioral testing. The F1 children were mated after behavioral testing.

The F0 parents showed no significant differences in working memory and reference memory compared with controls. Both the F1 children and F2 grandchildren were significantly impaired in the same tests compared with controls, with the F1 children performing worse than the F2 grandchildren. No sex-dependent differences were noted.

After behavioral impairments due to transgenerationally transmitted epigenetic modifications were established, the F2 grandchildren received treatments to ascertain the contribution of cholinergic dysfunction in their behavioral impairments. It was confirmed, as an acetylcholine esterase inhibitor that crosses the blood-brain barrier almost completely erased working-memory and reference-memory performance deficits.

Items in the Discussion section included:

  • A dozen studies from 2014-2016 were cited for epigenetic mechanisms of transgenerational inheritance stemming from parental alcohol consumption; and
  • Transgenerational inheritance of alcohol-induced neurodevelopmental deficits may involve epigenetic mechanisms that are resistant to developmental clearance.

As argued in Transgenerational effects of early environmental insults on aging and disease and A review of epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of reproductive disease, testing of F3 great-grandchildren born of F2 grandchild females was needed to control for the variable of direct F2 grandchild germ-line exposure. “Transgenerational transmission of an anticholinergic endophenotype with memory dysfunction” (not freely available)