Hidden hypotheses of epigenetic studies

This 2018 UK review discussed three pre-existing conditions of epigenetic genome-wide association studies:

“Genome-wide technology has facilitated epigenome-wide association studies (EWAS), permitting ‘hypothesis-free’ examinations in relation to adversity and/or mental health problems. Results of EWAS are in fact conditional on several a priori hypotheses:

  1. EWAS coverage is sufficient for complex psychiatric problems;
  2. Peripheral tissue is meaningful for mental health problems; and
  3. The assumption that biology can be informative to the phenotype.

1. CpG sites were chosen as potentially biologically informative based on consultation with a consortium of DNA methylation experts. Selection was, in part, based on data from a number of phenotypes (some medical in nature such as cancer), and thus is not specifically targeted to brain-based, stress-related complex mental health phenotypes.

2. The assumption is often that distinct peripheral tissues are interchangeable and equally suited for biomarker detection, when in fact it is highly probable that peripheral tissues themselves correspond differently to environmental adversity and/or disease state.

3. Analyses result in general statements such as ‘neurodevelopment’ or the ‘immune system’ being involved in the aetiology of a given phenotype. Whether these broad categories play indeed a substantial role in the aetiology of the mental health problem is often hard to determine given the post hoc nature of the interpretation.”


The reviewers mentioned in item #2 the statistical flaw of assuming that measured entities are interchangeable with one another. They didn’t mention that this problem also affects item #1 methodologies of averaging CpG methylation measurements in fixed genomic bins or over defined genomic regions. This was discussed in:

The reviewers offered suggestions for reducing the impacts of these three hypotheses. But will doing more of the same, only better, advance science?

Is it too much to ask of researchers whose paychecks and reputations depend on a framework’s paradigm – such as the “biomarker” mentioned a dozen and a half times – to admit the uselessness of gathering data when the framework in which the data operates isn’t viable?

The truth about complex traits and GWAS added another example of how this framework and many of its paradigms haven’t produced effective explanations of “the aetiology of the mental health problem”:

“The most investigated candidate gene hypotheses of schizophrenia are not well supported by genome-wide association studies, and it is likely that this will be the case for other complex traits as well.”

Researchers need to reevaluate their framework if they want to make a difference in their fields. Recasting GWAS as EWAS won’t make it more effective.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352250X18300940 “Hidden hypotheses in ‘hypothesis-free’ genome-wide epigenetic associations”

Advertisements

A mid-year selection of epigenetic topics

Here are the most popular of the 65 posts I’ve made so far in 2018, starting from the earliest:

The pain societies instill into children

DNA methylation and childhood adversity

Epigenetic mechanisms of muscle memory

Sex-specific impacts of childhood trauma

Sleep and adult brain neurogenesis

This dietary supplement is better for depression symptoms than placebo

The epigenetic clock theory of aging

A flying human tethered to a monkey

Immune memory in the brain

The lack of oxygen’s epigenetic effects on a fetus

Addictive behavior and epigenetic DNA methylation

This 2018 McGill paper reviewed findings from animal and human studies on the relationships between drug-seeking behavior and epigenetic DNA methylation:

“Although there is an increasing line of evidence from preclinical models of addiction, there are only a few human studies that systematically assessed DNA methylation in addiction. Most of the studies were done on small cohorts and focused on one or a few candidate genes, except in the case of alcohol use where larger studies have been carried out.

A long line of evidence suggests that abnormal patterns of gene expression occur in brain regions related to drug addiction such as the nucleus accumbens, prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and the ventral tegmental area.

Using the “incubation of craving” model in rats trained to self-administer cocaine, and treated with either SAM or RG108, the genome-wide DNA methylation and gene expression landscape in the nucleus accumbens after short (1 day) and long (30 days) abstinence periods and the effects of epigenetic treatments were delineated. The main findings are:

  • A long incubation period results in robust changes in methylation;
  • Direct accumbal infusion of SAM that is paired with a “cue” after long incubation times increases drug-seeking behavior,
  • Whereas a single treatment with RG108 decreases this behavior.

Importantly, the effects of these single administrations of a DNA methylation inhibitor remain stable for 30 more days. These data suggest that DNA methylation might be mediating the impact of “incubation” on the craving phenotype and that this phenotype could be reprogrammed by a DNA demethylation agent.”


The subject has a large scope, and a narrow aspect was presented in this paper. Rodent research by one of the coauthors that was cited, Chronic pain causes epigenetic changes in the brain and immune system, provided some relevant details.

The review covered neither human dimensions of the impacts of unfulfilled needs nor investigations of exactly what pain may impel human drug-seeking behavior. The “Implications for Diagnostic and Therapeutics” were largely at the molecular level.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877117318300164 “The Role of DNA Methylation in Drug Addiction: Implications for Diagnostic and Therapeutics” (not freely available)

The lack of oxygen’s epigenetic effects on a fetus

This 2018 Loma Linda review subject was gestational hypoxia:

“Of all the stresses to which the fetus and newborn infant are subjected, perhaps the most important and clinically relevant is that of hypoxia. This review explores the impact of gestational hypoxia on maternal health and fetal development, and epigenetic mechanisms of developmental plasticity with emphasis on the uteroplacental circulation, heart development, cerebral circulation, pulmonary development, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and adipose tissue.

An understanding of the specific hypoxia-induced environmental and epigenetic adaptations linked to specific organ systems will enhance the development of target-specific inhibition of DNA methylation, histone modifications, and noncoding RNAs that underlie hypoxia-induced phenotypic programming of disease vulnerability later in life.

A potential stumbling block to these efforts, however, relates to timing of the intervention. The greatest potential effect would be accomplished at the critical period in development for which the genomic plasticity is at its peak, thus ameliorating the influence of hypoxia or other stressors.

With future developments, it may even become possible to intervene before conception, before the genetic determinants of the risk of developing programmed disease are established.”

Table 3 “Antenatal hypoxia and developmental plasticity” column titles were Species | Offspring Phenotypes of Disorders and Diseases | Reference Nos.

Hypoxia phenotypes


This review was really an ebook, with 94 pages and 1,172 citations in the pdf file. As I did with Faith-tainted epigenetics, I read it with caution toward recognizing the influence of the sponsor’s biases, and any directed narrative that ignored evidence contradicting the narrative, and any storytelling.

See if you can match the meaning of the review’s last sentence (“intervene before conception” quoted above) with the meaning of any sentence in its cited reference Developmental origins of noncommunicable disease: population and public health implications.

One review topic that was misconstrued was transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of hypoxic effects. The “transgenerational” term was used inappropriately by several of the citations, and no cited study provided evidence for gestational hypoxic effects through the  F2 grandchild and F3 great-grandchild generations.

One omitted topic was gestational hypoxic effects of caffeine. The first paper that came up for my PubMed search of “caffeine pregnancy hypoxia” was an outstanding 2017 Florida rodent review Long-term consequences of disrupting adenosine signaling during embryonic development that had this paragraph and figure:

“One substance that fetuses are frequently exposed to is caffeine, which is a non-selective adenosine receptor antagonist. We discovered that in utero alteration in adenosine action leads to adverse effects on embryonic and adult murine hearts. We find that cardiac A1ARs [a type of adenosine receptor] protect the embryo from in utero hypoxic stress, a condition that causes an increase in adenosine levels. 

After birth in mice, we observed that in utero caffeine exposure leads to abnormal cardiac function and morphology in adults, including an impaired response to β-adrenergic stimulation. Recently, we observed that in utero caffeine exposure induces transgenerational effects on cardiac morphology, function, and gene expression.”

The timing of in utero caffeine treatment leads to differences in adult cardiac function, gene expression, and phenotype. Exposure to caffeine from E6.5–9.5 leads the F1 generation to develop dilated cardiomyopathy with decrease % FS and increased Myh7 expression. In utero caffeine exposure from E10.5–13.5 leads to a hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in the F2 generation along with increased % FS and decreased Myh7 expression

Why was this review and its studies omitted? It was on target for both gestational hypoxia and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of hypoxic effects!

It was alright to review smoking, cocaine, methamphetamine, etc., but the most prevalent drug addiction – caffeine – couldn’t be a review topic?


The Loma Linda review covered a lot, but I had a quick trigger due to the sponsor’s bias. I started to lose “faith” in the reviewers after reading the citation for the review’s last sentence that didn’t support the statement.

My “faith” disappeared after not understanding why a few topics were misconstrued and omitted. Why do researchers and sponsors ignore, misrepresent, and not continue experiments through the F3 generation to produce evidence for and against transgenerational epigenetic inheritance? Where was the will to follow evidence trails regardless of socially acceptable beverage norms?

The review acquired the taint of storytelling with the reviewers’ assertion:

“..timing of the intervention. The greatest potential effect would be accomplished at the critical period in development for which the genomic plasticity is at its peak, thus ameliorating the influence of hypoxia or other stressors.”

Contradictory evidence was in the omitted caffeine study’s graphic above which described two gestational critical periods where an “intervention” had opposite effects, all of which were harmful to the current fetus’ development and/or to following generations. Widening the PubMed link’s search parameters to “caffeine hypoxia” and “caffeine pregnancy” returned links to human early life studies that used caffeine in interventions, ignoring possible adverse effects on future generations.

This is my final curation of any paper sponsored by this institution.

https://www.physiology.org/doi/abs/10.1152/physrev.00043.2017 “Gestational Hypoxia and Developmental Plasticity” (not freely available) Thanks to coauthor Dr. Xiang-Qun Hu for providing a copy.

A self-referencing study of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance

This 2018 Washington rodent study subject was transgenerational epigenetic inheritance caused by a fungicide that’s been phased out or banned for over a decade:

“This study was designed to help understand how three different epigenetic processes in sperm are correlated with vinclozolin-induced epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of disease.

  1. Most DMRs [differential DNA-methylated regions] identified in this study are unique between the F1, F2, and F3 generations.
  2. The number of lncRNA was much higher than the number of sncRNA [small noncoding RNA, including microRNA]. The overlap between each generation was very low or nonexistent.
  3. The F1 and the F2 generation control versus vinclozolin lineage sperm had negligible DHRs [differential histone retention sites]. This observation suggests that the direct vinclozolin exposure does not alter histone retention or trigger any changes. However, the F3 generation control versus vinclozolin lineage sperm DHRs increased considerably.

It appears that the phenomenon is more complex than just a direct exposure triggering the formation of epimutations that are then simply maintained in the subsequent generations.”


There’s something odd about a study where a third of the 87 cited references list one of the study’s coauthors, who also coauthored A review of epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of reproductive disease. I couldn’t find a satisfactory explanation for the study’s over-the-top self-referencing.

What do you think?

I asked the coauthors why a third of the cited references were self-referencing. The lead author replied:

“The field in epigenetic transgenerational inheritance is expanding, however it is still hard for us to find relevant studies in rodents or human that we can cite. Most of the time DNA methylation, ncRNA and histone modifications are investigated from a direct exposure and/or from a purely mechanistic angle (e.g. DNA methylation of specific genes).

In contrast, transgenerational phenotypes and toxicology by definition excludes direct exposure and must be transmitted through multiple generations (the F3 generation is the first transgenerational one). We are not looking at specific genes but using whole genome sequencing technologies which is a broader approach.

Besides, if you do a pubmed search with the keywords “epigenetics” and “transgenerational”, you will probably find that more than 50% of the studies have been done by Dr Michael K. Skinner. He is also one of the first researcher who started to work on the epigenetic transgenerational inheritance phenomenon 15 years ago. Not citing his previous work is challenging.

We hope to see other labs contributing to this particular field and we will be delighted to cite them. In the meantime, our only option is to reference our previous work.”

I replied:

“Thank you for your reply! It must be exasperating to see other researchers stop their studies short of the F3 generation for no apparent or disclosed reason.

Have you seen even one scientifically adequate human study of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance?”

https://academic.oup.com/eep/article/4/2/dvy010/4987173 “Alterations in sperm DNA methylation, non-coding RNA expression, and histone retention mediate vinclozolin-induced epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of disease”

Resiliency in stress responses

This 2018 US Veterans Administration review subject was resiliency and stress responses:

Neurobiological and behavioral responses to stress are highly variable. Exposure to a similar stressor can lead to heterogeneous outcomes — manifesting psychopathology in one individual, but having minimal effect, or even enhancing resilience, in another.

We highlight aspects of stress response modulation related to early life development and epigenetics, selected neurobiological and neurochemical systems, and a number of emotional, cognitive, psychosocial, and behavioral factors important in resilience.”

The review cited studies I’ve previously curated:


There were two things I didn’t understand about this review. The first was why the paper isn’t freely available. It’s completely paid for by the US taxpayer, and no copyright is claimed. I recommend contacting the authors for a copy.

The second was why the VA hasn’t participated in either animal or human follow-on studies to the 2015 Northwestern University GABAergic mechanisms regulated by miR-33 encode state-dependent fear. That study’s relevance to PTSD, this review’s subject, and the VA’s mission is too important to ignore. For example:

“Fear-inducing memories can be state dependent, meaning that they can best be retrieved if the brain states at encoding and retrieval are similar.

“It’s difficult for therapists to help these patients,” Radulovic said, “because the patients themselves can’t remember their traumatic experiences that are the root cause of their symptoms.”

The findings imply that in response to traumatic stress, some individuals, instead of activating the glutamate system to store memories, activate the extra-synaptic GABA system and form inaccessible traumatic memories.”

I curated the research in A study that provided evidence for basic principles of Primal Therapy. These researchers have published several papers since then. Here are the abstracts from three of them:

Experimental Methods for Functional Studies of microRNAs in Animal Models of Psychiatric Disorders

“Pharmacological treatments for psychiatric illnesses are often unsuccessful. This is largely due to the poor understanding of the molecular mechanisms underlying these disorders. We are particularly interested in elucidating the mechanism of affective disorders rooted in traumatic experiences.

To date, the research of mental disorders in general has focused on the causal role of individual genes and proteins, an approach that is inconsistent with the proposed polygenetic nature of these disorders. We recently took an alternative direction, by establishing the role of miRNAs in the coding of stress-related, fear-provoking memories.

Here we describe in detail our work on the role of miR-33 in state-dependent learning, a process implicated in dissociative amnesia, wherein memories formed in a certain brain state can best be retrieved if the brain is in the same state. We present the specific experimental approaches we apply to study the role of miRNAs in this model and demonstrate that miR-33 regulates the susceptibility to state-dependent learning induced by inhibitory neurotransmission.”

Neurobiological mechanisms of state-dependent learning

“State-dependent learning (SDL) is a phenomenon relating to information storage and retrieval restricted to discrete states. While extensively studied using psychopharmacological approaches, SDL has not been subjected to rigorous neuroscientific study.

Here we present an overview of approaches historically used to induce SDL, and highlight some of the known neurobiological mechanisms, in particular those related to inhibitory neurotransmission and its regulation by microRNAs (miR).

We also propose novel cellular and circuit mechanisms as contributing factors. Lastly, we discuss the implications of advancing our knowledge on SDL, both for most fundamental processes of learning and memory as well as for development and maintenance of psychopathology.”

Neurobiological correlates of state-dependent context fear

“Retrieval of fear memories can be state-dependent, meaning that they are best retrieved if the brain states at encoding and retrieval are similar. Such states can be induced by activating extrasynaptic γ-aminobutyric acid type A receptors (GABAAR) with the broad α-subunit activator gaboxadol. However, the circuit mechanisms and specific subunits underlying gaboxadol’s effects are not well understood.

Here we show that gaboxadol induces profound changes of local and network oscillatory activity, indicative of discoordinated hippocampal-cortical activity, that were accompanied by robust and long-lasting state-dependent conditioned fear. Episodic memories typically are hippocampus-dependent for a limited period after learning, but become cortex-dependent with the passage of time.

In contrast, state-dependent memories continued to rely on hippocampal GABAergic mechanisms for memory retrieval. Pharmacological approaches with α- subunit-specific agonists targeting the hippocampus implicated the prototypic extrasynaptic subunits (α4) as the mediator of state-dependent conditioned fear.

Together, our findings suggest that continued dependence on hippocampal rather than cortical mechanisms could be an important feature of state-dependent memories that contributes to their conditional retrieval.”


Here’s an independent 2017 Netherlands/UC San Diego review that should bring these researchers’ efforts to the VA’s attention:

MicroRNAs in Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that can develop following exposure to or witnessing of a (potentially) threatening event. A critical issue is to pinpoint the (neuro)biological mechanisms underlying the susceptibility to stress-related disorder such as PTSD, which develops in the minority of ~15% of individuals exposed to trauma.

Over the last few years, a first wave of epigenetic studies has been performed in an attempt to identify the molecular underpinnings of the long-lasting behavioral and mental effects of trauma exposure. The potential roles of non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) such as microRNAs (miRNAs) in moderating or mediating the impact of severe stress and trauma are increasingly gaining attention. To date, most studies focusing on the roles of miRNAs in PTSD have, however, been completed in animals, using cross-sectional study designs and focusing almost exclusively on subjects with susceptible phenotypes.

Therefore, there is a strong need for new research comprising translational and cross-species approaches that use longitudinal designs for studying trajectories of change contrasting susceptible and resilient subjects. The present review offers a comprehensive overview of available studies of miRNAs in PTSD and discusses the current challenges, pitfalls, and future perspectives of this field.”

Here’s a 2017 Netherlands human study that similarly merits the US Veterans Administration’s attention:

Circulating miRNA associated with posttraumatic stress disorder in a cohort of military combat veterans

“Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects many returning combat veterans, but underlying biological mechanisms remain unclear. In order to compare circulating micro RNA (miRNA) of combat veterans with and without PTSD, peripheral blood from 24 subjects was collected following deployment, and isolated miRNA was sequenced.

PTSD was associated with 8 differentially expressed miRNA. Pathway analysis shows that PTSD is related to the axon guidance and Wnt signaling pathways, which work together to support neuronal development through regulation of growth cones. PTSD is associated with miRNAs that regulate biological functions including neuronal activities, suggesting that they play a role in PTSD symptomatology.”


See the below comments for reasons why I downgraded this review’s rating.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11920-018-0887-x “Stress Response Modulation Underlying the Psychobiology of Resilience” (not freely available)

The lifelong impact of maternal postpartum behavior

This 2018 French/Italian/Swiss rodent study was an extension of the work done by the group of researchers who performed Prenatal stress produces offspring who as adults have cognitive, emotional, and memory deficiencies and Treating prenatal stress-related disorders with an oxytocin receptor agonist:

“Reduction of maternal behavior [nursing behavior, grooming, licking, carrying pups] was predictive of behavioral disturbances in PRS [prenatally restraint stressed] rats as well as of the impairment of the oxytocin and its receptor gene expression.

Postpartum carbetocin [an oxytocin receptor agonist unavailable in the US] corrected the reduction of maternal behavior induced by gestational stress as well as the impaired oxytocinergic system in the PRS progeny, which was associated with reduced risk-taking behavior.

Moreover, postpartum carbetocin had an anti-stress effect on HPA [hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal] axis activity in the adult PRS progeny and increased hippocampal mGlu5 [type 5 metabotropic glutamate] receptor expression in aging.

Early postpartum carbetocin administration to the dam enhances maternal behavior and prevents all the pathological outcomes of PRS throughout the entire lifespan of the progeny..proves that the defect in maternal care induced by gestational stress programs the development of the offspring.


This chart from Figure 4 summarized the behavioral performance of aged adult male progeny in relation to the experimental variables of:

  1. Stress administered to the mothers three times daily every day during the second half of pregnancy up until delivery; and
  2. The effects on the mothers’ behavior of daily carbetocin administration during postpartum days 1 through 7.

The symbols denote which of these relationships had statistically significant effects:

  • “* p [Pearson’s correlation coefficient] < 0.05 PRS-Saline vs. CONT-Saline;
  • # p < 0.05 PRS-Carbetocin vs. the PRS-Saline group.”

There are many interesting aspects to this study. Ask the corresponding coauthor Dr. Sara Morley-Fletcher at sara.morley-fletcher@univ-lille1.fr for a copy.

One place the paper referenced the researchers’ previous studies was in this context:

“Postpartum carbetocin administration reversed the same molecular and behavioral parameters in the hippocampus, as does adult chronic carbetocin treatment, i.e. it led to a correction of the HPA axis negative feedback mechanisms, stress and anti-stress gene expression, and synaptic glutamate release. The fact that postpartum carbetocin administration [to the stressed mothers in this study] had the same effect [on the PRS infants in this study] as adult carbetocin treatment [to the PRS offspring in the previous study] indicates a short-term effect of carbetocin when administered in adulthood and a reprogramming (long-term) effect lasting until an advanced age when administered in early development.”

This group’s research seems to be constrained to treatments of F0 and F1 generations. What intergenerational and transgenerational effects would they possibly find by extending research efforts to F2 and F3 generations?


As the study may apply to humans:

The study demonstrated that stresses during the second half of pregnancy had lifelong impacts on both the mothers’ and offsprings’ biology and behavior. Studies and reviews that attribute similar human biological and behavioral conditions to unknown causes, or shuffle them into the black box of individual differences, should be recognized as either disingenuous or insufficient etiological investigations.

The study showed that prevention of gestational stress was a viable strategy. The control group progeny’s biology and behavior wasn’t affected by carbetocin administration to their mothers because neither they nor their mothers had experience-dependent epigenetic deficiencies.

The study demonstrated a biological and behavioral cure for the PRS offspring by changing their stressed mothers’ behaviors during a critical period of their development. The above excerpt characterized improving the mothers’ behaviors as a long-term cure for the PRS descendants, as opposed to the short-term cure of administering carbetocin to the PRS children when they were adults.

What long-term therapies may be effective for humans who had their developmental trajectories altered by their mothers’ stresses during their gestation, or who didn’t get the parental care they needed when they needed it?

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0161813X18301062 “Reduced maternal behavior caused by gestational stress is predictive of life span changes in risk-taking behavior and gene expression due to altering of the stress/anti-stress balance” (not freely available)