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.

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jne.12814 “Perinatal compromise contributes to programming of GABAergic and Glutamatergic systems leading to long-term effects on offspring behaviour” (not freely available)

Do genes or maternal environments shape fetal brains?

This 2019 Singapore human study used Diffusion Tensor Imaging on 5-to-17-day old infants to find:

“Our findings showed evidence for region-specific effects of genotype and GxE on individual differences in human fetal development of the hippocampus and amygdala. Gene x Environment models outcompeted models containing genotype or environment only, to best explain the majority of measures but some, especially of the amygdaloid microstructure, were best explained by genotype only.

Models including DNA methylation measured in the neonate umbilical cords outcompeted the Gene and Gene x Environment models for the majority of amygdaloid measures and minority of hippocampal measures. The fact that methylation models outcompeted gene x environment models in many instances is compatible with the idea that DNA methylation is a product of GxE.

A genome-wide association study of SNP [single nucleotide polymorphism] interactions with the prenatal environments (GxE) yielded genome wide significance for 13 gene x environment models. The majority (10) explained hippocampal measures in interaction with prenatal maternal mental health and SES [socioeconomic status]. The three genome-wide significant models predicting amygdaloid measures, explained right amygdala volume in interaction with maternal depression.

The transcription factor CUX1 was implicated in the genotypic variation interaction with prenatal maternal health to shape the amygdala. It was also a central node in the subnetworks formed by genes mapping to the CpGs in neonatal umbilical cord DNA methylation data associating with both amygdala and hippocampus structure and substructure.

Our results implicated the glucocorticoid receptor (NR3C1) in population variance of neonatal amygdala structure and microstructure.

Estrogen in the hippocampus affects learning, memory, neurogenesis, synapse density and plasticity. In the brain testosterone is commonly aromatized to estradiol and thus the estrogen receptor mediates not only the effects of estrogen, but also that of testosterone.”

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gbb.12576 “Neonatal amygdalae and hippocampi are influenced by genotype and prenatal environment, and reflected in the neonatal DNA methylome” (not freely available)

Emotional responses and BDNF methylation

This 2019 German human study found:

“A critical role of BDNF [brain-derived neurotrophic factor] methylation in human amygdala response to negative emotional stimuli, whereby:

  • High BDNF methylation rates were for the first time shown to be associated with a high reactivity in the amygdala; and
  • High BDNF methylation and high amygdala reactivity were associated with low novelty seeking.

There was no interaction or main effect of the Val66Met polymorphism on amygdala reactivity.

Our data adds evidence to the hypothesis that epigenetic modifications of BDNF can result in an endophenotype associated with anxiety and mood disorders. However, since correlations do not prove causality:

  • A direct link between human BDNF mRNA/protein levels, methylation, amygdala reactivity and psychiatric disorders is still missing, demanding further research.
  • Determining the underlying directions of the relations between BDNF methylation, amygdala reactivity, and NS [novelty seeking] cannot be accomplished based on our data and must await further research.

The fact that our results mainly involve the right amygdala is in line with previous studies. Recent reviews suggest a general right hemisphere dominance for all kinds of emotions, and, more specifically, a critical role of the right amygdala in the early assessment of emotional stimuli.

The experimental fMRI paradigm utilized a face‐processing task (faces with anger or fear expressions), alternating with a sensorimotor control task. Harm avoidance, novelty seeking, and reward dependence were measured using the Tridimensional Personality Questionnaire.”

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/hbm.24825 “The role of BDNF methylation and Val 66 Met in amygdala reactivity during emotion processing”

A drug that countered effects of a traumatizing mother

This 2019 US rodent study concerned transmitting poor maternal care to the next generation:

“The quality of parental care received during development profoundly influences an individual’s phenotype, including that of maternal behavior. Infant experiences with a caregiver have lifelong behavioral consequences.

Maternal behavior is a complex behavior requiring the recruitment of multiple brain regions including the nucleus accumbens, bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, ventral tegmental area, prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and medial preoptic area. Dysregulation within this circuitry can lead to altered or impaired maternal responsiveness.

We administered zebularine, a drug known to alter DNA methylation, to dams exposed during infancy to the scarcity-adversity model of low nesting resources, and then characterized the quality of their care towards their offspring.

  1. We replicate that dams with a history of maltreatment mistreat their own offspring.
  2. We show that maltreated-dams treated with zebularine exhibit lower levels of adverse care toward their offspring.
  3. We show that administration of zebularine in control dams (history of nurturing care) enhances levels of adverse care.
  4. We show altered methylation and gene expression in maltreated dams normalized by zebularine.

These findings lend support to the hypothesis that epigenetic alterations resulting from maltreatment causally relate to behavioral outcomes.”


“Maternal behavior is an intergenerational behavior. It is important to establish the neurobiological underpinnings of aberrant maternal behavior and explore treatments that can improve maternal behavior to prevent the perpetuation of poor maternal care across generations.”

The study authors demonstrated intergenerational epigenetic effects, and missed an opportunity to also investigate transgenerational epigenetically inherited effects. They cited reference 60 for the first part of the above quotation, but that reviewer misused the transgenerational term by applying it to grand-offspring instead of the great-grand-offspring.

There were resources available to replicate the study authors’ previous findings, which didn’t show anything new. Why not use such resources to uncover evidence even more applicable to humans by extending experiments to great-grand-offspring that have no potential germline exposure to the initial damaging cause?

Could a study design similar to A limited study of parental transmission of anxiety/stress-reactive traits have been integrated? That study’s thorough removal of parental behavior would be an outstanding methodology to confirm by falsifiability whether parental behavior is both an intergenerational and a transgenerational epigenetic inheritance mechanism.

Rodent great-grand-offspring can be studied in < 9 months. It takes > 50 years for human studies to reach the transgenerational generation. Why not attempt to “prevent the perpetuation of poor maternal care across generations?”

Isn’t it a plausible hypothesis that humans “with a history of maltreatment mistreat their own offspring?” Isn’t it worth the extra effort to extend animal research to investigate this unfortunate chain?

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-46539-4 “Pharmacological manipulation of DNA methylation normalizes maternal behavior, DNA methylation, and gene expression in dams with a history of maltreatment”

OCD and neural plasticity

This 2019 New York rodent study investigated multiple avenues to uncover mechanisms of obsessive-compulsive disorder:

“Psychophysical models of OCD propose that anxiety (amygdala) and habits (dorsolateral striatum) may be causally linked. Numerous genetic and environmental factors may reduce striatum sensitivity and lead to maladaptive overcompensation, potentially accounting for a significant proportion of cases of pathological OCD-like behaviors.

Our results indicate that both the development and reversal of OCD-like behaviors involve neuroplasticity resulting in circuitry changes in BLA-DLS and possibly elsewhere.”


The researchers explored two genetic models of OCD, showed why these insufficiently explained observed phenomena, then followed up with epigenetic investigations. They demonstrated how and the degree to which histone modifications and DNA methylation regulated both the development and reversal of OCD symptoms.

However, the researchers also carelessly cited thirteen papers outside the specific areas of the study to support one statement in the lead paragraph:

“Novel studies propose that modulations in gene expression influenced by environmental factors, are connected to mental health disorders.”

Only one of the thirteen citations was more recent than 2011, and none of them were high-quality studies.

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-45325-6.pdf “Amelioration of obsessive-compulsive disorder in three mouse models treated with one epigenetic drug: unraveling the underlying mechanism”

Non-emotional memories

This 2019 US review covered memory mechanisms:

“With memory encoding reliant on persistent changes in the properties of synapses, a key question is how can memories be maintained from days to months or a lifetime given molecular turnover? It is likely that positive feedback loops are necessary to persistently maintain the strength of synapses that participate in encoding.

These levels are not isolated, but linked by shared components of feedback loops.”


Despite the review’s exhaustive discussion, the reviewers never came to the point. The word cloud I made of the review’s most frequent thirty words had little to do with why memory occurs:

  • Why do some stimuli evoke a memory in response?
  • Why are almost all of the stimuli an organism receives not remembered?

Much of the discussion was baseless because it excluded emotion. Many of the citations’ memory findings relied on emotion, though.

For example, in the subsection Roles of persistent epigenetic modifications for maintaining LTF [long-term facilitation], LTP [long-term potentiation], and LTM [long-term memory]:

  • Histone acetylation is increased after fear conditioning in the hippocampus and amygdala.
  • Correspondingly, inhibition of histone deacetylase enhances fear conditioning and LTP.
  • Following fear conditioning, histone phosphorylation is also increased.
  • DNA methylation is also up-regulated in the hippocampus and amygdala after fear conditioning, and inhibition of DNA methylation blocks fear LTM.”

http://learnmem.cshlp.org/content/26/5/133.full “How can memories last for days, years, or a lifetime? Proposed mechanisms for maintaining synaptic potentiation and memory”

Our brains are shaped by our early environments

This 2019 McGill paper reviewed human and animal studies on brain-shaping influences from the fetal period through childhood:

“In neonates, regions of the methylome that are highly variable across individuals are explained by the genotype alone in 25 percent of cases. The best explanation for 75 percent of variably methylated regions is the interaction of genotype with different in utero environments.

A meta-analysis including 45,821 individuals with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and 9,207,363 controls suggests that conditions such as preeclampsia, Apgar score lower than 7 at 5 minutes, breech/transverse presentations, and prolapsed/nuchal cord – all of which involve some sort of poor oxygenation during delivery – are significantly associated with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The dopaminergic system seems to be one of the brain systems most affected by perinatal hypoxia-ischemia.

Exposure to childhood trauma activates the stress response systems and dysregulates serotonin transmission that can adversely impact brain development. Smaller cerebral, cerebellar, prefrontal cortex, and corpus callosum volumes were reported in maltreated young people as well as reduced hippocampal activity.

Environmental enrichment has a series of beneficial effects associated with neuroplasticity mechanisms, increasing hippocampal volume, and enhancing dorsal dentate gyrus-specific differences in gene expression. Environmental enrichment after prenatal stress decreases depressive-like behaviors and fear, and improves cognitive deficits.”


The reviewers presented strong evidence until the Possible Factors for Reversibility section, which ended with the assertion:

“All these positive environmental experiences mentioned in this section could counterbalance the detrimental effects of early life adversities, making individuals resilient to brain alterations and development of later psychopathology.”

The review’s penultimate sentence recognized that research is seldom done on direct treatments of causes:

“The cross-sectional nature of most epigenetic studies and the tissue specificity of the epigenetic changes are still challenges.”

Cross-sectional studies won’t provide definitive data on cause-and-effect relationships.

The question yet to be examined is: How can humans best address these early-life causes to ameliorate their lifelong effects?

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/dmcn.14182 “Early environmental influences on the development of children’s brain structure and function” (not freely available)