The epigenetic clock now includes skin

The originator of the 2013 epigenetic clock improved its coverage with this 2018 UCLA human study:

“We present a new DNA methylation-based biomarker (based on 391 CpGs) that was developed to accurately measure the age of human fibroblasts, keratinocytes, buccal cells, endothelial cells, skin and blood samples. We also observe strong age correlations in sorted neurons, glia, brain, liver, and bone samples.

The skin & blood clock outperforms widely used existing biomarkers when it comes to accurately measuring the age of an individual based on DNA extracted from skin, dermis, epidermis, blood, saliva, buccal swabs, and endothelial cells. Thus, the biomarker can also be used for forensic and biomedical applications involving human specimens.

The biomarker applies to the entire age span starting from newborns, e.g. DNAm of cord blood samples correlates with gestational week.

Furthermore, the skin & blood clock confirms the effect of lifestyle and demographic variables on epigenetic aging. Essentially it highlights a significant trend of accelerated epigenetic aging with sub-clinical indicators of poor health.

Conversely, reduced aging rate is correlated with known health-improving features such as physical exercise, fish consumption, high carotenoid levels. As with the other age predictors, the skin & blood clock is also able to predict time to death.

Collectively, these features show that while the skin & blood clock is clearly superior in its performance on skin cells, it crucially retained all the other features that are common to other existing age estimators.”

http://www.aging-us.com/article/101508/text “Epigenetic clock for skin and blood cells applied to Hutchinson Gilford Progeria Syndrome and ex vivo studies”


An introduction to the study highlighted several items:

“Although the skin-blood clock was derived from significantly less samples (~900) than Horvath’s clock (~8000 samples), it was found to more accurately predict chronological age, not only across fibroblasts and skin, but also across blood, buccal and saliva tissue. A potential factor driving this improved accuracy in blood could be related to the approximate 18-fold increase in genomic coverage afforded by using Illumina 450k/850k beadarrays.

It serves as a roadmap for future clock studies, pointing towards the importance of constructing tissue or cell-type specific epigenetic clocks, to more accurately measure biological aging in the given tissue/cell-type, and therefore with the potential to be more informative of disease-risk or the success of disease interventions in the tissue or cell-type of interest.”

http://www.aging-us.com/article/101533/text “Epigenetic clocks galore: a new improved clock predicts age-acceleration in Hutchinson Gilford Progeria Syndrome patients”

Advertisements

The role of recall neurons in traumatic memories

This 2018 Swiss rodent study found:

“Our data show that:

  • A subset of memory recall–induced neurons in the DG [dentate gyrus] becomes reactivated after memory attenuation,
  • The degree of fear reduction positively correlates with this reactivation, and
  • The continued activity of memory recall–induced neurons is critical for remote fear memory attenuation.

Although other brain areas such as the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala are likely to be implicated in remote fear memories and remain to be investigated, these results suggest that fear attenuation at least partially occurs in memory recall–induced ensembles through updating or unlearning of the original memory trace of fear.

These data thereby provide the first evidence at an engram-specific level that fear attenuation may not be driven only by extinction learning, that is, by an inhibitory memory trace different from the original fear trace.

Rather, our findings indicate that during remote fear memory attenuation both mechanisms likely coexist, albeit with the importance of the continued activity of memory recall–induced neurons experimentally documented herein. Such activity may not only represent the capacity for a valence change in DG engram cells but also be a prerequisite for memory reconsolidation, namely, an opportunity for learning inside the original memory trace.

As such, this activity likely constitutes a physiological correlate sine qua non for effective exposure therapies against traumatic memories in humans: the engagement, rather than the suppression, of the original trauma.”

The researchers also provided examples of human trauma:

“We dedicate this work to O.K.’s father, Mohamed Salah El-Dien, and J.G.’s mother, Wilma, who both sadly passed away during its completion.”


So, how can this study help humans? The study had disclosed and undisclosed limitations:

1. Humans aren’t lab rats. We can ourselves individually change our responses to experiential causes of ongoing adverse effects. Standard methodologies can only apply external treatments.

2. It’s a bridge too far to go from neural activity in transgenic mice to expressing unfounded opinions on:

“A physiological correlate sine qua non for effective exposure therapies against traumatic memories in humans.”

Human exposure therapies have many drawbacks, in addition to being applied externally to the patient on someone else’s schedule. A few others were discussed in The role of DNMT3a in fear memories:

  • “Inability to generalize its efficacy over time,
  • Potential return of adverse memory in the new/novel contexts,
  • Context-dependent nature of extinction which is widely viewed as the biological basis of exposure therapy.”

3. Rodent neural activity also doesn’t elevate recall to become an important goal of effective human therapies. Clearly, what the rodents experienced should be translated into human reliving/re-experiencing, not recall. Terminology used in animal studies preferentially has the same meaning with humans, since the purpose of animal studies is to help humans.

4. The researchers acknowledged that:

“Other brain areas such as the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala are likely to be implicated in remote fear memories and remain to be investigated.”

A study that provided evidence for basic principles of Primal Therapy determined another brain area:

“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.”

The study I curated yesterday, Organ epigenetic memory, demonstrated organ memory storage. It’s hard to completely rule out that other body areas may also store traumatic memories.

The wide range of epigenetic memory storage vehicles is one reason why effective human therapies need to address the whole person, the whole body, and each individual’s entire history.

http://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6394/1239 “Reactivation of recall-induced neurons contributes to remote fear memory attenuation” (not freely available)

Here’s one of the researchers’ outline:


This post has somehow become a target for spammers, and I’ve disabled comments. Readers can comment on other posts and indicate that they want their comment to apply here, and I’ll re-enable comments.

Flawed epigenetic measurements of behavioral experiences

This 2018 New York rodent study not only wasted resources but also speciously attempted to extrapolate animal study findings to humans:

“While it is clear that behavioral experience modulates epigenetic profiles, it is less evident how the nature of that experience influences outcomes and whether epigenetic/genetic “biomarkers” could be extracted to classify different types of behavioral experience.

Male and female mice were subjected to either:

  • a Fixed Interval (FI) schedule of food reward, or
  • a single episode of forced swim followed by restraint stress, or
  • no explicit behavioral experience

after which global expression levels of two activating (H3K9ac and H3K4me3) and two repressive (H3K9me2 and H3k27me3) post-translational histone modifications (PTHMs), were measured in hippocampus (HIPP) and frontal cortex (FC).

A random subset of 5 of the 12 animals from each sex/behavioral experience group were used for these analyses. FC and HIPP were dissected from each of those 5 brains and homogenized for subsequent analyses. Thus, sample size for PTHM expression levels was n = 5 for each region/sex/behavioral treatment group and all PTHM expression level analyses utilized the homogenized tissue.

The specific nature of the behavioral experience differentiated profiles of PTHMs in a sex- and brain region-dependent manner, with all 4 PTHMs changing in parallel in response to different behavioral experiences. Global PTHMs may provide a higher-order pattern recognition function.”


The researchers knew or should have known that measuring “global expression levels” in “homogenized tissue” of “n = 5” subjects was flawed, and they did it anyway. They acknowledged some of the numerous study design defects with qualifiers such as:

“Even though these were global levels of histone modifications (and thus not indicative of changes at specific genes or sites on genes)..

As FS-RS behavioral experience was completed before FI behavioral experience, a longer overall post-behavior experience time (approximately 1 week) elapsed for this group, resulting in some differences in overall timing between these experiences and global PTHM assessment. However, extending the duration of the FS-RS experience (i.e., repeated exposures) would also have led to habituation..”

Did they purposely make these mistakes because of the “biomarkers” paradigm?

What would they have found if they had followed their judgments and training to design a better study? Experience-dependent histone modifications that differed by gender and brain region was certainly a promising research opportunity.

As for extrapolating the cited animal study findings to humans? Ummm..NO!

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6060276/ “Different Behavioral Experiences Produce Distinctive Parallel Changes in, and Correlate With, Frontal Cortex and Hippocampal Global Post-translational Histone Levels”

Prenatal programming of human HPA axis development

This 2017 UC Irvine human review subject provided details of how fetal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal components and systems develop, and how they are epigenetically changed by the mother’s environment:

“The developmental origins of disease or fetal programming model predicts that intrauterine exposures have life-long consequences for physical and psychological health. Prenatal programming of the fetal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is proposed as a primary mechanism by which early experiences are linked to later disease risk.

Development of the fetal HPA axis is determined by an intricately timed cascade of endocrine events during gestation and is regulated by an integrated maternal-placental-fetal steroidogenic unit. Mechanisms by which stress-induced elevations in hormones of maternal, fetal, or placental origin influence the structure and function of the emerging fetal HPA axis are discussed.

Human gestational physiology and fetal HPA axis development differ even from that of closely related nonhuman primates, thereby limiting the generalizability of animal models. This review will focus solely on studies of prenatal stress and fetal HPA axis development in humans.”


Every time I read a prenatal study I’m in awe of all that has to go right, and at the appropriate time, and in sequence, for a fetus to be undamaged. Add in what needs to happen at birth, during infancy, and throughout early childhood, and it seems impossible for a human to escape epigenetic damage.


1. The reviewers referenced human research performed with postnatal subjects, as well as animal studies, despite the disclaimer:

This review will focus solely on studies of prenatal stress and fetal HPA axis development in humans.”

This led to blurring of what had been studied or not with human fetuses regarding the subject.

2. The reviewers uncritically listed many dubious human studies that had both stated and undisclosed severe limitations on their findings. It’s more appropriate for reviewers to offer informed reviews of cited studies, as Sex-specific impacts of childhood trauma summarized with cortisol:

“Findings are dependent upon variance in extenuating factors, including but not limited to, different measurements of:

  • early adversity,
  • age of onset,
  • basal cortisol levels, as well as
  • trauma forms and subtypes, and
  • presence and severity of psychopathology symptomology.”

3. It would have been preferable had the researchers stayed with their stated intention and critically reviewed only a few dozen studies with solid evidence of the review title: “Developmental origins of the human hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.” Let other reviews cover older humans, animals, and questionable evidence.

I asked the reviewers to provide a searchable file so that their work could be better used as a reference.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318469661_Developmental_origins_of_the_human_hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal_axis “Developmental origins of the human hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis” (registration required)

Going off the rails with the biomarker paradigm

This 2018 US government rodent study used extreme dosages to achieve its directed goals of demonizing nicotine and extolling the biomarker paradigm:

“This study examined whether adolescent nicotine exposure alters adult hippocampus-dependent learning, involving persistent changes in hippocampal DNA methylation and if choline, a dietary methyl donor, would reverse and mitigate these alterations.

Mice were chronically treated with nicotine (12.6mg/kg/day) starting at post-natal day 23 (pre-adolescent), p38 (late adolescent), or p54 (adult) for 12 days followed by a 30-day period during which they consumed either standard chow or chow supplemented with choline (9g/kg).

Our gene expression analyses support this model and point to two particular genes involved in chromatin remodeling, Smarca2 and Bahcc1. Both Smarca2 and Bahcc1 showed a similar inverse correlation pattern between promoter methylation and gene expression.

Our findings support a role for epigenetic modification of hippocampal chromatin remodeling genes in long-term learning deficits induced by adolescent nicotine and their amelioration by dietary choline supplementation.”


Let’s use the average weight of a US adult male – published by the US Centers for Disease Control as 88.8 kg – to compare the study’s dosages with human equivalents:

  1. Nicotine at “12.6mg/kg/day” x 88.8 kg = 1119 mg. The estimated lower limit of a lethal dose of nicotine has been reported as between 500 and 1000 mg!
  2. Choline at “9g/kg” x 88.8 kg = 799 g. The US National Institutes of Health published the Tolerable Upper Intake Levels for Choline as 3.5 g!!

Neither of these dosages are even remotely connected to human realities:

  1. The human-equivalent dosage of nicotine used in this study would probably kill an adult human before the end of 12 days.
  2. What effects would an adult human suffer from exceeding the choline “Tolerable Upper Intake Level” BY 228 TIMES for 30 days?

Isn’t the main purpose of animal studies to help humans? What’s the justification for performing animal studies simply to promote an agenda?


A funding source of this study was National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Identification of Biomarkers for Nicotine Addiction award (T-DA-1002 MG). Has the biomarker paradigm been institutionalized to the point where research proposals that don’t have biomarkers as goals aren’t funded?

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S107474271830193X “Choline ameliorates adult learning deficits and reverses epigenetic modification of chromatin remodeling factors related to adolescent nicotine exposure” (not freely available)

How do memories transfer?

This 2018 Chinese study electronically modeled the brain’s circuits to evaluate memory transfer mechanisms:

“During non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep, thalamo-cortical spindles and hippocampal sharp wave-ripples have been implicated in declarative memory consolidation. Evidence suggests that long-term memory consolidation is coordinated by the generation of:

  • Hierarchically nested hippocampal ripples (100-250 Hz),
  • Thalamo-cortical spindles (7-15 Hz), and
  • Cortical slow oscillations (<1 Hz)

enabling memory transfer from the hippocampus to the cortex.

Consolidation has also been demonstrated in other brain tasks, such as:

  • In the acquisition of motor skills, where there is a shift from activity in prefrontal cortex to premotor, posterior parietal, and cerebellar structures; and
  • In the transfer of conscious to unconscious tasks, where activity in initial unskilled tasks and activity in skilled performance are located in different regions, the so-called ‘scaffolding-storage’ framework.

By separating a neural circuit into a feedforward chain of gating populations and a second chain coupled to the gating chain (graded chain), graded information (i.e. information encoded in firing rate amplitudes) may be faithfully propagated and processed as it flows through the circuit. The neural populations in the gating chain generate pulses, which push populations in the graded chain above threshold, thus allowing information to flow in the graded chain.

In this paper, we will describe how a set of previously learned synapses may in turn be copied to another module with a pulse-gated transmission paradigm that operates internally to the circuit and is independent of the learning process.”


The study has neither been peer-reviewed, nor have the mechanisms been tested in living beings.

https://www.biorxiv.org/content/early/2018/07/27/351114 “A Mechanism for Synaptic Copy between Neural Circuits”

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 the problem also affected item #1 methodologies of averaging CpG methylation measurements in fixed genomic bins or over defined genomic regions, as 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?

Was it too much to ask of researchers whose paychecks and reputations depended 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 operated wasn’t viable? They already knew or should have known this.

Changing an individual’s future behavior even before they’re born provided one example of what the GWAS/EWAS framework missed:

“When phenotypic variation results from alleles that modify phenotypic variance rather than the mean, this link between genotype and phenotype will not be detected.”

DNA methylation and childhood adversity concluded that:

“Blood-based EWAS may yield limited information relating to underlying pathological processes for disorders where brain is the primary tissue of interest.”

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”