The epigenetics of perinatal stress

This 2019 McGill review discussed long-lasting effects of perinatal stress:

“Epigenetic processes are involved in embedding the impact of early-life experience in the genome and mediating between social environments and later behavioral phenotypes. Since these phenotypes are apparent a long time after the early experience, the changes in gene expression programming must be stable.

Although loss of methylation in a promoter is necessary for expression, it is not sufficient. Demethylation removes a barrier for expression, but expression might be realized at the right time or context when the needed factors or signals are present.

DNA methylation anticipates future transcriptional response to triggers. Comparing steady-state expression with DNA methylation does not capture the full meaning and scope of the regulatory roles of differential methylation.

A model for epigenetic programming by early life stress:

  1. Perinatal stress perceived by the brain triggers release of glucocorticoids (GC) from the adrenal in the mother prenatally or the newborn postnatally.
  2. GC activate nuclear glucocorticoid receptors across the body, which epigenetically program (demethylate) genes that are targets of GR in brain and white blood cells (WBC).
  3. The demethylation events are insufficient for activation of these genes. A brain specific factor (TF) is required for expression and will activate low expression of the gene in the brain but not in blood.
  4. During adulthood a stressful event transiently triggers a very high level of expression of the GR regulated gene specifically in the brain.

Horizontal arrow, transcription; circles, CpG sites; CH3 in circles, methylated sites; empty circles, unmethylated CpG sites; horizon[t]al curved lines, mRNA.”

Points discussed in the review:

  • “Epigenetic marks are laid down and maintained by enzymes that either add or remove epigenetic modifications and are therefore potentially reversible in contrast to genetic changes.
  • The response to early life stress and maternal behavior is also not limited to the brain and involves at least the immune system as well.
  • The placenta is also impacted by maternal social experience and early life stress.
  • Most studies are limited to peripheral tissues such as saliva and white blood cells, and the relevance to brain physiology and pathology is uncertain.
  • The low absolute differences in methylation seen in most human behavioral EWAS raise questions about their biological significance.

  • Although post-mortem studies examine epigenetic programming in physiologically relevant tissues, they represent only a final and single stage that does not capture the dynamic evolution of environments and epigenetic programming in living humans.”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6952743/ “The epigenetics of perinatal stress”


Other reviewers try to ignore the times when we were all fetuses and newborns. For example, in the same journal issue was a Boston review of PTSD that didn’t mention anything about the earliest times of human lives! Those reviewers speculated around this obvious gap on their way to being paid by NIH.

Why would researchers ignore perinatal stress events that prime humans for later-life PTSD? Stress generally has a greater impact on fetuses and newborns than even infants, and a greater impact on infants than adults.

Clearing out the 2019 queue of interesting papers

I’m clearing out the below queue of 27 studies and reviews I’ve partially read this year but haven’t taken the time to curate. I have a pesky full-time job that demands my presence elsewhere during the day. :-\

Should I add any of these back in? Let’s be ready for the next decade!


Early life

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12035-018-1328-x “Early Behavioral Alterations and Increased Expression of Endogenous Retroviruses Are Inherited Across Generations in Mice Prenatally Exposed to Valproic Acid” (not freely available)

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166432818309392 “Consolidation of an aversive taste memory requires two rounds of transcriptional and epigenetic regulation in the insular cortex” (not freely available)

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41380-018-0265-4 “Intergenerational transmission of depression: clinical observations and molecular mechanisms” (not freely available)

mother

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6454089/ “Epigenomics and Transcriptomics in the Prediction and Diagnosis of Childhood Asthma: Are We There Yet?”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6628997/Placental epigenetic clocks: estimating gestational age using placental DNA methylation levels”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6770436/ “Mismatched Prenatal and Postnatal Maternal Depressive Symptoms and Child Behaviours: A Sex-Dependent Role for NR3C1 DNA Methylation in the Wirral Child Health and Development Study”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0889159119306440 “Environmental influences on placental programming and offspring outcomes following maternal immune activation”

https://academic.oup.com/mutage/article-abstract/34/4/315/5581970 “5-Hydroxymethylcytosine in cord blood and associations of DNA methylation with sex in newborns” (not freely available)

https://physoc.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1113/JP278270 “Paternal diet impairs F1 and F2 offspring vascular function through sperm and seminal plasma specific mechanisms in mice”

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/nmo.13751 “Sex differences in the epigenetic regulation of chronic visceral pain following unpredictable early life stress” (not freely available)

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6811979/ “Genome-wide DNA methylation data from adult brain following prenatal immune activation and dietary intervention”

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00702-019-02048-2miRNAs in depression vulnerability and resilience: novel targets for preventive strategies”


Later life

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6543991/ “Effect of Flywheel Resistance Training on Balance Performance in Older Adults. A Randomized Controlled Trial”

https://www.mdpi.com/2411-5142/4/3/61/htm “Eccentric Overload Flywheel Training in Older Adults”

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41577-019-0151-6 “Epigenetic regulation of the innate immune response to infection” (not freely available)

https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-13-6123-4_1 “Hair Cell Regeneration” (not freely available)

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6422915/Histone Modifications as an Intersection Between Diet and Longevity”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0306453019300733 “Serotonin transporter gene methylation predicts long-term cortisol concentrations in hair” (not freely available)

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0047637419300338 “Frailty biomarkers in humans and rodents: Current approaches and future advances” (not freely available)

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/pcn.12901 “Neural mechanisms underlying adaptive and maladaptive consequences of stress: Roles of dopaminergic and inflammatory responses

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6627480/ “In Search of Panacea—Review of Recent Studies Concerning Nature-Derived Anticancer Agents”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0028390819303363 “Reversal of oxycodone conditioned place preference by oxytocin: Promoting global DNA methylation in the hippocampus” (not freely available)

https://www.futuremedicine.com/doi/10.2217/epi-2019-0102 “Different epigenetic clocks reflect distinct pathophysiological features of multiple sclerosis”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6834159/ “The Beige Adipocyte as a Therapy for Metabolic Diseases”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S8756328219304077 “Bone adaptation: safety factors and load predictability in shaping skeletal form” (not freely available)

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41380-019-0549-3 “Successful treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder reverses DNA methylation marks” (not freely available)

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0166223619301821 “Editing the Epigenome to Tackle Brain Disorders” (not freely available)

Using oxytocin receptor gene methylation to pursue an agenda

A pair of 2019 Virginia studies involved human mother/infant subjects:

“We show that OXTRm [oxytocin receptor gene DNA methylation] in infancy and its change is predicted by maternal engagement and reflective of behavioral temperament.”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6795517 “Epigenetic dynamics in infancy and the impact of maternal engagement”

“Infants with higher OXTRm show enhanced responses to anger and fear and attenuated responses to happiness in right inferior frontal cortex, a region implicated in emotion processing through action-perception coupling.

Infant fNIRS [functional near-infrared spectroscopy] is limited to measuring responses from cerebral cortex..it is unknown whether OXTR is expressed in the cerebral cortex during prenatal and early postnatal human brain development.”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S187892931830207X “Epigenetic modification of the oxytocin receptor gene is associated with emotion processing in the infant brain”


Both studies had weak disclosures of limitations on their findings’ relevance and significance. The largest non-disclosed contrary finding was from the 2015 Early-life epigenetic regulation of the oxytocin receptor gene:

These results suggest that:

  • Blood Oxtr DNA methylation may reflect early experience of maternal care, and
  • Oxtr methylation across tissues is highly concordant for specific CpGs, but
  • Inferences across tissues are not supported for individual variation in Oxtr methylation.

This rat study found that blood OXTR methylation of 25 CpG sites couldn’t accurately predict the same 25 CpG sites’ OXTR methylation in each subject’s hippocampus, hypothalamus, and striatum (which includes the nucleus accumbens) brain areas. Without significant effects in these limbic system structures, there couldn’t be any associated behavioral effects.

But CpG site associations and correlations were deemed good in the two current studies because they cited:

“Recent work in prairie voles has found that both brain- and blood-derived OXTRm levels at these sites are negatively associated with gene expression in the brain and highly correlated with each other.”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306453018306103 “Early nurture epigenetically tunes the oxytocin receptor”

The 2018 prairie vole study – which included several of the same researchers as the two current studies – found four nucleus accumbens CpG sites that had high correlations to humans. Discarding one of these CpG sites allowed their statistics package to make a four-decimal place finding:

“The methylation state of the blood was also associated with the level of transcription in the brain at three of the four CpG sites..whole blood was capable of explaining 94.92% of the variance in Oxtr DNA methylation and 18.20% of the variance in Oxtr expression.”

Few limitations on the prairie vole study findings were disclosed. Like the two current studies, there wasn’t a limitation section that placed research findings into suitable contexts. So readers didn’t know researcher viewpoints on items such as:

  • What additional information showed that 3 of the 30+ million human CpGs accurately predicted specific brain OXTR methylation and expression from saliva OXTR methylation?
  • What additional information demonstrated how “measuring responses from cerebral cortex” although “it is unknown whether OXTR is expressed in the cerebral cortex” provided detailed and dependable estimates of limbic system CpG site OXTR methylation and expression?
  • Was the above 25-CpG study evidence considered?

Further contrast these three studies with a typical, four-point, 285-word limitation section of a study like Prenatal stress heightened adult chronic pain. The word “limit” appeared 6 times in that pain study, 3 times in the current fNIRS study, and 0 times in the current maternal engagement and cited prairie vole studies.

Frank interpretations of one’s own study findings to acknowledge limitations is one way researchers can address items upfront that will be questioned anyway. Such analyses also indicate a goal to advance science.

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)

Organismal aging and cellular senescence

I’ll curate this 2019 German review through its figures:

“With the discovery of beneficial aspects of cellular senescence and evidence of senescence being not limited to replicative cellular states, a redefinition of our comprehension of aging and senescence appears scientifically overdue.

Figure 1. Current determinants and relevant open questions, marking the processes of aging and senescence as discussed in the text. Aspects represented in green are considered as broadly accepted or scientifically consolidated. Novel aspects that are yet unproven, or are under debate, are highlighted in red.

SASP = senescence-associated secretory phenotype. AASP = putative aging-associated secretory phenotype as suggested in the text.

Figure 2. Theories on the causality and purpose of aging. Graphically summarized are four contrasting concepts crystallized from current evidence addressing the inductive driving force of aging. Apart from a stochastic deleteriome, there are arguments for a pseudo-programmed, programmed or at least partially programmed nature of aging.

Figure 3. Comparative representation of the aging and senescence processes highlighting different levels of interaction and putative sites of interventions.

(1) As discussed in the text, causative mechanisms of aging are still not well understood, however, multiple factors including genetic, epigenetic and stress-related effects seem to have an orchestrated role in the progression of aging. Senescence on the other hand, is seen as a programmed response to different kinds of stressors, which proceed in defined stages. Whether, in analogy, aging also follows a defined program or sequential stages is not known.

(2) Senescence involves autocrine and paracrine factors, which are responsible for a ‘seno-infection’ or bystander effect in neighboring cells. There is currently no direct evidence for a similar factor composition propagating the aging process via a kind of ‘gero-infection’.

(3) Accumulation of senescent cells has been described as a hallmark of aging; however, whether they are a causative factor or a consequence of tissue and organismal aging is still unknown. As discussed in the text, it appears possible that aging and senescence mutually influence each other through positive feedback at this level, leading to accelerated tissue damage and aging.

(4,5) Clearance of senescent or aging cells might constitute putative targets for interventional approaches aimed to reduce or reverse the impact of aging and improve cell and tissue homeostasis by inducing a ‘rejuvenation’ process.

Figure 4. Pathological and beneficial functions of aging and senescence, according to current knowledge. In red are represented pathological consequences and in green beneficial functions of aging and senescence.

The impact of aging has mainly been described at the organismal level, since a complete cellular functional profile has not yet been established. Accordingly, whether beneficial consequences of the aging process exist at the cellular level is unclear.”


The reviewers’ position on Figure 2 was:

“In our view, recent evidence that

  • Senescence is based on an unterminated developmental growth program and the finding that
  • The concept of post-mitotic senescence requires the activation of expansion, or ‘growth’ factors as a second hit,

favor the assumption that aging underlies a grating of genetic determination similarly to what is summarized above under the pseudo-programmed causative approach.”

Their position on Figure 4’s beneficial effects of aging began with the sentence:

“If we assume that aging already starts before birth, it can be considered simply a developmental stage, required to complete the evolutionary program associated with species-intrinsic biological functions such as reproduction, survival, and selection.”

Cited studies included:

https://www.mdpi.com/2073-4409/8/11/1446 “Dissecting Aging and Senescence-Current Concepts and Open Lessons”

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)

Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of thyroid hormone sensitivity

My 500th curation is a 2019 Portuguese human study of Azorean islanders:

“This study demonstrates a transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in humans produced by exposure to high TH [thyroid hormone] in fetal life, in the absence of maternal influences secondary to thyrotoxicosis. The inheritance is along the male line.

The present work took advantage of the relatively frequent occurrence of fetal exposure to high TH levels in the Azorean island of São Miguel. This is the consequence of a missense mutation in the THRB gene causing the amino-acid replacement R243Q, resulting in reduced affinity of the TH receptor beta (TRβ) for TH and thus RTHβ.

Its origin has been traced to a couple who lived at the end of the 19th century. F0 represented the third generation and F3 the sixth and seventh generation descendant.”


These researchers provided the first adequately evidenced human transgenerational epigenetic inheritance study! However, the lead sentence in its Abstract wasn’t correct:

“Evidence for transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in humans is still controversial, given the requirement to demonstrate persistence of the phenotype across three generations.”

Although found in this study, there is no “requirement to demonstrate persistence of the phenotype.” Observing the same phenotype in each generation is NOT required for human transgenerational epigenetic inheritance to exist!

Animal transgenerational studies have shown that epigenetic inheritance mechanisms may both express different phenotypes for each generation:

and entirely skip a phenotype in one or more generations!

  • Transgenerational pathological traits induced by prenatal immune activation found a F2 and F3 generation phenotype of impaired sociability, abnormal fear expression and behavioral despair – effects that weren’t present in the F1 offspring;
  • The transgenerational impact of Roundup exposure “Found negligible impacts of glyphosate on the directly exposed F0 generation, or F1 generation offspring pathology. In contrast, dramatic increases in pathologies in the F2 generation grand-offspring, and F3 transgenerational great-grand-offspring were observed.” (a disease phenotype similarly skipped the first offspring generation);
  • Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance mechanisms that lead to prostate disease “There was also no increase in prostate histopathology in the directly exposed F1 or F2 generation.” (a prostate disease phenotype skipped the first two male offspring generations before it was observed in the F3 male offspring); and
  • Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of ovarian disease “There was no increase in ovarian disease in direct fetal exposed F1 or germline exposed F2 generation. The F3 generation can have disease while the F1 and F2 generations do not, due to this difference in the molecular mechanisms involved.” (an ovarian disease phenotype similarly skipped the first two female offspring generations before it was observed in the F3 female offspring).

Details of epigenetic inheritance mechanisms were provided in Another important transgenerational epigenetic inheritance study. Mechanisms from fetal exposure to the fungicide vinclozolin were compared with mechanisms from fetal DDT exposure, and summarized as:

The fetal exposure initiates a developmental cascade of aberrant epigenetic programming, and does NOT simply induce a specific number of DMRs [DNA methylation regions] that are maintained throughout development.

I emailed references to the studies in the first five above curations to the current study’s corresponding coauthor. They replied “What is the mechanism for the transgenerational inheritance you describe?” and my reply included a link to the sixth curation’s study.

Are there still other transgenerational epigenetically inherited effects due to fetal exposure to high thyroid hormone levels?

https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/thy.2019.0080 “Reduced Sensitivity to Thyroid Hormone as a Transgenerational Epigenetic Marker Transmitted Along the Human Male Line”