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)

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Prenatal stress produces offspring who as adults have cognitive, emotional, and memory deficiencies

This 2018 French/Italian/Swiss rodent study used the prenatally restraint stressed (PRS) model to create problems that could be resolved by various chemicals:

“S 47445 is a positive modulator of glutamate AMPA-type receptors, possessing neurotrophic and enhancing synaptic plasticity effects as well as pro-cognitive and anti-stress properties.

Most of studies examining the antidepressant effects of new molecules are carried out using behavioral tests performed in unstressed animals.

Corticosterone-treated mice and rats exposed to chronic stress are models that do not recapitulate the early programming of stress-related disorders, which likely originates in the perinatal period. The PRS rat model is characterized by a prolonged corticosterone response to stress and by abnormal behavior.

All the behavioral alterations induced by PRS..were corrected by chronic S 47445 administration at both doses.”


The paper included a section comparing S 47445 to ketamine:

“Ketamine, however, causes severe cognitive impairment and psychotomimetic [mimics the symptoms of psychosis, reference not freely available] effects that are direct consequences of the prolonged inhibition of NMDA receptors in cortical and hippocampal interneurons, and seriously limit the chronic administration of the drug in the clinical setting. [reference not freely available]

S 47445 by inducing a direct activation of AMPARs displayed an antidepressant activity without the adverse effect of ketamine. Indeed, contrary to ketamine, S 47445 presented no psychotomimetic effects and induced no occurrence of spontaneous epileptic seizures. [reference freely available] Moreover, S 47445 also presented pro-cognitive properties.”

Compare the above with this April 2018 Chicago Tribune story that had opinions with no linked references:

“..ketamine, an anesthetic used to sedate both people and animals before surgery. It’s also a notorious street drug, abused by clubgoers seeking a trancelike, hallucinatory high. But in recent years, numerous studies have found that ketamine can be an effective and speedy treatment for people with depression.”

Which coverage better informed us?


Treating prenatal stress-related disorders with an oxytocin receptor agonist was performed by several of this paper’s coauthors. One of this paper’s references to it was:

“We have already reported that depolarization-evoked glutamate release in the ventral hippocampus is negatively correlated with risk-taking behavior of PRS rats, and that such correlation can be corrected by chronic treatment with monoaminergic/melatoninergic antidepressants or oxytocin receptor agonist. Thus, an impairment of glutamatergic transmission in the ventral hippocampus lies at the core of the pathological phenotype of PRS rats.”

Looking at the above graphic of the experimental design, I’m not sure why the term perinatal (occurring during or pertaining to the phase surrounding the time of birth) was used in the paper’s title and content to describe the stress period. The pregnant females were stressed three times daily every day during the second half of pregnancy up until delivery, so the prenatal (previous to birth) term was more applicable.


So, how does this study help humans?

One takeaway is to avoid stressing pregnant mothers-to-be if her children will be expected to become adults without cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems.

The study demonstrated one way prenatal events cause lifelong effects. The PRS model provides another example of why it’s useless to ask adult humans to self-report the causes of epigenetic problems in their lives when these originated before birth, during infancy, or in early childhood well before humans develop the cognitive capability to recognize such situations. It’s incomprehensible that this unreliable paradigm is still given significant weight in stress experimental designs, especially when they:

“..do not recapitulate the early programming of stress-related disorders, which likely originates in the perinatal period.”

Also, the relevant difference between humans and PRS rats is that we can ourselves individually change our responses to experiential causes of ongoing adverse effects. Standard methodologies can only apply external treatments such as those mentioned above.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0028390818301291 “The reduction in glutamate release is predictive of cognitive and emotional alterations that are corrected by the positive modulator of AMPA receptors S 47445 in perinatal stressed rats” (not freely available) Thanks to coauthors Stefania Maccari and Dr. Jerome Mairesse for providing a copy.

Manufacturing PTSD evidence with machine learning

What would you do if you were a scientist who had strong beliefs that weren’t borne out by experimental evidence?

Would you be honest with yourself about the roots of the beliefs? Would you attempt to discover why the beliefs were necessary for you, and what feelings were associated with the beliefs?

Instead of the above, the researchers of this 2017 New York human study reworked negative findings of two of the coauthors’ 2008 study until it fit their beliefs:

“The neuroendocrine response contributes to an accurate predictive signal of PTSD trajectory of response to trauma. Further, cortisol provides a stable predictive signal when measured in conjunction with other related neuroendocrine and clinical sources of information.

Further, this work provides a methodology that is relevant across psychiatry and other behavioral sciences that transcend the limitations of commonly utilized data analytic tools to match the complexity of the current state of theory in these fields.”


The limitations section included:

“It is important to note that ML [machine learning]-based network models are an inherently exploratory data analytic method, and as such might be seen as ‘hypotheses generating’. While such an approach is informative in situations where complex relationships cannot be proposed and tested a priori, such an approach also presents with inherent limitations as a high number of relationships are estimated simultaneously introducing a non-trivial probability of false discovery.”


Sex-specific impacts of childhood trauma summarized why cortisol isn’t a reliable biological measurement:

“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.”

Although this study’s authors knew or should have known that review’s information, cortisol was the study’s foundation, and beliefs in its use as a biomarker were defended.

What will it take for childhood trauma research to change paradigms? described why self-reports of childhood trauma can NEVER provide direct evidence for trauma during the top three periods when humans are most sensitive to and affected by trauma:

The basic problem prohibiting the CTQ (Childhood Trauma Questionnaire) from discovering likely most of the subjects’ historical traumatic experiences that caused epigenetic changes is that these experiences predated the CTQ’s developmental starting point.

Self-reports were – at best – evidence of experiences after age three, distinct from the experience-dependent epigenetic changes since conception.”

Yet the researchers’ beliefs in the Trauma History Questionnaire’s capability to provide evidence for early childhood traumatic experiences allowed them to make such self-reports an important part of this study’s findings, for example:

“The reduced cortisol response in the ER [emergency room] was dependent on report of early childhood trauma exposure.”

An interview with Dr. Rachel Yehuda on biological and conscious responses to stress was the perspective of one of the study’s coauthors.

https://www.nature.com/articles/tp201738 “Utilization of machine learning for prediction of post-traumatic stress: a re-examination of cortisol in the prediction and pathways to non-remitting PTSD”

Genomic imprinting and growth

This 2018 UK paper reviewed genomic imprinting:

“Since their discovery nearly 30 years ago, imprinted genes have been a paradigm for exploring the epigenetic control of gene expression. Moreover, their roles in early life growth and placentation are undisputed.

However, it is becoming increasingly clear that imprinted gene function has a wider role in maternal physiology during reproduction – both by modulating fetal and placental endocrine products that signal to alter maternal energy homeostasis, and by altering maternal energetic set points, thus producing downstream actions on nutrient provisioning.”

“Imprinted genes in the conceptus produce products that alter maternal resource allocation by:

  1. altering the transport capacity of the placenta;
  2. increasing fetal demand for resources by their action on the intrinsic growth rate; and
  3. signalling to the mother by the production of fetal/placental hormones that modify maternal metabolism.”

Other studies/reviews I’ve curated that covered genomic imprinting are:

http://jeb.biologists.org/content/jexbio/221/Suppl_1/jeb164517.full.pdf “Genomic imprinting, growth and maternal-fetal interactions”


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.

How well do single-mother rodent studies inform us about human fathers?

Two items before getting to the review:

This 2018 Australian review subject was paternal intergenerational and transgenerational transmission of biological and behavioral phenotypes per this partial outline:

“Evidence for non-genetic inheritance of behavioral traits in human populations

  • Intergenerational inheritance modulating offspring phenotypes following paternal exposure to trauma
  • Epigenetic inheritance via the germline following paternal environmental exposures
  • Limitations of research on epigenetic inheritance in human populations

The transgenerational impact of stressful paternal environments

  • Impact of paternal stress on affective behaviors and HPA-axis regulation of progeny
  • Influence of paternal stress exposure on offspring cognition
  • Role of sperm-borne microRNAs in the epigenetic inheritance of stress

Sexually dimorphic aspects of paternal transgenerational epigenetic inheritance”

The review was comprehensive, and filled in the above outline with many details towards the goal of:

“This exciting new field of transgenerational epigenomics will facilitate the development of novel strategies to predict, prevent and treat negative epigenetic consequences on offspring health, and psychiatric disorders in particular.”

The reviewers also demonstrated that current intergenerational and transgenerational research paradigms exclude a father’s child care behavior.


The fact that studies use rat and mouse species where fathers don’t naturally provide care for their offspring has warped the translation of findings to humans. The underlying question every animal study must answer is: how can its information be used to help humans? I asked in A limited study of parental transmission of anxiety/stress-reactive traits:

“How did parental behavioral transmission of behavioral traits and epigenetic changes become a subject not worth investigating? These traits and effects can be seen everyday in real-life human interactions, and in every human’s physiology.

Who among us doesn’t still have biological and behavioral consequences from our experiences of our father’s child care actions and inactions? Why can’t researchers and sponsors investigate these back to their sources that may include grandparents and great-grandparents?

Such efforts weren’t apparent in the review’s 116 cited references that included:

The reviewer in the latter has been instrumental in excluding behavioral inheritance mechanisms from these research paradigms, leading to my questions:

  1. “If the experimental subjects had no more control over their behavioral stress-response effects than they had over their DNA methylation, histone modification, or microRNA stress-response effects, then why was such behavior not included in the “epigenetic mechanisms” term?
  2. How do behavioral inheritance mechanisms fall outside the “true epigenetic inheritance” term when behavioral stress-response effects are shown to be reliably transmitted generation after generation?
  3. Wouldn’t the cessation of behavioral inheritance mechanisms confirm their status by falsifiability as was similarly done with studies such as the 1995 Adoption reverses the long-term impairment in glucocorticoid feedback induced by prenatal stress?”

Translating rodent studies into human mothers’ behavioral transmission of biological and behavioral phenotypes isn’t hampered by the studied species’ traits as it is for human fathers. But sponsors would have to support human research that may not produce politically-correct findings.


http://www.translatingtime.org provides an inter-species comparative timeline. For example, an input of:

  • Species 1: Human
  • Process: Lifespan
  • Location: Whole Organism
  • Days (post-conception): 270
  • Species 2: Mouse

produces a list of event predictions. Note how many significant events occur before humans are born at day 270, assuming everything goes right with our developmental processes! Also, the model predictions for humans end at post-conception day 979, three weeks short of when we celebrate our second birthday.

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41380-018-0039-z “Transgenerational epigenetic influences of paternal environmental exposures on brain function and predisposition to psychiatric disorders” (not freely available) Thanks to Dr. Shlomo Yeshurun for providing a full copy.

Sleep and adult brain neurogenesis

This 2018 Japan/Detroit review subject was the impact of sleep and epigenetic modifications on adult dentate gyrus neurogenesis:

“We discuss the functions of adult‐born DG neurons, describe the epigenetic regulation of adult DG neurogenesis, identify overlaps in how sleep and epigenetic modifications impact adult DG neurogenesis and memory consolidation..

Whereas the rate of DG neurogenesis declines exponentially with age in most mammals, humans appear to exhibit a more modest age‐related reduction in DG neurogenesis. Evidence of adult neurogenesis has also been observed in other regions of the mammalian brain such as the subventricular zone, neocortex, hypothalamus, amygdala, and striatum.

Adult‐born DG neurons functionally integrate into hippocampal circuitry and play a special role in cognition during a period of heightened excitability and synaptic plasticity occurring 4–6 weeks after mitosis..Adult DG neurogenesis is regulated by a myriad of intrinsic and extrinsic factors, including:

  • drugs,
  • diet,
  • inflammation,
  • physical activity,
  • environmental enrichment,
  • stress, and
  • trauma.”


Some of what the review stated was contradicted by other evidence. For example, arguments for sleep were based on the memory consolidation paradigm, but evidence against memory consolidation wasn’t cited for balanced consideration.

It reminded me of A review that inadvertently showed how memory paradigms prevented relevant research. That review’s citations included a study led by one of those reviewers where:

“The researchers elected to pursue a workaround of the memory reconsolidation paradigm when the need for a new paradigm of enduring memories directly confronted them!”

Some of what this review stated was speculation. I didn’t quote any sections that followed:

 “We go one step further and propose..”

The review also had a narrative directed toward:

“Employing sleep interventions and epigenetic drugs..”

It’s storytelling rather than pursuing the scientific method when reviewers approach a topic as these reviewers did.

Instead of reading the review, I recommend this informative blog post from a Canadian researcher who provided scientific contexts rather than a directed narrative to summarize what is and isn’t known so far in 2018 about human neurogenesis.

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/stem.2815/epdf “Regulatory Influence of Sleep and Epigenetics on Adult Hippocampal Neurogenesis and Cognitive and Emotional Function”

What will it take for childhood trauma research to change paradigms?

This 2018 German human study found:

“DNA methylation in a biologically relevant region of NR3C1-1F [the glucocorticoid receptor gene] moderates the specific direction of HPA-axis dysregulation (hypo- vs. hyperreactivity) in adults exposed to moderate-severe CT [childhood trauma].

In contrast, unexposed and mildly-moderately exposed individuals displayed moderately sized cortisol stress responses irrespective of NR3C1-1F DNA methylation. Contrary to some prior work, however, our data provides no evidence for a direct association of CT and NR3C1-1F DNA methylation status.”


The study was an example of why researchers investigating the lasting impacts of human traumatic experiences won’t find causes, effects, and productive therapies until their paradigms change.

1. Limited subject histories

A. Why weren’t the subjects asked for historical information about their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents?

The researchers had no problem using animal studies to guide the study design, EXCEPT for animal studies of the etiologic bases of intergenerational and transgenerational transmission of biological and behavioral phenotypes. Just the approximate places and dates of three generations of the German subjects’ ancestors’ births, childhoods, adolescences, and early adulthoods may have provided relevant trauma indicators.

B. Why are studies still using the extremely constrained Childhood Trauma Questionnaire? Only one CTQ aspect was acknowledged as a study design limitation:

“Our findings rely on retrospective self-report measures of CT, which could be subject to bias.”

But bias was among the lesser limiting factors of the CTQ.

The study correlated epigenetic changes with what the subjects selectively remembered, beginning when their brains developed sufficient cognitive functionalities to put together the types of memories that could provide CTQ answers – around age four. The basic problem prohibiting the CTQ from discovering likely most of the subjects’ historical traumatic experiences that caused epigenetic changes is that these experiences predated the CTQ’s developmental starting point:

  1. A human’s conception through prenatal period is when both the largest and the largest number of epigenetic changes occur, and is when our susceptibility and sensitivity to our environment is greatest;
  2. Birth through infancy is the second-largest; and
  3. Early childhood through the age of three is the third largest.

CTQ self-reports were – at best – evidence of experiences after age three, distinct from the  experience-dependent epigenetic changes since conception. If links existed between the subjects’ early-life DNA methylation and later-life conditions, they weren’t necessarily evidenced by CTQ answers about later life that can’t self-report relevant early-life experiences that may have caused DNA methylation.

2. Limited subject selection

The researchers narrowed down the initial 622 potential subjects to the eventual 200 subjects aged 18 to 30. An exclusion criteria that was justified as eliminating confounders led to this limitation statement:

“Our results might be based on a generally more resilient sample as we had explicitly excluded individuals with current or past psychopathology.”

Was it okay for the researchers to assert:

“Exposure to environmental adversity such as childhood trauma (CT) affects over 10% of the Western population and ranges among the best predictors for psychopathology later in life.”

but not develop evidence for the statement by letting people who may have been already affected by age 30 and received treatment participate in the study? Was the study design so fragile that it couldn’t adjust to the very people who may be helped by the research findings?

3. Limited consequential measurements

The current study design was very conformant to previous studies’ protocols. The researchers chose cortisol and specific DNA methylation measurements.

A. Here’s what Sex-specific impacts of childhood trauma had to say about 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.”

The researchers knew or should have known all of the above since this quotation came from a review.

B. What other consequential evidence for prenatal, infancy, and early childhood experience-dependent epigenetic changes can be measured? One overlooked area is including human emotions as evidence.

There are many animal studies from which to draw inferences about human emotions. There are many animal models of creating measurable behavioral and biological phenotypes of human emotion correlates, with many methods, including manipulating environmental variables during prenatal, infancy, and early childhood periods.

Studies that take detailed histories may arrive at current emotional evidence for human subjects’ earliest experience-dependent changes. It’s not too big a leap to correlate specific historical environments and events, stress measurements, and lasting human emotions expressed as “I’m all alone” and “No one can help me” to better understand causes and effects.

CTQ answers aren’t sufficiently detailed histories.

4. Limited effective treatments and therapies

The current study only addressed this area in the final sentence:

“Given their potential reversibility, uncovering epigenetic contributions to differential trajectories following childhood adversity may serve the long-term goal of delivering personalized prevention strategies.”


Researchers: if your paradigms demonstrate these characteristics, why are you spending your working life in efforts that can’t make a difference? Isn’t your working life more valuable than that? What else could you investigate that could make a difference in your field?

I hope that researchers will value their professions enough to make a difference with their expertise. And that sponsors won’t thwart researchers’ desires for difference-making science by putting them into endless funding queues.

http://www.psyneuen-journal.com/article/S0306-4530(17)31355-0/pdf “Glucocorticoid receptor gene methylation moderates the association of childhood trauma and cortisol stress reactivity” (not freely available)