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”

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Unindexed comment links?

It’s dawned on me that although links in blog posts are indexed by search engines, links in comments may not be. Here’s a post to elevate links in three comments that may have escaped notice.


From A review of biological variability:

“It is my view that all researchers have a narrow focus on what they want to research, without having an over-riding paradigm in which to fit the research and its results. Janovian Primal Therapy and theory, with its focus and understanding of the three different levels of consciousness would provide for a much needed over-arching paradigm, especially in the area of mental health.”

Congratulations on an excellent podcast, Gil!
59. Gilbert Bates in “Feel It Still” // Love, Primal Therapy & the Three Levels of Consciousness


From Remembering Dr. Arthur Janov:

“You are right on. The Norcross survey, in particular, is utter crap. More than half of those “experts” surveyed were CBT therapists who knew nothing about PT and yet deemed themselves confident to judge “primal scream therapy” as “discredited.” I feel the therapy will never be understood for what it is.”

Thanks for the detailed explanation, Bruce!
The Worst Comparative Psychotherapy Study Ever Published


From How one person’s paradigms regarding stress and epigenetics impedes relevant research:

“There is of course, reversibility. Michael Meaney’s baby rats had their epigenetic changes reversed with loving maternal care. There are several compounds in development which have been shown to reverse methylation. This former physician and researcher says, “Epigenetic changes affect the level of activity of our genes. Genetic activity levels affect our emotions, beliefs, and our bodies. Exploring epigenetics and chronic illness may help us understand causes that many of us suspect have played a role in the onset and evolution of our illnesses. Furthermore, these epigenetic changes have been found to be reversible, at least some of the time, even with a seemingly indirect treatment such as psychotherapy.” Epigenetics and Chronic Illness: Why Symptoms May Be Reversible

I looked up the psychotherapy references and found this: Serotonin tranporter methylation and response to cognitive behaviour therapy in children with anxiety disorders (reversible even with CBT, the weakest therapy of all!)

And this:
MAOA gene hypomethylation in panic disorder—reversibility of an epigenetic risk pattern by psychotherapy (also CBT)

So what gives? I suspect that your researcher is working with his/her head in the sand, hamstrung by their ideological biases. If CBT can effect epigenetic changes, imagine what primal therapy can do.”


And a seven-year anniversary repost of events that affect me every day:

Reflections on my four-year anniversary of spine surgery

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 any 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”

A mid-year selection of epigenetic topics

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

The pain societies instill into children

DNA methylation and childhood adversity

Epigenetic mechanisms of muscle memory

Sex-specific impacts of childhood trauma

Sleep and adult brain neurogenesis

This dietary supplement is better for depression symptoms than placebo

The epigenetic clock theory of aging

A flying human tethered to a monkey

Immune memory in the brain

The lack of oxygen’s epigenetic effects on a fetus