Our brains are shaped by our early environments

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An hour of the epigenetic clock

This 2018 presentation by the founder of the epigenetic clock method described the state of the art up through July 2018. The webinar was given on the release day of The epigenetic clock now includes skin study.


Segments before the half-hour mark provide an introduction to the method and several details about the concurrently-released study. The Q&A section starts a little before the hour mark.

Fear of feeling?

Here’s a 2018 article from two researchers involved in the Dunedin (New Zealand) Longitudinal Study. They coauthored many studies, including People had the same personalities at age 26 that they had at age 3.

The paper’s grand hypothesis was:

“A single dimension is able to measure a person’s liability to mental disorder, comorbidity among disorders, persistence of disorders over time, and severity of symptoms.”

The coauthors partially based this on:

“Repeated diagnostic interviews carried out over 25 years, when the research participants were 11, 13, 15, 18, 21, 26, 32, and 38 years old, and include information about seven diagnostic groups: anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, substance dependence, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.”


https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.ajp.2018.17121383 “All for One and One for All: Mental Disorders in One Dimension” (not freely available)


More about the coauthors:

Two psychologists followed 1000 New Zealanders for decades. Here’s what they found about how childhood shapes later life

“Dunedin and other studies show that most people have at least one episode of mental illness during their lifetime.”


What compels people to manufacture “universal truths” instead of feeling and understanding historical, factual, personal truths? Are we afraid of our feelings?

What if the grand hypothesis worth proving was: For one’s life to have meaning, each individual has to regain their feelings?

Fitting data

Let’s start out the new year with a repost of a cautionary reminder:

“Both “predict and “explain” imply that investigators have uncovered a reliable structure to phenomena, the latter involving hypotheses describing unseen mechanisms, leading to a new ability to control events and produce formerly unpredicted/unpredictable outcomes. This is clearly not a fair description of post hoc correlation-fishing.

The current publication system almost forces authors to make causal statements using filler verbs (e.g. to drive, alter, promote) as a form of storytelling (Gomez-Marin, 2017); without such a statement they are often accused of just collecting meaningless facts.”

https://mythsofvisionscience.wordpress.com/2018/12/30/neuroscience-newspeak-or-how-to-publish-meaningless-facts/ “Neuroscience Newspeak, Or How to Publish Meaningless Facts”

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”

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)