An epigenetic clock review by committee

This 2019 worldwide review of epigenetic clocks was a semi-anonymous mishmash of opinions, facts, hypotheses, unwarranted extrapolations, and beliefs. The diversity of viewpoints among the 21 coauthors wasn’t evident.

1. Citations of the coauthors’ works seemed excessive, and they apologized for omissions. However:

  • Challenge 5 was titled “Single-cell analysis of aging changes and disease” and
  • Table 1 “Major biological and analytic issues with epigenetic DNA methylation clocks” had single-cell analysis as the Proposed solution to five of the Significant issues.

Yet studies such as High-Resolution Single-Cell DNA Methylation Measurements Reveal Epigenetically Distinct Hematopoietic Stem Cell Subpopulations were unmentioned.

2. Some coauthors semi-anonymously expressed faith that using current flawed methodologies in the future – only more thoroughly, with newer equipment, etc. – would yield better results. If the 21 coauthors were asked their viewpoints of Proposed solutions to the top three Significant issues of epigenetic clocks, what would they emphasize when quoted?

3. Techniques were praised:

“Given the precision with which DNA methylation clock age can be estimated and evolving measures of biological, phenotype-, and disease-related age (e.g., PhenoAge, GrimAge)..”

Exactly why these techniques have at times produced inexplicable results wasn’t examined, though. Two examples:

  • In Reversal of aging and immunosenescent trends, the Levine PhenoAge methodology estimated that the 51-65 year old subjects’ biological ages at the beginning of the study averaged 17.5 years less than their chronological age. Comparing that to the Horvath average biological age of 3.95 years less raised the question: exactly why did PhenoAge show such a large difference?
  • The paper mentioned the GrimAge methodology findings about “smoking-related changes.” But it didn’t explain why the GrimAge methylation findings most closely associated with smoking history also accurately predicted future disease risk with non-smokers.

Eluding explanations for these types of findings didn’t help build confidence in the methodologies.

4. A more readable approach to review by committee could have coauthors – in at least one section – answer discussion questions, as Reversing epigenetic T cell exhaustion did with 18 experts.

https://genomebiology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13059-019-1824-y “DNA methylation aging clocks: challenges and recommendations”

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)

Caloric restriction’s epigenetic effects

This 2019 US review subject was caloric restriction (CR) without malnutrition:

“Cellular adaptation that occurs in response to dietary patterns can be explained by alterations in epigenetic mechanisms such as DNA methylation, histone modifications, and microRNA. Epigenetic reprogramming of the underlying chronic low-grade inflammation by CR can lead to immuno-metabolic adaptations that enhance quality of life, extend lifespan, and delay chronic disease onset.

Short- and long-term CRs produce significant changes in different tissues and across species, in some animal models even with sex-specific effects. Early CR onset may cause a different and even an opposite effect on physiological outcomes in animal models such as body weight.”

 


1. Charts usually don’t have two different values plotted on the same axis. There wasn’t evidence that equated survival with methylation drift per the above graphic. Methylation drift should point in the opposite direction of survival, if anything.

2. No mention was made of the epigenetic clock method of measuring age acceleration, although it’s been available since 2013 and recent diet studies have used it. The sole citation of an age acceleration study was from 2001, which was unacceptable for a review published in 2019.

3. The review provided many cellular-level details about the subject. However, organism-level areas weren’t sufficiently evidenced:

A. Arguments for an effect usually include explanations for no effect as well as opposite effects. The reviewers didn’t provide direct evidence for why, if caloric restriction extended lifespan, caloric overabundance produced shorter lifespans.

B. Caloric restriction evidence was presented as if only it was responsible for organism-level effects. Other mechanisms may have been involved.

An example of such a mechanism was demonstrated in a 2007 rodent study Reduced Oxidant Stress and Extended Lifespan in Mice Exposed to a Low Glycotoxin Diet which compared two 40%-calorie-restricted diets.

The calories and composition of both diets were identical. However, advanced glycation end product (AGE) levels were doubled in standard chow because heating temperatures were “sufficiently high to inadvertently cause standard mouse chow to be rich in oxidant AGEs.”

The study found that a diet with lower chow heating temperatures increased lifespan and health span irrespective of caloric restriction!

  • The low-AGE calorie-restricted diet group lived an average of 15% longer (>20 human equivalent years) than the CR group.
  • 40% of the low-AGE calorie-restricted diet group were still alive when the last CR group member died.
  • The CR group also had significantly more: 1) oxidative stress damage; 2) glucose and insulin metabolism problems; and 3) kidney, spleen, and liver injuries.

https://academic.oup.com/advances/article-abstract/10/3/520/5420411 “Epigenetic Regulation of Metabolism and Inflammation by Calorie Restriction” (not freely available)

Non-emotional memories

This 2019 US review covered memory mechanisms:

“With memory encoding reliant on persistent changes in the properties of synapses, a key question is how can memories be maintained from days to months or a lifetime given molecular turnover? It is likely that positive feedback loops are necessary to persistently maintain the strength of synapses that participate in encoding.

These levels are not isolated, but linked by shared components of feedback loops.”


Despite the review’s exhaustive discussion, the reviewers never came to the point. The word cloud I made of the review’s most frequent thirty words had little to do with why memory occurs:

  • Why do some stimuli evoke a memory in response?
  • Why are almost all of the stimuli an organism receives not remembered?

Much of the discussion was baseless because it excluded emotion. Many of the citations’ memory findings relied on emotion, though.

For example, in the subsection Roles of persistent epigenetic modifications for maintaining LTF [long-term facilitation], LTP [long-term potentiation], and LTM [long-term memory]:

  • Histone acetylation is increased after fear conditioning in the hippocampus and amygdala.
  • Correspondingly, inhibition of histone deacetylase enhances fear conditioning and LTP.
  • Following fear conditioning, histone phosphorylation is also increased.
  • DNA methylation is also up-regulated in the hippocampus and amygdala after fear conditioning, and inhibition of DNA methylation blocks fear LTM.”

http://learnmem.cshlp.org/content/26/5/133.full “How can memories last for days, years, or a lifetime? Proposed mechanisms for maintaining synaptic potentiation and memory”

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 yet 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)

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”

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 had neither been peer-reviewed, nor were the mechanisms tested in living beings.

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