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 a 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)

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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”

Resiliency in stress responses

This 2018 US Veterans Administration review subject was resiliency and stress responses:

Neurobiological and behavioral responses to stress are highly variable. Exposure to a similar stressor can lead to heterogeneous outcomes — manifesting psychopathology in one individual, but having minimal effect, or even enhancing resilience, in another.

We highlight aspects of stress response modulation related to early life development and epigenetics, selected neurobiological and neurochemical systems, and a number of emotional, cognitive, psychosocial, and behavioral factors important in resilience.”

The review cited studies I’ve previously curated:


There were two things I didn’t understand about this review. The first was why the paper isn’t freely available. It’s completely paid for by the US taxpayer, and no copyright is claimed. I recommend contacting the authors for a copy.

The second was why the VA hasn’t participated in either animal or human follow-on studies to the 2015 Northwestern University GABAergic mechanisms regulated by miR-33 encode state-dependent fear. That study’s relevance to PTSD, this review’s subject, and the VA’s mission is too important to ignore. For example:

“Fear-inducing memories can be state dependent, meaning that they can best be retrieved if the brain states at encoding and retrieval are similar.

“It’s difficult for therapists to help these patients,” Radulovic said, “because the patients themselves can’t remember their traumatic experiences that are the root cause of their symptoms.”

The findings imply that in response to traumatic stress, some individuals, instead of activating the glutamate system to store memories, activate the extra-synaptic GABA system and form inaccessible traumatic memories.”

I curated the research in A study that provided evidence for basic principles of Primal Therapy. These researchers have published several papers since then. Here are the abstracts from three of them:

Experimental Methods for Functional Studies of microRNAs in Animal Models of Psychiatric Disorders

“Pharmacological treatments for psychiatric illnesses are often unsuccessful. This is largely due to the poor understanding of the molecular mechanisms underlying these disorders. We are particularly interested in elucidating the mechanism of affective disorders rooted in traumatic experiences.

To date, the research of mental disorders in general has focused on the causal role of individual genes and proteins, an approach that is inconsistent with the proposed polygenetic nature of these disorders. We recently took an alternative direction, by establishing the role of miRNAs in the coding of stress-related, fear-provoking memories.

Here we describe in detail our work on the role of miR-33 in state-dependent learning, a process implicated in dissociative amnesia, wherein memories formed in a certain brain state can best be retrieved if the brain is in the same state. We present the specific experimental approaches we apply to study the role of miRNAs in this model and demonstrate that miR-33 regulates the susceptibility to state-dependent learning induced by inhibitory neurotransmission.”

Neurobiological mechanisms of state-dependent learning

“State-dependent learning (SDL) is a phenomenon relating to information storage and retrieval restricted to discrete states. While extensively studied using psychopharmacological approaches, SDL has not been subjected to rigorous neuroscientific study.

Here we present an overview of approaches historically used to induce SDL, and highlight some of the known neurobiological mechanisms, in particular those related to inhibitory neurotransmission and its regulation by microRNAs (miR).

We also propose novel cellular and circuit mechanisms as contributing factors. Lastly, we discuss the implications of advancing our knowledge on SDL, both for most fundamental processes of learning and memory as well as for development and maintenance of psychopathology.”

Neurobiological correlates of state-dependent context fear

“Retrieval of fear memories can be state-dependent, meaning that they are best retrieved if the brain states at encoding and retrieval are similar. Such states can be induced by activating extrasynaptic γ-aminobutyric acid type A receptors (GABAAR) with the broad α-subunit activator gaboxadol. However, the circuit mechanisms and specific subunits underlying gaboxadol’s effects are not well understood.

Here we show that gaboxadol induces profound changes of local and network oscillatory activity, indicative of discoordinated hippocampal-cortical activity, that were accompanied by robust and long-lasting state-dependent conditioned fear. Episodic memories typically are hippocampus-dependent for a limited period after learning, but become cortex-dependent with the passage of time.

In contrast, state-dependent memories continued to rely on hippocampal GABAergic mechanisms for memory retrieval. Pharmacological approaches with α- subunit-specific agonists targeting the hippocampus implicated the prototypic extrasynaptic subunits (α4) as the mediator of state-dependent conditioned fear.

Together, our findings suggest that continued dependence on hippocampal rather than cortical mechanisms could be an important feature of state-dependent memories that contributes to their conditional retrieval.”


Here’s an independent 2017 Netherlands/UC San Diego review that should bring these researchers’ efforts to the VA’s attention:

MicroRNAs in Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that can develop following exposure to or witnessing of a (potentially) threatening event. A critical issue is to pinpoint the (neuro)biological mechanisms underlying the susceptibility to stress-related disorder such as PTSD, which develops in the minority of ~15% of individuals exposed to trauma.

Over the last few years, a first wave of epigenetic studies has been performed in an attempt to identify the molecular underpinnings of the long-lasting behavioral and mental effects of trauma exposure. The potential roles of non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) such as microRNAs (miRNAs) in moderating or mediating the impact of severe stress and trauma are increasingly gaining attention. To date, most studies focusing on the roles of miRNAs in PTSD have, however, been completed in animals, using cross-sectional study designs and focusing almost exclusively on subjects with susceptible phenotypes.

Therefore, there is a strong need for new research comprising translational and cross-species approaches that use longitudinal designs for studying trajectories of change contrasting susceptible and resilient subjects. The present review offers a comprehensive overview of available studies of miRNAs in PTSD and discusses the current challenges, pitfalls, and future perspectives of this field.”

Here’s a 2017 Netherlands human study that similarly merits the US Veterans Administration’s attention:

Circulating miRNA associated with posttraumatic stress disorder in a cohort of military combat veterans

“Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects many returning combat veterans, but underlying biological mechanisms remain unclear. In order to compare circulating micro RNA (miRNA) of combat veterans with and without PTSD, peripheral blood from 24 subjects was collected following deployment, and isolated miRNA was sequenced.

PTSD was associated with 8 differentially expressed miRNA. Pathway analysis shows that PTSD is related to the axon guidance and Wnt signaling pathways, which work together to support neuronal development through regulation of growth cones. PTSD is associated with miRNAs that regulate biological functions including neuronal activities, suggesting that they play a role in PTSD symptomatology.”


See the below comments for reasons why I downgraded this review’s rating.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11920-018-0887-x “Stress Response Modulation Underlying the Psychobiology of Resilience” (not freely available)

Differing approaches to a life wasted on beliefs

Let’s start by observing that people structure their lives around beliefs. As time goes on, what actions would a person have taken to ward off non-confirming evidence?

One response may be that they would engage in ever-increasing efforts to develop new beliefs that justified how they spent their precious life’s time so far.

Such was my take on the embedded beliefs in https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5684598/pdf/PSYCHIATRY2017-5491812.pdf “Epigenetic and Neural Circuitry Landscape of Psychotherapeutic Interventions”:

“Animal models have shown the benefits of continued environmental enrichment (EE) on psychopathological phenotypes, which carries exciting translational value.

This paper posits that psychotherapy serves as a positive environmental input (something akin to EE).”

The author conveyed his belief that wonderful interventions were going to happen in the future. However, when scrutinized, most human studies have demonstrated null effects of psychotherapeutic interventions on causes. Without sound evidence that treatments affect causes, his belief seemed driven by something else.

The author cited the findings of research like A problematic study of oxytocin receptor gene methylation, childhood abuse, and psychiatric symptoms as supporting external interventions to tamp down symptoms of patients’ presenting problems. Did any of the paper’s 300+ cited references concern treatments where patients instead therapeutically addressed their problems’ root causes?


For an analogous religious example, a person’s belief caused him to spend years of his life trying to convince men to act so that they could get their own planet after death, and trying to convince women to latch onto men who had this belief. A new and apparently newsworthy belief developed from his underlying causes:

“The founder and CEO of neuroscience company Kernel wants “to expand the bounds of human intelligence”. He is planning to do this with neuroprosthetics; brain augmentations that can improve mental function and treat disorders. Put simply, Kernel hopes to place a chip in your brain.

He was raised as a Mormon in Utah and it was while carrying out two years of missionary work in Ecuador that he was struck by what he describes as an “overwhelming desire to improve the lives of others.”

He suffered from chronic depression from the ages of 24 to 34, and has seen his father and stepfather face huge mental health struggles.”

https://www.theguardian.com/small-business-network/2017/dec/14/humans-20-meet-the-entrepreneur-who-wants-to-put-a-chip-in-your-brain “Humans 2.0: meet the entrepreneur who wants to put a chip in your brain”

The article stated that the subject had given up Mormonism. There was nothing to suggest, though, that he had therapeutically addressed any underlying causes for his misdirected thoughts, feelings, and behavior. So he developed other beliefs instead.


What can people do to keep their lives from being wasted on beliefs? As mentioned in What was not, is not, and will never be:

“The problem is that spending our time and efforts on these ideas, beliefs, and behaviors won’t ameliorate their motivating causes. Our efforts only push us further away from our truths, with real consequences: a wasted life.

The goal of the therapeutic approach advocated by Dr. Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy is to remove the force of the presenting problems’ motivating causes. Success in reaching this goal is realized when patients become better able to live their own lives.


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.

Experience-induced transgenerational programming of neuronal structure and functions

The second paper of Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance week was a 2017 German/Israeli review focused on:

“The inter- and transgenerational effects of stress experience prior to and during gestation..the concept of stress-induced (re-)programming in more detail by highlighting epigenetic mechanisms and particularly those affecting the development of monoaminergic transmitter systems, which constitute the brain’s reward system..we offer some perspectives on the development of protective and therapeutic interventions in cognitive and emotional disturbances resulting from preconception and prenatal stress.”

The reviewers noted that human studies have difficulties predicting adult responses to stress that are based on gene expression and early life experience. Clinical studies that experimentally manipulate the type, level and timing of the stressful exposure aren’t possible. Clinical studies are also predicated on the symptoms being recognized as disorders and/or diseases.

The researchers noted difficulties in human interventions and treatments. Before and during pregnancy, and perinatal periods are where stress effects are largest, but current human research hasn’t gathered sufficient findings to develop practical guidelines for early intervention programs.


I’m not persuaded by arguments that cite the difficulties of performing human research on transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. There are overwhelming numbers of people who have obvious stress symptoms: these didn’t develop in a vacuum.

Researchers:

  • Design human studies to test what’s known from transgenerational epigenetic inheritance animal studies that will include documenting the subjects’ detailed histories with sufficient biometric samples and data obtained from their lineage.
  • Induce pregnant subjects to at least temporarily avoid what’s harmful for them and/or the offspring, in favor of what’s beneficial.
  • Document the subjects’ actions with history and samples.

I acknowledge that economic incentives may not be enough to get people to participate. I’m familiar with a juvenile sickle-cell study that didn’t get enough subjects despite offering free transportation and hundreds of dollars per visit. The main problem seemed to be that the additional income would be reported and threaten the caregivers’ welfare benefits.

Stop whining that your jobs are difficult, researchers. Society doesn’t owe you a job. Earn it – get yourself and the people in your organization motivated to advance science.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014976341630731X “Experience-induced transgenerational (re-)programming of neuronal structure and functions: Impact of stress prior and during pregnancy” (not freely available)

Epigenetic effects of early life stress exposure

This 2017 Netherlands review subject was the lasting epigenetic effects of early-life stress:

“Exposure to stress during critical periods in development can have severe long-term consequences.

One of the key stress response systems mediating these long-term effects of stress is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.

Early life stress (ELS) exposure has been reported to have numerous consequences on HPA-axis function in adulthood.

ELS is able to “imprint” or “program” an organism’s neuroendocrine, neural and behavioral responses to stress. Research focuses along two complementary lines:

  1. ELS during critical stages in brain maturation may disrupt specific developmental processes (by altered neurotransmitter exposure, gene transcription, or neuronal differentiation), leading to aberrant neural circuit function throughout life.
  2. ELS may induce modifications of the epigenome which lastingly affect brain function.

These epigenetic modifications are inducible, stable, and yet reversible, constituting an important emerging mechanism by which transient environmental stimuli can induce persistent changes in gene expression and ultimately behavior.”


In early life, the lower brain and limbic system brain structures are more developed and dominant, whereas the cerebrum is less developed (use the above rodent graphic as a rough guide). Stress and pain generally have a greater impact on a fetus than an infant, and on an infant than an adult.

The reviewers cited 50+ studies from years 2000-2015 in the “Early Life Stress Effects in a “Matching” Stressful Adult Environment” section to argue for the match/mismatch theory:

“Encountering ELS prepares an organism for similar (“matching”) adversities during adulthood, while a mismatching environment results in an increased susceptibility to psychopathology, indicating that ELS can exert either beneficial or disadvantageous effects depending on the environmental context.

Initial evidence for HPA-axis hypo-reactivity is observed for early social deprivation, potentially reflecting the abnormal HPA-axis function as observed in post-traumatic stress disorder.

Interestingly, experiencing additional (chronic) stress in adulthood seems to normalize these alterations in HPA-axis function, supporting the match/mismatch theory.”

Evidence for this theory was contrasted with the allostatic load theory presented in, for example, How one person’s paradigms regarding stress and epigenetics impedes relevant research.


The review mainly cited evidence from rodent studies that mismatched reactions in adulthood may be consequences of early-life events. These events:

“Imprint or program an organism’s neuroendocrine, neural and behavioral responses..leading to aberrant neural circuit function throughout life..which lastingly affect brain function.”

Taking this research to a personal level:

  • Have you had feelings that you were unsafe, although your environment was objectively safe?
  • Have you felt uneasy when people are nice to you?
  • Have you felt anxious when someone pays attention to you, even after you’ve acted to gain their attention?

Mismatched human feelings are one form of mismatched reactions. These may be consequences of early-life experiences, and indicators of personal truths.

If researchers can let go of their biases and Advance science by including emotion in research, they may find that human subjects’ feelings produce better evidence for what actually happened during the subjects’ early lives than do standard scientific methods of:

Incorporating this evidence may bring researchers closer to backwardly predicting the major insults to an individual that knocked their development processes out of normally robust pathways and/or induced “persistent changes in gene expression and ultimately behavior.”

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fncel.2017.00087/full “Modulation of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis by Early Life Stress Exposure”


I discovered this review as a result of it being cited in http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1084952117302884 “Long-term effects of early environment on the brain: Lesson from rodent models” (not freely available)

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

This 2017 review laid out the tired, old, restrictive guidelines by which current US research on the epigenetic effects of stress is funded. The reviewer rehashed paradigms circumscribed by his authoritative position in guiding funding, and called for more government funding to support and extend his reach.

The reviewer won’t change his beliefs regarding individual differences and allostatic load since he helped to start those memes. US researchers with study ideas to develop evidence beyond such memes may have difficulties finding funding.

Here’s one example of the reviewer’s restrictive views taken from the Conclusion section:

Adverse experiences and environments cause problems over the life course in which there is no such thing as “reversibility” (i.e., “rolling the clock back”) but rather a change in trajectory [10] in keeping with the original definition of epigenetics [132] as the emergence of characteristics not previously evident or even predictable from an earlier developmental stage. By the same token, we mean “redirection” instead of “reversibility”—in that changes in the social and physical environment on both a societal and a personal level can alter a negative trajectory in a more positive direction.”

What would happen if US researchers proposed tests of his “there is no such thing as reversibility” axiom? To secure funding, his sphere of influence would probably steer the prospective studies’ experiments toward altering “a negative trajectory in a more positive direction” instead.

An example of his influence may be found in the press release of Familiar stress opens up an epigenetic window of neural plasticity where the lead researcher stated a goal of:

“Not to ‘roll back the clock’ but rather to change the trajectory of such brain plasticity toward more positive directions.”

I found nothing in citation [10] (of which the reviewer is a coauthor) where the rodent study researchers even attempted to directly reverse the epigenetic changes! The researchers under his guidance simply asserted:

“A history of stress exposure can permanently alter gene expression patterns in the hippocampus and the behavioral response to a novel stressor”

without making any therapeutic efforts to test the permanence assumption!

Never mind that researchers outside the reviewer’s sphere of influence have done exactly that, reverse both gene expression patterns and behavioral responses!!

In any event, citation [10] didn’t support an “there is no such thing as reversibility” axiom.

The reviewer also implied that humans respond just like lab rats and can be treated as such. Notice that the above graphic conflated rodent and human behaviors. Further examples of this inappropriate merger of behaviors are in the Conclusion section.


What may be a more promising research approach to human treatments of the epigenetic effects of stress? I pointed out in The current paradigm of child abuse limits pre-childhood causal research:

“If the current paradigm encouraged research into treatment of causes, there would probably already be plenty of evidence to demonstrate that directly reducing the source of the damage would also reverse damaging effects. There would have been enough studies done so that the generalized question of reversibility wouldn’t be asked.

Aren’t people interested in human treatments of originating causes so that their various symptoms don’t keep bubbling up? Why wouldn’t research paradigms be aligned accordingly?”

http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2470547017692328 “Neurobiological and Systemic Effects of Chronic Stress”