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.


  • 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 the 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 caregiver’s 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.

Firstly, 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..

Secondly, 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 and other brain structures are less developed (use the above graphic as a rough guide). Stress and pain generally have a greater impact on the fetus, then the infant, and then the 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 cites 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?

I assert that mismatched human feelings are one form of mismatched reactions. As such, they may be interpreted as 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. 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 now that it’s 2017? 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 the 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”

The current paradigm of child abuse limits pre-childhood causal research

As an adult, what would be your primary concern if you suspected that your early life had something to do with current problems? Would you be interested in effective treatments of causes of your symptoms?

Such information wasn’t available in this 2016 Miami review of the effects of child abuse. The review laid out the current paradigm mentioned in Grokking an Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) score, one that limits research into pre-childhood causes for later-life symptoms.

The review’s goal was to describe:

“How numerous clinical and basic studies have contributed to establish the now widely accepted idea that adverse early life experiences can elicit profound effects on the development and function of the nervous system.”

The hidden assumption of almost all of the cited references was that these distant causes can no longer be addressed. Aren’t such assumptions testable here in 2016?

As an example, the Discussion section posed the top nine “most pressing unanswered questions related to the neurobiological effects of early life trauma.” In line with the current paradigm, the reviewer assigned “Are the biological consequences of ELS [early life stress] reversible?” into the sixth position.

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 the 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?

The review also demonstrated how the current paradigm of child abuse misrepresents items like telomere length and oxytocin. Researchers on the bandwagon tend to forget about the principle Einstein expressed as:

“No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”

That single experiment for telomere length arrived in 2016 with Using an epigenetic clock to distinguish cellular aging from senescence. The seven references the review cited for telomere length that had “is associated with” or “is linked to” child abuse findings should now be viewed in a different light.

The same light shone on oxytocin with Testing the null hypothesis of oxytocin’s effects in humans and Oxytocin research null findings come out of the file drawer. See their references, and decide for yourself whether or not:

“Claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.”

http://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273%2816%2900020-9 “Paradise Lost: The Neurobiological and Clinical Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect”

The effects of imposing helplessness

This 2016 New York rodent study found:

“By using unbiased and whole-brain imaging techniques, we uncover a number of cortical and subcortical brain structures that have lower activity in the animals showing helplessness than in those showing resilience following the LH [learned helplessness] procedure. We also identified the LC [locus coeruleus] as the sole subcortical area that had enhanced activity in helpless animals compared with resilient ones.

Some of the brain areas identified in this study – such as areas in the mPFC [medial prefrontal cortex], hippocampus, and amygdala – have been previously implicated in clinical depression or depression-like behavior in animal models. We also identified novel brain regions previously not associated with helplessness. For example, the OT [olfactory tubercle], an area involved in odor processing as well as high cognitive functions including reward processing, and the Edinger–Westphal nucleus containing centrally projecting neurons implicated in stress adaptation.

The brains of helpless animals are locked in a highly stereotypic pathological state.”

Concerning the study’s young adult male subjects:

“To achieve a subsequent detection of neuronal activity related to distinct behavioral responses, we used the c-fosGFP transgenic mice expressing c-FosGFP under the control of a c-fos promoter. The expression of the c-fosGFP transgene has been previously validated to faithfully represent endogenous c-fos expression.

Similar to wild-type mice, approximately 22% (32 of 144) of the c-fosGFP mice showed helplessness.”

The final sentence of the Introduction section:

“Our study..supports the view that defining neuronal circuits underlying stress-induced depression-like behavior in animal models can help identify new targets for the treatment of depression.”

Helplessness is both a learned behavior and a cumulative set of experiences during every human’s early life. Therapeutic approaches to detrimental effects of helplessness can be different with humans than with rodents in that we can address causes.

The researchers categorized activity in brain circuits as causal in the Discussion section:

“Future studies aimed at manipulating these identified neural changes are required for determining whether they are causally related to the expression of helplessness or resilience.”

Studying whether or not activity in brain circuits induces helplessness in rodents may not inform us about causes of helplessness in humans. Our experiences are often the ultimate causes of helplessness effects. Many of our experiential “neural changes” are only effects, as demonstrated by this and other studies’ induced phenotypes such as “Learned Helplessness” and “Prenatally Restraint Stressed.”

Weren’t the researchers satisfied that the study confirmed what was known and made new findings? Why attempt to extend animal models that only treat effects to humans, as implied in the Introduction above and in the final sentence of the Discussion section:

“Future studies aimed at elucidating the specific roles of these regions in the pathophysiology of depression as well as serve as neural circuit-based targets for the development of novel therapeutics.”

http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fncir.2016.00003/full “Whole-Brain Mapping of Neuronal Activity in the Learned Helplessness Model of Depression” (Thanks to A Paper a Day Keeps the Scientist Okay)

State-dependent brain functions and adrenaline

This 2015 German/Italian rodent study investigated:

“How a specific neuromodulatory input may influence the information content and the readout of cortical information representations of sensory stimuli.

The locus coeruleus (LC) is a brainstem neuromodulatory nucleus that likely plays a prominent role in shaping cortical states via a highly distributed noradrenaline release in the forebrain. In particular, the LC:

  • contributes to regulation of arousal and sleep;
  • it is involved in cognitive functions such as vigilance, attention, and selective sensory processing; and
  • it modulates cortical sensory responses and cortical excitability.

An important addition of our work to previous models of state dependence was the inclusion of the contribution of an important neuromodulator—the noradrenergic system. Our results support the hypothesis that the temporal structure of LC firing causally influences cortical dynamics.

Our work highlights the importance of timing of LC burst: suitably timed LC burst (for example, triggered by an alerting stimulus) can very rapidly trigger transitions into excitable cortical states, which in turn decrease the threshold for cortical responses and thus dynamically facilitate the processing of salient or attended events.

State dependence may either:

  • force neurons to transmit information only using codes that are robust to state fluctuations (e.g., relative firing rates), or may
  • force downstream neurons to gain information about the state of the networks sending the sensory messages and then to use the knowledge of state to properly interpret neural responses.

Our results suggest that the latter information transmission scheme is feasible, because detecting state by either monitoring the dynamics of cortical ongoing activity alone or by also monitoring the dynamics of noradrenergic modulation substantially increased the amount of information about sensory stimuli in the late response components relevant for behavior.”

The study added to the evidence that state dependencies can’t be overlooked in explanations of brain function and resultant physical and mental activity. Locus coeruleus neural activity “can very rapidly trigger transitions into excitable cortical states..and thus dynamically facilitate the processing of salient or attended events.”

Adrenaline from the locus coeruleus produced a state of arousal in multiple brain and body areas tied into the subjects’ sympathetic nervous systems. Such internal state changes may be accompanied by state-dependent memories, following the findings of What can cause memories that are accessible only when returning to the original brain state?

The study highlighted the capability of a lower brain structure to influence other brain areas. Its findings should inform researchers in attention and behavior studies, especially when investigating causes of certain attention and behavior difficulties.

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/41/12834.full “Modeling the effect of locus coeruleus firing on cortical state dynamics and single-trial sensory processing”

If research provides evidence for the causes of stress-related disorders, why only focus on treating the symptoms?

This 2014 rodent research reliably induced many disorders common to humans. Here are some post-birth problems the researchers caused, primarily by applying different types of stress, as detailed in the study’s supplementary material:

  • Social defeat
  • Social avoidance behavior
  • Learned helplessness
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Anhedonia

Yet the researchers’ goal was to identify a brain receptor for:

“Novel therapeutic targets for stress-related disorders.”

In other words, develop new drugs to treat the symptoms.

Where are the studies that have goals to prevent these common problems being caused in humans by humans?

Where is the research on treatments to reverse the enduring physiological responses to stress by treating the causes?

What do you think of this excerpt?

“Accumulating evidence suggests that traumatic events particularly during early life (e.g., parental loss or neglect) coupled with genetic factors are important risk factors for the development of depression and anxiety disorders.

Moreover, the brain is particularly vulnerable to the effects of stress during this period.

Maternal separation in rodents is a useful model of early-life stress that results in enduring physiological and behavioral changes that persist into adulthood, including increased hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA)–axis sensitivity, increased anxiety, and visceral hypersensitivity.”

http://www.pnas.org/content/111/42/15232.full “GABAB(1) receptor subunit isoforms differentially regulate stress resilience”