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.

However, 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”

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Epigenetic stress effects in preterm infants

This 2017 Italian review selected 9 human studies on the epigenetic effects of:

“..one of the major adverse events in human development. Preterm infants are hospitalized in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where they are exposed to life-saving yet pain-inducing procedures and to protective care.”

Highlights of the referenced studies included:

  • “..early exposure to adverse events during the third trimester of pregnancy is capable to alter the epigenetic status of imprinted and placenta-related genes which have relevant implications for fetal development and preterm infants’ HPA [hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal] stress reactivity during infancy.”
  • “..there was an association between DNAm [DNA methylation] and white matter tract tissue integrity and shape inferred from dMRI [diffusion MRI], suggesting that epigenetic variation may contribute to the cerebral phenotype of preterm birth.”

Limitations of the referenced studies included:

  • “A multiple sampling design that includes parental samples, placental tissue, cord blood and extends across the life-course would be required to investigate the relative contributions of in utero and postnatal exposures to changes in DNAm, and the extent to which preterm birth leaves a legacy on the methylome.”
  • Saliva, blood, and other tissues’ DNA methylation may not produce valid links to brain tissue DNA methylation of the same gene, which may hamper conclusive inferences about behavior, etc.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763417302117 “Preterm Behavioral Epigenetics: A systematic review” (not freely available)

http://www.nature.com/tp/journal/v6/n1/full/tp2015210a.html “Epigenomic profiling of preterm infants reveals DNA methylation differences at sites associated with neural function” (one of the studies selected, quoted above)

On Primal Therapy with Drs. Art and France Janov

Experiential feeling therapy addressing the pain of the lack of love.

The hypothalamus couples with the brainstem to cause migraines

This 2016 German human study with one subject found:

“The hypothalamus to be the primary generator of migraine attacks which, due to specific interactions with specific areas in the higher and lower brainstem, could alter the activity levels of the key regions of migraine pathophysiology.”

The subject underwent daily fMRI scans, and procedures to evoke brain activity. She didn’t take any medications, and suffered three migraine attacks during the 31-day experimental period.

Neuroskeptic commented:

“The dorsal pons has previously been found to be hyperactive during migraine. It’s been dubbed the brain’s ‘migraine generator.’ Schulte and May’s data suggest that this is not entirely true – rather, it looks like the hypothalamus may be the true generator of migraine, while the brainstem could be a downstream mediator of the disorder.

A hypothalamic origin of migraines would help to explain some of the symptoms of the disorder, such as changes in appetite, that often accompany the headaches.”


The above graphic looks like the result of feedback mechanisms that either didn’t exist or inadequately handled the triggering event. Other examples of the hypothalamus lacking feedback or being involved in a deviated feedback loop include:

There are many unanswered questions with a one-person study, of course. Addressing the cause of this painful condition would find out when, where, and how a person’s hypothalamus became modified to express migraine tendencies.

I’d guess that migraine tendencies may appear as early as the first trimester of pregnancy, given that a highly functional hypothalamus is needed for survival and development in our earliest lives. Gaining as much familial and historical information as possible from the person would be necessary steps in therapies that address migraine causes.

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/2016/05/22/pinpointing-origins-of-migraine/ “Pinpointing the Origins of Migraine in the Brain”

Genetic imprinting, sleep, and parent-offspring conflict

This 2016 Italian review subject was the interplay of genetic imprinting and sleep regulation:

“Sleep results from the synergism between at least two major processes: a homeostatic regulatory mechanism that depends on the accumulation of the sleep drive during wakefulness, and a circadian self-sustained mechanism that sets the time for sleeping and waking throughout the 24-hour daily cycle.

REM sleep apparently contravenes the restorative aspects of sleep; however, the function of this ‘paradoxical’ state remains unknown. Although REM sleep may serve important functions, a lack of REM sleep has no major consequences for survival in humans; however, severe detrimental effects have been observed in rats.

Opposite imprinting defects at chromosome 15q11–13 are responsible for opposite sleep phenotypes as well as opposite neurodevelopmental abnormalities, namely the Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS) and the Angelman syndrome (AS). Whilst the PWS is due to loss of paternal expression of alleles, the AS is due to loss of maternal expression.

Maternal additions or paternal deletions of alleles at chromosome 15q11–13 are characterized by temperature control abnormalities, excessive sleepiness, and specific sleep architecture changes, particularly REM sleep deficits. Conversely, paternal additions or maternal deletions at chromosome 15q11–13 are characterized by reductions in sleep and frequent and prolonged night wakings.

The ‘genomic imprinting hypothesis of sleep’ remains in its infancy, and several aspects require attention and further investigation.”

http://journals.plos.org/plosgenetics/article?id=10.1371/journal.pgen.1006004 “Genomic Imprinting: A New Epigenetic Perspective of Sleep Regulation”


A commenter to the review referenced a 2014 study Troubled sleep: night waking, breastfeeding, and parent–offspring conflict that received several reactions, including one by the same commenter. Here are a few quotes from the study author’s consolidated response:

“‘Troubled sleep’ had two major purposes. The first was to draw attention to the oppositely perturbed sleep of infants with PWS and AS and explore its evolutionary implications. The involvement of imprinted genes suggests that infant sleep has been subject to antagonistic selection on genes of maternal and paternal origin with genes of maternal origin favoring less disrupted sleep.

My second major purpose was a critique of the idea that children would be happier, healthier and better-adjusted if we could only return to natural methods of child care. This way of thinking is often accompanied by a belief that modern practices put children at risk of irrevocable harm. The truth of such claims is ultimately an empirical question, but the claims are sometimes presented as if they had the imprimatur of evolutionary biology. This appeal to scientific authority often seems to misrepresent what evolutionary theory predicts: that which evolves is not necessarily that which is healthy.

Why should pregnancy not be more efficient and more robust than other physiological systems, rather than less? Crucial checks, balances and feedback controls are lacking in the shared physiology of the maternal–fetal unit.

Infant sleep may similarly lack the exquisite organization of systems without evolutionary conflict. Postnatal development, like prenatal development, is subject to difficulties of evolutionarily credible communication between mothers and offspring.”

The author addressed comments related to attachment theory:

“Infants are classified as having insecure-resistant attachment if they maintain close proximity to their mother after a brief separation while expressing negative emotions and exhibiting contradictory behaviors that seem to both encourage and resist interaction. By contrast, infants are classified as having insecure-avoidant attachment if they do not express negative emotion and avoid contact with their mother after reunion.

Insecure-avoidant and insecure-resistant behaviors might be considered antithetic accommodations of infants to less responsive mothers; the former associated with reduced demands on maternal attention, the latter with increased demands. A parallel pattern is seen in effects on maternal sleep. Insecure-avoidant infants wake their mothers less frequently, and insecure-resistant infants more frequently, than securely attached infants.

Parent–child interactions are transformed once children can speak. Infants with more fragmented sleep at 6 months had less language at 18 and 30 months. Infants with AS have unconsolidated sleep and never learn to speak. The absence of language in the absence of expression of one or more MEGs [maternally expressed imprinted genes] is compatible with a hypothesis in which earlier development of language reduces infant demands on mothers.”

Regarding cultural differences:

“China, Taiwan and Hong Kong have both high rates of bed-sharing and high rates of problematic sleep compared with western countries. Within this grouping, however, more children sleep in their own room but parents report fewer sleep problems in Hong Kong than in either China or Taiwan. Clearly, cultural differences are significant, and the causes of this variation should be investigated, but the differences cannot be summarized simply as ‘west is worst’.

The fitness [genetic rather than physical fitness] gain to mothers of an extra child and the benefits for infants of longer IBIs [interbirth intervals] are substantial. These selective forces are unlikely to be orders of magnitude weaker than the advantages of lactase persistence, yet the selective forces associated with dairying have been sufficient to result in adaptive genetic differentiation among populations. The possibility of gene–culture coevolution should not be discounted for behaviors associated with infant-care practices.”

Regarding a mismatch between modern and ancestral environments:

“I remain skeptical of a tendency to ascribe most modern woes to incongruence between our evolved nature and western cultural practices. We did not evolve to be happy or healthy but to leave genetic descendants, and an undue emphasis on mismatch risks conflating health and fitness.

McKenna [a commenter] writes ‘It isn’t really nice nor maybe even possible to fool mother nature.’ Here I disagree. Our genetic adaptations often try to fool us into doing things that enhance fitness at costs to our happiness.

Our genes do not care about us and we should have no compunction about fooling them to deliver benefits without serving their ends. Contraception, to take one obvious example, allows those who choose childlessness to enjoy the pleasures of sexual activity without the fitness-enhancing risk of conception.

Night waking evolved in environments in which there were strong fitness costs from short IBIs and in which parents lacked artificial means of birth-spacing. If night waking evolved because it prolonged IBIs, then it may no longer serve the ends for which it evolved.

Nevertheless, optimal infant development might continue to depend on frequent night feeds as part of our ingrained evolutionary heritage. It could also be argued that when night waking is not reinforced by feeding, and infants sleep through the night, then conflict within their genomes subsides. Infants would then gain the benefit of unfragmented sleep without the pleiotropic costs of intragenomic conflict. Plausible arguments could be presented for either hypothesis and a choice between them must await discriminating evidence.”


Commenters on the 2014 study also said:

[Crespi] The profound implications of Haig’s insights into the roles of evolutionary conflicts in fetal, infant and maternal health are matched only by the remarkable absence of understanding, appreciation or application of such evolutionary principles among the research and clinical medical communities, or the general public.

[Wilkins] A mutation may be selected for its effect on the trait that is the basis of the conflict, but that mutation also likely affects other traits. In general, we expect that these pleiotropic effects to be deleterious: conflict over one trait can actually drive other traits to be less adapted. Natural selection does not necessarily guarantee positive health outcomes.

[McNamara] Assuming that AS/REM is differentially influenced by genes of paternal origin then both REM properties and REM-associated awakenings can be better explained by mechanisms of genomic conflict than by traditional claims that REM functions as an anti-predator ‘sentinel’ for the sleeping organism.

[Hinde] Given this context of simultaneous coordination and conflict between mother and infant, distinguishing honest signals of infant need from self-interested, care-extracting signals poses a challenge.

A limited study of parental transmission of anxiety/stress-reactive traits

BehavioralTraitsThis 2016 New York rodent study found:

“Parental behavioural traits can be transmitted by non-genetic mechanisms to the offspring.

We show that four anxiety/stress-reactive traits are transmitted via independent iterative-somatic and gametic epigenetic mechanisms across multiple generations.

As the individual traits/pathways each have their own generation-dependent penetrance and gender specificity, the resulting cumulative phenotype is pleiotropic. In the context of genetic diseases, it is typically assumed that this phenomenon arises from individual differences in vulnerability to the various effects of the causative gene. However, the work presented here reveals that pleiotropy can be produced by the variable distribution and segregated transmission of behavioural traits.”


A primary focus was how anxiety was transmitted from parents to offspring:

“The iterative propagation of the male-specific anxiety-like behaviour is most compatible with a model in which proinflammatory state is propagated from H [serotonin1A receptor heterozygote F0] to F1 [first generation] females and in which the proinflammatory state is acquired by F1 males from their H mothers, and then by F2 [second generation] males from their F1 mothers.

We propose that increased levels of gestational MIP-1β [macrophage inflammatory protein 1β] in H and F1 mothers, together with additional proinflammatory cytokines and bioactive proteins, are required to produce immune system activation in their newborn offspring, which in turn promotes the development of the anxiety-like phenotype in males.

In particular, increase in the number of monocytes and their transmigration to the brain parenchyma in F1 and F2 males could be central to the development of anxiety.”


Due to my quick take on the study title – “Behavioural traits propagate across generations..” – I had expectations of this study that weren’t born out. My criticisms below relate to my expectations of what the researchers could have done versus what they did.

The researchers studied parental transmission of behavioral traits and epigenetic changes. Their study design removed prenatal and postnatal parental behavioral transmission of behavioral traits and epigenetic changes as each generation’s embryos were implanted into foster wild-type (WT) mothers.

The study design substituted the foster mothers’ prenatal and postnatal parental environments for the biological parents’ parental environments. So we didn’t find out, for example:

  • What effects the anxious F1 males’ behaviors may have had on their offsprings’ behaviors and epigenetic changes
  • Whether the anxious, hypoactive, overly stress-reactive, hypothermic F2 males’ behaviors affected their offsprings’ behaviors and epigenetic changes
  • To what extents the overly stress-reactive F1 mothers’ prenatal environments and postnatal behaviors induced behaviors and/or epigenetic changes in their children, and whether the F2 children’s parental behaviors subsequently induced behaviors and/or epigenetic changes in the F3 generation.

How did the study meet the overall goal of rodent studies: to help humans?

  1. Only a minority of humans experienced an early-life environment that included primary caregivers other than our biological parents.
  2. Very few of us experienced a prenatal environment other than our biological mothers.
  3. Maybe the researchers filled in some gaps in previous rodent studies, such as determining what is or isn’t a “true transgenerational mechanism.”

As an example of a rodent study that more closely approximated human conditions, the behavior of a mother whose DNA was epigenetically changed by stress induced the same epigenetic changes to her child’s DNA when her child was stressed per One way that mothers cause fear and emotional trauma in their infants:

“Our results provide clues to understanding transmission of specific fears across generations and its dependence upon maternal induction of pups’ stress response paired with the cue to induce amygdala-dependent learning plasticity.”

How did parental behavioral transmission of behavioral traits and epigenetic changes become a subject not worth investigating? These traits and effects can be seen everyday in real-life human interactions and physiology. But when investigating human correlates with behavioral epigenetic changes of rodents in the laboratory, parental behavioral transmission of behavioral traits is often treated the way this study treated it: as a confounder.

I doubt that people who have reached some degree of honesty about their early lives and concomitant empathy for others would agree with this prioritization.

http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2016/160513/ncomms11492/full/ncomms11492.html “Behavioural traits propagate across generations via segregated iterative-somatic and gametic epigenetic mechanisms”

Why drugs aren’t ultimately therapeutic

This 2016 Oregon review’s concept was the inadequacy of drug-based therapies, explored with the specific subject of epilepsy:

“Currently used antiepileptic drugs:

  • [aren’t] effective in over 30% of patients
  • [don’t] affect the comorbidities of epilepsy
  • [don’t] prevent the development and progression of epilepsy (epileptogenesis).

Prevention of epilepsy and its progression [requires] novel conceptual advances.”

The overall concept that current drug-based therapies poorly address evolutionary biological realities was illustrated by a pyramid, with the comment that:

“If the basis of the pyramid depicted in Figure 1 is overlooked, it becomes obvious that a traditional pharmacological top-down treatment approach has limitations.”

Why drug ultimately aren't therapeutic


I would have liked the reviewer to further address the “therapeutic reconstruction of the epigenome” point he made in the Abstract:

“New findings based on biochemical manipulation of the DNA methylome suggest that:

  1. Epigenetic mechanisms play a functional role in epileptogenesis; and
  2. Therapeutic reconstruction of the epigenome is an effective antiepileptogenic therapy.”

As it was, the reviewer lapsed into the prevalent belief that the causes of and cures for human diseases will always be found on the molecular level – for example, the base of the above pyramid – and never in human experiences. This preconception leads to discounting human elements – notably absent in the above pyramid – that generate epigenetic changes.

A consequence of ignoring experiential causes of diseases is that the potential of experiential therapies to effect “therapeutic reconstruction of the epigenome” isn’t investigated.

http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnmol.2016.00026/full “The Biochemistry and Epigenetics of Epilepsy: Focus on Adenosine and Glycine”