A one-sided review of stress

The subject of this 2016 Italian/New York review was the stress response:

“The stress response, involving the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis and the consequent release of corticosteroid hormones, is indeed aimed at promoting metabolic, functional, and behavioral adaptations. However, behavioral stress is also associated with fast and long-lasting neurochemical, structural, and behavioral changes, leading to long-term remodeling of glutamate transmission, and increased susceptibility to neuropsychiatric disorders. Of note, early-life events, both in utero and during the early postnatal life, trigger reprogramming of the stress response, which is often associated with loss of stress resilience and ensuing neurobehavioral (mal)adaptations.”


The reviewers’ intentional dismissal of the role of GABA in favor of the role of glutamate was a key point:

“The changes in neuronal excitability and synaptic plasticity induced by stress are the result of an imbalance of excitatory (glutamatergic) and inhibitory (GABAergic) transmission, leading to long-lasting (mal)adaptive functional modifications. Although both glutamate and GABA transmission are critically associated with stress-induced alteration of neuronal excitability, the present review will focus on the modulation of glutamate release and transmission induced by stress and glucocorticoids.”

No particular reason was given for this bias. I inferred from the review’s final sentence that the review’s sponsors and funding prompted this decision:

“In-depth studies of changes in glutamate transmission and dendrite remodeling induced by stress in early and late life will help to elucidate the biological underpinnings of the (mal)adaptive strategies the brain adopts to cope with environmental challenges in one’s life.”

The bias led to ignoring evidence for areas the reviewers posed as needing further research. An example of relevant research the reviewers failed to consider was the 2015 Northwestern University study I curated in A study that provided evidence for basic principles of Primal Therapy that found:

“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.”

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4812483/ “Stress Response and Perinatal Reprogramming: Unraveling (Mal)adaptive Strategies”

Epigenetic effects of diet, and reversing DNA methylation

This 2015 French review focused on:

“The role of maternal health and nutrition in the initiation and progression of metabolic and other disorders.

The effects of various in utero exposures and maternal nutritional status may have different effects on the epigenome. However, critical windows of exposure that seem to exist during development need to be better defined.

The epigenome can be considered as an interface between the genome and the environment that is central to the generation of phenotypes and their stability throughout the life course.”

The reviewer used the term “transgenerational” to refer to effects that were more appropriately termed parental or intergenerational. Per the definition in A review of epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of reproductive disease, for the term to apply there needed to be evidence in subsequent generations of:

“Altered epigenetic information between generations in the absence of continued environmental exposure.”

The review had separate sections for animal and human studies.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4663595/ “Impact of Maternal Diet on the Epigenome during In Utero Life and the Developmental Programming of Diseases in Childhood and Adulthood”


I arrived at the above review as a result of it citing the 2014 Harvard Reversing DNA Methylation: Mechanisms, Genomics, and Biological Functions. I’ll quote a few items from that review’s informative “Role of DNA demethylation in neural development” section:

“Distinct parts of mammalian brains, including frontal cortex, hippocampus, and cerebellum, all exhibit age-dependent acquisition of 5hmC [an oxidized derivative of 5mC [methylation of the fifth position of cytosine]].

In fact, the genome of mature neurons in adult central nervous system contains the highest level of 5hmC of any mammalian cell-type (~40% as abundant as 5mC in Purkinje neurons in cerebellum). These observations indicate that 5mC oxidation and potentially DNA demethylation may be functionally important for neuronal differentiation and maturation processes.

A comprehensive base-resolution analyses of 5mC and 5hmC in mammalian frontal cortex in both fetal and adult stages indicate that non-CpG methylation (mCH) and CpG hydroxymethylation (hCG) drastically build up in cortical neurons after birth, coinciding with the peak of synaptogenesis and synaptic pruning in the cortex. This study demonstrated that mCH could become a dominant form of cytosine modifications in adult brains, accounting for 53% in adult human cortical neuronal genome.

In mature neurons, intragenic mCH is preferentially enriched at inactive non-neuronal lineage-specific genes, indicating a role in negative regulation of the associated transcripts. By contrast, genic hCG is positively correlated with gene expression levels.”

What’s the underlying question for every brain study to answer?

Is it:

  • How do our brains internally represent the external world?

Is it:

  • How did we learn what we know?
  • How do we forget or disregard what we’ve learned?
  • What keeps us from acquiring and learning newer or better information?

How about:

  • What affects how we pay attention to our environments?
  • How do our various biochemical states affect our perceptions, learning, experiences, and behavior?
  • How do these factors in turn affect our biology?

Or maybe:

  • Why do we do what we do?
  • How is our behavior affected by our experiences?
  • How did we become attracted and motivated toward what we like?
  • How do we develop expectations?
  • Why do we avoid certain situations?

Not to lose sight of:

  • How do the contexts affect all of the above?
  • What happens over time to affect all of the above?

This 2015 UCLA paper reviewed the above questions from the perspective of Pavlovian conditioning:

“The common definition of Pavlovian conditioning, that via repeated pairings of a neutral stimulus with a stimulus that elicits a reflex the neutral stimulus acquires the ability to elicit that the reflex, is neither accurate nor reflective of the richness of Pavlovian conditioning. Rather, Pavlovian conditioning is the way we learn about dependent relationships between stimuli.

Pavlovian conditioning is one of the few areas in biology in which there is direct experimental evidence of biological fitness.”


The most important question unanswered by the review is:

  • How can its information be used to help humans?

How does Pavlov conditioning answer:

  • What can a human do about the thoughts, feelings, behavior, epigenetic effects – the person – that they’ve been shaped into?

One relevant hypothesis of Dr. Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy is that a person will continue to be their conditioned self until they address the sources of their pain. A corollary is that addressing symptoms will seldom address causes.

How could it be otherwise? A problem isn’t cured by ameliorating its effects.


As an example, the review pointed out in a section about fear extinction that it doesn’t involve unlearning. Fear extinction instead inhibits the symptoms of fear response. The fear memory is still intact, awaiting some other context to be reactivated and expressed.

How can that information be used to help humans?

  • Is inhibiting the symptoms and leaving the fear memory in place costless with humans?
  • Or does this practice have both potential and realized adverse effects?
  • Where’s the human research on methods that may directly address a painful emotional memory?

http://cshperspectives.cshlp.org/content/8/1/a021717.full “The Origins and Organization of Vertebrate Pavlovian Conditioning”

Empathy, value, pain, control: Psychological functions of the human striatum

This 2016 US human study found:

“A link between existing data on the anatomical and physiological characteristics of striatal regions and psychological functions.

Because we did not limit our metaanalysis to studies that specifically targeted striatal function, our results extend previous knowledge of the involvement of the striatum in reward-related decision-making tasks, and provide a detailed functional map of regional specialization for diverse psychological functions, some of which are sometimes thought of as being the exclusive domain of the PFC [prefrontal cortex].”

The analysis led to dividing the striatum into five segments:

Ventral striatum (VS):

  • Stimulus Value
  • Terms such as “reward,” “losses,” and “craving”
  • The most representative study reported that monetary and social rewards activate overlapping regions within the VS.
  • Together with the above finding of a reliable coactivation with OFC [orbitofrontal cortex] and ventromedial PFC, this finding suggests a broad involvement of this area in representing stimulus value and related stimulus-driven motivational states.

Anterior caudate (Ca) Nucleus:

  • Incentive Behavior
  • Terms such as “grasping,” “reaching,” and “reinforcement”
  • The most representative study reported a stronger blood-oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) response in this region during trials in which participants had a chance of winning or losing money in a card guessing game, in comparison to trials where participants merely received feedback about the accuracy of their guess.
  • This result suggests a role in evaluating the value of different actions, contrasting with the above role of the VS in evaluating the value of stimuli.

Posterior putamen (Pp):

  • Sensorimotor Processes
  • Terms such as “foot,” “noxious,” and “taste”
  • The most representative study reported activation of this region in response to painful stimulation at the back of the left hand and foot of participants. Anatomically, the most reliable and specific coactivation is with sensorimotor cortices, and the posterior and midinsula and operculum (secondary somatosensory cortex SII) in particular, some parts of which are specifically associated with pain.
  • Together, these findings suggest a broad involvement of this area in sensorimotor functions, including aspects of their affective qualities.

Anterior putamen (Pa):

  • Social- and Language-Related Functions
  • Terms such as “read,” “vocal,” and “empathic”
  • The most representative study partially supports a role of this area in social- and language-related functions; it reported a stronger activation of the Pa in experienced singers, but not when novices were singing.
  • It is coactivated with frontal areas anterior to the ones coactivated with the Pp, demonstrating topography in frontostriatal associations. These anterior regions have been implicated in language processes.

Posterior caudate (Cp) Nucleus:

  • Executive Functions
  • Terms such as “causality,” “rehearsal,” and “arithmetic”
  • The representative study reported this region to be part of a network that included dorsolateral PFC and ACC, which supported inhibitory control and task set-shifting.
  • These results suggest a broad, and previously underappreciated, role for the Cp in cognitive control.

The authors presented comparisons of the above striatal segments with other analyses of striatal zones.


One of the coauthors was the lead researcher of the 2015 Advance science by including emotion in research. The current study similarly used a coactivation view rather than a connectivity paradigm of:

“Inferring striatal function indirectly via psychological functions of connected cortical regions.”

Another of the coauthors was a developer of the system used by the current study and by The function of the dorsal ACC is to monitor pain in survival contexts, and he provided feedback to those authors regarding proper use of the system.


The researchers’ “unbiased, data-driven approach” had to work around the cortical biases evident in many of the 5,809 human imaging studies analyzed. The authors referred to the biases in statements such as:

“The majority of studies investigating these psychological functions report activity preferentially in cortical areas, except for studies investigating reward-related and motor functions.”

The methods and results of research with cortical biases influenced the study’s use of:

“Word frequencies of psychological terms in the full text of studies, rather than a detailed analysis of psychological tasks and statistical contrasts.”

http://www.pnas.org/content/113/7/1907.full “Regional specialization within the human striatum for diverse psychological functions”

Advance science by including emotion in research

This 2015 analysis of emotion studies found:

“Emotion categories [fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and happiness] are not contained within any one region or system, but are represented as configurations across multiple brain networks.

For example, among other systems, information diagnostic of emotion category was found in both large, multi-functional cortical networks and in the thalamus, a small region composed of functionally dedicated sub-nuclei.

The dataset consists of activation foci from 397 fMRI and PET [positron emission tomography] studies of emotion published between 1990 and 2011.”

From the fascinating Limitations section:

“Our analyses reflect the composition of the studies available in the literature, and are subject to testing and reporting biases on the part of authors. This is particularly true for the amygdala (e.g., the activation intensity for negative emotions may be over-represented in the amygdala given the theoretical focus on fear and related negative states). Other interesting distinctions were encoded in the thalamus and cerebellum, which have not received the theoretical attention that the amygdala has and are likely to be bias-free.

Some regions—particularly the brainstem—are likely to be much more important for understanding and diagnosing emotion than is apparent in our findings, because neuroimaging methods are only now beginning to focus on the brainstem with sufficient spatial resolution and artifact-suppression techniques.

We should not be too quick to dismiss findings in ‘sensory processing’ areas, etc., as methodological artifacts. Emotional responses may be inherently linked to changes in sensory and motor cortical processes that contribute to the emotional response.

The results we present here provide a co-activation based view of emotion representation. Much of the information processing in the brain that creates co-activation may not relate to direct neural connectivity at all, but rather to diffuse modulatory actions (e.g., dopamine and neuropeptide release, much of which is extrasynaptic and results in volume transmission). Thus, the present results do not imply direct neural connectivity, and may be related to diffuse neuromodulatory actions as well as direct neural communication.”


Why did the researchers use only 397 fMRI and PET studies? Why weren’t there hundreds or thousands of times more candidate studies from which to select?

The relative paucity of candidate emotion studies demonstrated the prevalence of other researchers’ biases for cortical brain areas. The lead researcher of the current study was a coauthor of the 2016 Empathy, value, pain, control: Psychological functions of the human striatum, whose researchers mentioned that even their analyses of 5,809 human imaging studies was hampered by other imaging-studies researchers’ cortical biases.

Functional MRI signals depend on the changes in blood flow that follow changes in brain activity. Study designers intentionally limit their findings when they scan brain areas and circuits that are possibly activated by human emotions, yet exclude emotional content that may activate these areas and circuits.

Here are a few examples of limited designs that led to limited findings when there was the potential for so much more:

It’s well past time to change these practices now that we’re in 2016.


This study provided many methodological tests that should be helpful for research that includes emotion. It showed that there aren’t impenetrable barriers – other than popular memes, beliefs, and ingrained dogmas – to including emotional content in studies.

Including emotional content may often be appropriate and informative, with the resultant findings advancing science. Here are a few recent studies that did so:

http://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pcbi.1004066 “A Bayesian Model of Category-Specific Emotional Brain Responses”

Chronic pain causes epigenetic changes in the brain and immune system

This 2015 Canadian rodent study by McGill researchers found:

“The critical involvement of DNA methylation in chronic pain. We show that in the PFC [prefrontal cortex], a brain region strongly implicated in chronic pain, a stunning number of promoters [control gene expression] are differentially methylated 9 months after injury. These changes are distant both in time and space from the original injury.

The changes in DNA methylation are highly organized in functional pathways that have been implicated in pain such as dysregulation of dopaminergic, glutamatergic, opioid and serotoninergic systems and important signaling and inflammatory pathways.

Genome-wide DNA methylation modifications of T cells [circulating white blood cells that control immune response] are also associated with nerve injury.

Most of the promoters (72%) identified as differentially methylated in T cells after nerve injury were also affected in the brain. While the methylation profiles in some of these modules were affected in the same direction in the brain and the T cells, others went in opposite direction. This is consistent with the idea that the brain and the immune system play different roles in chronic pain.

These data suggest that persistent pain is associated with broad and highly organized organism-wide changes in DNA methylation, including two critical biological systems: the central nervous and immune systems. This work also provides a possible mechanistic explanation for commonly observed comorbidities observed in chronic pain (i.e anxiety, depression). Finally, the sheer magnitude of the impact of chronic pain, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, illustrates the profound impact that living with chronic pain exerts on an individual.”


The news coverage focused on how the study’s findings may lead to non-invasive DNA methylation measurements of chronic pain as well as treatments of the effects. I’d argue that the researchers’ concluding statement of the Discussion section deserved the most focus:

“Beyond the example of chronic pain, the robust and highly organized DNA methylation changes seen here in response to nerve injury provides some of the strongest evidence to date that experience effects DNA methylation landscapes at large distances in time and space.”

The study provided “some of the strongest evidence to date” that experiences caused widespread, long-lasting epigenetic changes. Given experiences’ etiologic functions, research with working hypotheses that experiences may potentially reverse epigenetic changes should be green-lighted.

“DNA methylation landscapes at large distances in time and space” warrant systematic examination of how experiential epigenetic changes during early life may be reversed by experiential therapies later in life. In 2016, there’s sufficient evidence for modifying research goals to primarily address causes, not just effects.

http://www.nature.com/articles/srep19615 “Overlapping signatures of chronic pain in the DNA methylation landscape of prefrontal cortex and peripheral T cells”

Stress consequences on gut bacteria, behavior, immune system, and neurologic function

This 2015 Canadian rodent study found:

“Chronic social defeat induced behavioral changes that were associated with reduced richness and diversity of the gut microbial community.

The degree of deficits in social, but not exploratory behavior was correlated with group differences between the microbial community profile.

Defeated mice also exhibited reduced abundance of pathways involved in the biosynthesis and metabolism of tyrosine and tryptophan: molecules that serve as precursors for the synthesis of dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and melatonin, respectively.

This study indicates that stress-induced disruptions in neurologic function are associated with altered immunoregulatory responses.”

The researchers had an extensive Discussion section where they tied the study’s findings to other rodent and human studies. For example:

“Our analyses also predicted reduced frequency of fatty acid biosynthesis and metabolism pathways, including that of propanoate and butanoate—the byproducts of dietary carbohydrate fermentation by intestinal microorganisms.

Butyrate is a potent histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitor that exerts antidepressant-like effects by increasing histone acetylation in the frontal cortex and hippocampus, and consequentially, raising BDNF transcript levels.

Although it was previously unclear whether the systemic levels of these metabolites achieved in vivo were sufficient to produce behavioral changes, progress has been made by discovering their presence in the cerebrospinal fluid and the brain, and demonstrating that colon-derived SCFAs [short chain fatty acids] cross the blood–brain barrier and preferentially accumulate in the hypothalamus, where they can affect CNS activity.”

http://www.psyneuen-journal.com/article/S0306-4530%2815%2900934-8/fulltext “Structural & functional consequences of chronic psychosocial stress on the microbiome & host”