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 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)

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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.

Contending with epigenetic consequences of violence to women

This 2016 UK review subject was the interplay of genomic imprinting and intergenerational epigenetic information transfer:

“A range of evolutionary adaptations associated with placentation transfers disproportionate control of this process to the matriline, a period unique in mammalian development in that there are three matrilineal genomes interacting in the same organism at the same time (maternal, foetal, and postmeiotic oocytes).

Genomic imprinting is absent in egg laying mammals and only around 6 imprinted genes have been detected in a range of marsupial species; this is in contrast to eutherian mammals where around 150 imprinted genes have been described.

The interactions between the maternal and developing foetal hypothalamus and placenta can provide a template by which a mother can transmit potentially adaptive information concerning potential future environmental conditions to the developing brain.

In circumstances either where the early environment provides inaccurate cues to the environmental conditions prevailing when adult due to rapid environmental change or when disruptions to normal neural development occur, the mismatch between the environmental predictions made during early development and subsequent reality may mean that an organism may have a poorly adapted phenotype to its adult environment. An appreciation of these underlying evolutionary salient processes may provide a novel perspective on the casual [causal] mechanisms of a range of health problems.

The concept of a brain that is not pathological in the classical sense but it is simply mismatched to its environment has been most extensively studied in the context of ancestral and early developmental nutrition. However, this concept can be extended to provide insights into the development of a range of alternative neural phenotypes.”

The review’s final sentence was:

“Examination of the adaptive potential of a range of neural and cognitive deficits in the context of evolutionary derived foetocentric brain and placental development, epigenetics and environmental adaptation may provide novel insights into the development and potential treatment of a range of health, neurological, and cognitive disorders.”

One of the reviewers was cited in Epigenetic DNA methylation and demethylation with the developing fetus, which the review cited along with Epigenetic changes in the developing brain change behavior.


Researchers who avoid hypotheses that can’t be proven wrong could certainly test the subject matter of this review if they investigated their subjects’ histories.

For example, let’s say a patient/subject had symptoms where the “150 imprinted genes” were implicated. What are the chances a clinician or researcher would be informed by this review’s material and investigate the mother’s and grandmother’s histories?

For clinicians or researchers who view histories as irrelevant busywork: how many tens of millions of people alive today have mothers who were fetuses when their grandmothers were adversely affected by violence? Wouldn’t it be appropriate to assess possible historical contributions of:

“The mismatch between the environmental predictions made during early development and subsequent reality”

to the patient’s/subject’s current symptoms?

http://www.hindawi.com/journals/np/2016/6827135/ “Placental, Matrilineal, and Epigenetic Mechanisms Promoting Environmentally Adaptive Development of the Mammalian Brain”

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”

Observing pain in others had long-lasting brain effects

This 2016 Israeli human study used whole-head magnetoencephalography (MEG) to study pain perception in military veterans:

Our findings demonstrate alterations in pain perception following extreme pain exposure, chart the sequence from automatic to evaluative pain processing, and emphasize the importance of considering past experiences in studying the neural response to others’ states.

Differences in brain activation to ‘pain’ and ‘no pain’ in the PCC [posterior cingulate cortex] emerged only among controls. This suggests that prior exposure to extreme pain alters the typical brain response to pain by blurring the distinction between painful and otherwise identical but nonpainful stimuli, and that this blurring of the ‘pain effect’ stems from increased responses to ‘no pain’ rather than from attenuated response to pain.”


Limitations included:

  • “The pain-exposed participants showed posttraumatic symptoms, which may also be related to the observed alterations in the brain response to pain.
  • We did not include pain threshold measurements. However, the participants’ sensitivity to experienced pain may have had an effect on the processing of observed pain.
  • The regions of interest for the examination of pain processing in the pain-exposed group were defined on the basis of the results identified in the control group.
  • We did not detect pain-related activations in additional regions typically associated with pain perception, such as the anterior insula and ACC. This may be related to differences between the MEG and fMRI neuroimaging approaches.”

The subjects self-administered oxytocin or placebo per the study’s design. However:

“We chose to focus on the placebo condition and to test group differences at baseline only, in light of the recent criticism on underpowered oxytocin administration studies, and thus all following analyses are reported for the placebo condition.”


A few questions:

  1. If observing others’ pain caused “increased responses to ‘no pain’,” wouldn’t the same effect or more be expected from experiencing one’s own pain?
  2. If there’s evidence for item 1, then why aren’t “increased responses to ‘no pain'” of affected people overtly evident in everyday life?
  3. If item 2 is often observed, then what are the neurobiological consequences for affected people’s suppression of “increased responses to ‘no pain’?”
  4. Along with the effects of item 3, what may be behavioral, emotional, and other evidence of this suppressed pain effect?
  5. What would it take for affected people to regain a normal processing of others’ “‘pain’ and ‘no pain’?”

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/299546838_Prior_exposure_to_extreme_pain_alters_neural_response_to_pain_in_others “Prior exposure to extreme pain alters neural response to pain in others” Thanks to one of the authors, Ruth Feldman, for providing the full study

Oxytocin research null findings come out of the file drawer

In 2016 Belgian researchers released their previously unpublished studies:

“Is there a file drawer problem in intranasal oxytocin research?

We submitted several studies yielding null-findings to different journals but they were rejected time and time again.

The aggregated effect size was not reliably different from zero [including all of the researchers’ previously unpublished intranasal oxytocin studies].”

Neuroskeptic comments:

“By publishing these results, Lane et al. have ensured that future meta-analysts will be able to include the full dataset in their calculations.”

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/2016/03/17/open-the-file-drawer/ “Psychologists Throw Open the File Drawer”

See Testing the null hypothesis of oxytocin’s effects in humans for more on the topic.