The lifelong impact of maternal postpartum behavior

This 2018 French/Italian/Swiss rodent study was an extension of the work done by the group of researchers who performed Prenatal stress produces offspring who as adults have cognitive, emotional, and memory deficiencies and Treating prenatal stress-related disorders with an oxytocin receptor agonist:

“Reduction of maternal behavior [nursing behavior, grooming, licking, carrying pups] was predictive of behavioral disturbances in PRS [prenatally restraint stressed] rats as well as of the impairment of the oxytocin and its receptor gene expression.

Postpartum carbetocin [an oxytocin receptor agonist unavailable in the US] corrected the reduction of maternal behavior induced by gestational stress as well as the impaired oxytocinergic system in the PRS progeny, which was associated with reduced risk-taking behavior.

Moreover, postpartum carbetocin had an anti-stress effect on HPA [hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal] axis activity in the adult PRS progeny and increased hippocampal mGlu5 [type 5 metabotropic glutamate] receptor expression in aging.

Early postpartum carbetocin administration to the dam enhances maternal behavior and prevents all the pathological outcomes of PRS throughout the entire lifespan of the progeny..proves that the defect in maternal care induced by gestational stress programs the development of the offspring.

This chart from Figure 4 summarized the behavioral performance of aged adult male progeny in relation to the experimental variables of:

  1. Stress administered to the mothers three times daily every day during the second half of pregnancy up until delivery; and
  2. The effects on the mothers’ behavior of daily carbetocin administration during postpartum days 1 through 7.

The symbols denote which of these relationships had statistically significant effects:

  • “* p [Pearson’s correlation coefficient] < 0.05 PRS-Saline vs. CONT-Saline;
  • # p < 0.05 PRS-Carbetocin vs. the PRS-Saline group.”

There are many interesting aspects to this study. Ask the corresponding coauthor Dr. Sara Morley-Fletcher at for a copy.

One place the paper referenced the researchers’ previous studies was in this context:

“Postpartum carbetocin administration reversed the same molecular and behavioral parameters in the hippocampus, as does adult chronic carbetocin treatment, i.e. it led to a correction of the HPA axis negative feedback mechanisms, stress and anti-stress gene expression, and synaptic glutamate release. The fact that postpartum carbetocin administration [to the stressed mothers in this study] had the same effect [on the PRS infants in this study] as adult carbetocin treatment [to the PRS offspring in the previous study] indicates a short-term effect of carbetocin when administered in adulthood and a reprogramming (long-term) effect lasting until an advanced age when administered in early development.”

This group’s research seems to be constrained to treatments of F0 and F1 generations. What intergenerational and transgenerational effects would they possibly find by extending research efforts to F2 and F3 generations?

As the study may apply to humans:

The study demonstrated that stresses during the second half of pregnancy had lifelong impacts on both the mothers’ and offsprings’ biology and behavior. Studies and reviews that attribute similar human biological and behavioral conditions to unknown causes, or shuffle them into the black box of individual differences, should be recognized as either disingenuous or insufficient etiological investigations.

The study showed that prevention of gestational stress was a viable strategy. The control group progeny’s biology and behavior wasn’t affected by carbetocin administration to their mothers because neither they nor their mothers had experience-dependent epigenetic deficiencies.

The study demonstrated a biological and behavioral cure for the PRS offspring by changing their stressed mothers’ behaviors during a critical period of their development. The above excerpt characterized improving the mothers’ behaviors as a long-term cure for the PRS descendants, as opposed to the short-term cure of administering carbetocin to the PRS children when they were adults.

What long-term therapies may be effective for humans who had their developmental trajectories altered by their mothers’ stresses during their gestation, or who didn’t get the parental care they needed when they needed it? “Reduced maternal behavior caused by gestational stress is predictive of life span changes in risk-taking behavior and gene expression due to altering of the stress/anti-stress balance” (not freely available)


DNA methylation and childhood adversity

This 2017 Georgia human review covered:

“Recent studies, primarily focused on the findings from human studies, to indicate the role of DNA methylation in the associations between childhood adversity and cardiometabolic disease in adulthood. In particular, we focused on DNA methylation modifications in genes regulating the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis as well as the immune system.”

Recommendations in the review’s Epigenetics inheritance and preadaptation theory section included:

“Twin studies offer another promising design to explore the mediation effect of DNA methylation between child adversity and cardiometabolic outcomes..which could rule out heterogeneity due to genetic and familia[l]r environmental confounding.”

As it so happened, the below 2018 study provided some evidence. “The role of DNA methylation in the association between childhood adversity and cardiometabolic disease” (not freely available) Thanks to lead author Dr. Guang Hao for providing the full study.

This 2018 UK human study:

“Tested the hypothesis that victimization is associated with DNA methylation in the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Study, a nationally representative 1994-1995 birth cohort of 2,232 twins born in England and Wales and assessed at ages 5, 7, 10, 12, and 18 years. Multiple forms of victimization were ascertained in childhood and adolescence (including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; neglect; exposure to intimate-partner violence; bullying; cyber-victimization; and crime).

Hypothesis-driven analyses of six candidate genes in the stress response (

  1. NR3C1 [glucocorticoid receptor],
  2. FKBP5 [a regulator of the stress hormone system],
  3. BDNF [brain-derived neurotrophic factor],
  4. AVP [arginine vasopressin],
  5. CRHR1 [corticotropin-releasing hormone receptor 1],
  6. SLC6A4 [serotonin transporter]

) did not reveal predicted associations with DNA methylation.

Epigenetic epidemiology is not yet well matched to experimental, nonhuman models in uncovering the biological embedding of stress.”

One of the sad findings was that as the types of trauma inflicted by other people on the subjects increased, so did the percentage of subjects who hurt themselves by smoking. Two-thirds of teens who reported three or more of the seven adolescent trauma types also smoked by age 18. Self-harming behaviors other than smoking weren’t considered.

Another somber finding was:

“Childhood sexual victimization is associated with stable DNA methylation differences in whole blood in young adulthood.

These associations were not observed in relation to sexual victimization in adolescence.”

The researchers guided future studies regarding the proxy measurements of peripheral blood DNA methylation:

“The vast majority of subsequent human studies, including the present one, have relied on peripheral blood. This choice is expedient, but also scientifically reasonable given the aim of detecting effects on stress-related physical health systems that include peripheral circulating processes (immune, neuroendocrine).

But whole blood is heterogeneous, and although cell-type composition can be evaluated and controlled, as in the present study, it does raise the question of whether peripheral blood is a problematic surrogate tissue for research on the epigenetics of stress.

Comparisons of methylomic variation across blood and brain suggest that blood-based EWAS may yield limited information relating to underlying pathological processes for disorders where brain is the primary tissue of interest.”

1. The comment on “epigenetic epidemiology” overstated the study’s findings because the epigenetic analysis, although thorough, was limited to peripheral blood DNA methylation. Other consequential epigenetic effects weren’t investigated, such as histone modifications and microRNA expression.

2. An unstated limitation was that the DNA methylation analyses were constrained by budgets. Studies like The primary causes of individual differences in DNA methylation are environmental factors point out restrictions in the methodology:

“A main limitation with studies using the Illumina 450 K array is that the platform only covers ~1.5 % of overall genomic CpGs, which are biased towards promoters and strongly underrepresented in distal regulatory elements, i.e., enhancers.

WGBS [whole-genome bisulfite sequencing] offers single-site resolution CpG methylation interrogation at full genomic coverage.

Another advantage of WGBS is its ability to access patterns of non-CpG methylation.”

I’d expect that in the future, researchers with larger budgets would reanalyze the study samples using other DNA methylation techniques.

3. The researchers started and ended the study presenting their view of human “embedding of stress” as a fact rather than a paradigm. Epigenetic effects of early life stress exposure compared and contrasted this with another substantiated view.

4. An outstanding opportunity to advance science was missed regarding intergenerational and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance:

  • Wouldn’t the parents’ blood samples and histories – derived from administering the same questionnaires their twins answered at age 18 – likely provide distant causal evidence for some of the children’s observed effects?
  • And lay the groundwork for hypotheses about aspects of future grandchildren’s physiologies and behaviors? “Analysis of DNA Methylation in Young People: Limited Evidence for an Association Between Victimization Stress and Epigenetic Variation in Blood” (not freely available) Thanks to coauthor Dr. Helen Fisher for providing the full study.

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 rodent graphic as a rough guide). Stress and pain generally have a greater impact on the fetus than the infant, and on the infant than 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 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?

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.” “Modulation of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis by Early Life Stress Exposure”

I discovered this review as a result of it being cited in “Long-term effects of early environment on the brain: Lesson from rodent models” (not freely available)

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.” “Stress Response and Perinatal Reprogramming: Unraveling (Mal)adaptive Strategies”

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 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.” “Paradise Lost: The Neurobiological and Clinical Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect”

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.

Does vasopressin increase mutually beneficial cooperation?

This 2016 German human study found:

“Intranasal administration of arginine vasopressin (AVP), a hormone that regulates mammalian social behaviors such as monogamy and aggression, increases humans’ tendency to engage in mutually beneficial cooperation.

AVP increases humans’ willingness to cooperate. That increase is not due to an increase in the general willingness to bear risks or to altruistically help others.”

One limitation of the study was that the subjects were all males, ages 19-32. The study’s title was “human risky cooperative behavior” while omitting subjects representing the majority of humanity.

Although the researchers claimed brain effects from vasopressin administration, they didn’t provide direct evidence for the internasally administered vasopressin in the subjects’ brains. A similar point was made about studies of vasopressin’s companion neuropeptide, oxytocin, in Testing the null hypothesis of oxytocin’s effects in humans.

A third limitation was that although the researchers correlated brain activity with social behaviors, they didn’t carry out all of the tests necessary to demonstrate the claimed “novel causal evidence for a biological factor underlying cooperation.” Per Confusion may be misinterpreted as altruism and prosocial behavior, the researchers additionally needed to:

“When attempting to measure social behaviors, it is not sufficient to merely record decisions with behavioral consequences and then infer social preferences. One also needs to manipulate these consequences to test whether this affects the behavior.” “Vasopressin increases human risky cooperative behavior”

Epigenetic consequences of early-life trauma: What are we waiting for?

This 2015 UK human review discussed:

“The progress that has been made by studies that have investigated the relationship between depression, early trauma, the HPA axis and the NR3C1 [glucocorticoid receptor] (GR) gene.

Gene linkage studies for depression, as well as for other common complex disorders, have been perceived by some to be of only limited success; hence the focus on GWAS [genome-wide association studies]. However, even for simple traits, genetic variants identified by GWAS are rarely shown to account for more than 20% of the heritability.

Epigenetic changes are potentially reversible and therefore amenable to intervention, as has been seen in cancer, cardiovascular disease and neurological disorders.”

Five of the review’s references included FKBP5 (a gene that produces a protein that dampens glucocorticoid receptor sensitivity) in their titles, but it wasn’t mentioned in the review itself. A search on FKBP5 also showed human studies such as the 2014 Placental FKBP5 Genetic and Epigenetic Variation Is Associated with Infant Neurobehavioral Outcomes in the RICHS Cohort that found:

“Adverse maternal environments can lead to increased fetal exposure to maternal cortisol, which can cause infant neurobehavioral deficits. The placenta regulates fetal cortisol exposure and response, and placental DNA methylation can influence this function.

Placental FKBP5 methylation reduces expression in a genotype specific fashion, and genetic variation supersedes this effect. These genetic and epigenetic differences in expression may alter the placenta’s ability to modulate cortisol response and exposure, leading to altered neurobehavioral outcomes.”

The authors listed seven human studies conducted 2008-2015 “investigating interactions between methylation of NR3C1, depression and early adversity”:

“Newborn offspring exposed to maternal depression in utero had increased methylation at [a GR CpG site] as well as adverse neurobehavioural outcomes.

Unlike the majority of animal studies examining NR3C1 methylation, many types of potential stressors, sometimes at different developmental stages, have been used to represent early human adversity.

Substantial differences can be expected in the nature of stresses prenatally compared with postnatally, as well as their developmental consequences.”

Seven human studies over the past eight years was a very small number considering both the topic’s importance and the number of relevant animal studies during the period.

Is the topic too offensive for human studies? What makes people pretend that adverse prenatal and perinatal environments have no lasting consequences to the child?

“Many more studies will be needed before effects directly attributable to early life trauma can be separated from those relating to tissue type.

Although investigators have amassed a considerable amount of evidence for an association between differential methylation and HPA axis function in humans, a causal relationship still needs to be fully established.”

Factors that disrupt neurodevelopment may be the largest originators of epigenetic changes that are sustained throughout an individual’s entire lifespan.

Are the multitude of agendas that have resources thrown at them more important than ensuring the well-being of a human before and after they are born? “Early life trauma, depression and the glucocorticoid receptor gene–an epigenetic perspective”