Can researchers make a difference in their fields?

The purpose and finding of this 2017 UK meta-analysis of human epigenetics and cognitive abilities was:

“A meta-analysis of the relationship between blood-based DNA methylation and cognitive function.

We identified [two] methylation sites that are linked to an aspect of executive function and global cognitive ability. The latter finding relied on a relatively crude cognitive test..which is commonly used to identify individuals at risk of dementia.

One of the two CpG sites identified was under modest genetic control..there are relatively modest methylation signatures for cognitive function.”

The review’s stated limitations included:

“It is, of course, possible that a reliable blood-based epigenetic marker of cognitive function may be several degrees of separation away from the biological processes that drive cognitive skills.

There are additional limitations of this study:

  • A varying number of participants with cognitive data available for each test;
  • Heterogeneity in relation to the ethnicity and geographical location of the participants across cohorts; and
  • Relating a blood-based methylation signature to a brain-based outcome.

A 6-year window [between ages 70 and 76] is possibly too narrow to observe substantial changes in the CpG levels.”

All of these limitations were known before the meta-analysis was planned and performed. Other “possible” limitations already known by the 47 coauthors include those from Genetic statistics don’t necessarily predict the effects of an individual’s genes.

The paper referenced studies to justify the efforts, such as one (cited twice) coauthored by the lead author of A problematic study of DNA methylation in frontal cortex development and schizophrenia:

“Epigenome-wide studies of other brain-related outcomes, such as schizophrenia, have identified putative blood-based methylation signatures.”

Was this weak-sauce meta-analysis done just to plump up 47 CVs? Why can’t researchers investigate conditions that could make a difference in their fields?

Was this meta-analysis done mainly because the funding was available? I’ve heard that the primary reason there are papers like the doubly-cited one above is that the US NIMH funds few other types of research outside of their biomarker dogma.

The opportunity costs of this genre of research are staggering. Were there no more productive topics that these 47 scientists could have investigated?

Here are a few more-promising research areas where epigenetic effects can be observed in human behavior and physiology:

I hope that the researchers value their professions enough to make a difference with these or other areas of their expertise. And that sponsors won’t thwart researchers’ desires for difference-making science by putting them into endless funding queues. “Meta-analysis of epigenome-wide association studies of cognitive abilities”


Science and technology hijacked by woo

I’m an avid reader of science articles, abstracts, studies, and reviews. I tried a free subscription to Singularity Hub for a few weeks last month because it seemed to be a suitable source of articles on both science and technology.

I unsubscribed after being disappointed by aspects of science and technology hijacked almost on a daily basis into the realm of woo. Discovering scientific truths and realizing technologies is inspiring enough to stand on its own. It’s sufficiently interesting to publish well-written articles on the process and results.

I was dismayed that the website didn’t host a feedback mechanism for the authors’ articles. We shield ourselves from information incongruent with our beliefs. It’s a problem when a publisher of science and technology articles similarly disallows non-confirming evidence as a matter of policy.

An article may or may not advance knowledge of the subject, and Singularity Hub enables author hubris in presenting their views as the final word on the subject. Directing readers elsewhere for discussion is self-defeating in that every publisher’s goals include keeping visitors on their website as long as possible.

Here’s my feedback on two articles that inappropriately bent reality.

Regarding What Is It That Makes Humans Unique?:

“This trait [symbolic abstract thinking] not only gives us the ability to communicate symbolically, it also allows us to think symbolically, by allowing us to represent all kinds of symbols (including physical and social relationships) in our minds, independent of their presence in the physical world. As a result, internal associations of novel kinds become possible.”

Why limit discussion of our capability for symbolic representations? Other features to explore are:

  • What is a belief if not a symbolic representation?
  • What attributes of human behavior provide evidence for hopes and beliefs as symbolic representations?
  • What is the evolved functional significance that benefits humans of using symbolic abstract thinking to develop hopes and beliefs?

“Our revolutionary traits stand out even more when we take a cosmic perspective..We are not only in the universe, but the universe is also within us..Our brains, as an extension of the universe, are now being used to understand themselves.”

This article should be written well enough to inspire without resorting to unevidenced assertions about revolutions, the cosmos, and the timing of brain functionality.

“Some of us possess higher consciousness than others. The question that we now have to ask ourselves is, how do we cultivate higher consciousness, structural building, and symbolic abstract thinking among the masses?”

What is the purpose of steering an evolution topic into elitism?

How a Machine That Can Make Anything Would Change Everything received >53,000 views compared with <5,000 views of the above article. This was an indicator that readers of Singularity Hub are relatively more interested in the possible implications of future technology than those of our past biological evolution. Why?

“If nanofabricators are ever built, the systems and structure of the world as we know them were built to solve a problem that will no longer exist.”

Soon we will have the worldwide solution to limits in food supply, energy supply, medicine availability, income, knowledge – all of the elements needed for survival?

I was reminded of the chip-in-the-brain article referenced in Differing approaches to a life wasted on beliefs. Each of us needs to address the impacts of past threats to our survival that include producing our present hopes if we are ever going to individually break out of these self-reinforcing, life-wasting loops.

“Human history will be forever divided in two. We may well be living in the Dark Age before this great dawn. Or it may never happen. But James Burke, just as he did over forty years ago, has faith.”

Is it inspiring that the person mentioned has had a forty-year career of selling beliefs in technology?

Yes, future technologies have promise. Authors can write articles that provide developments without soiling the promise with woo.

Beliefs about genetic and environmental influences in twin studies

This 2017 Penn State simulation found:

“By taking advantage of the natural variation in genetic relatedness among identical (monozygotic: MZ) and fraternal (dizygotic: DZ) twins, twin studies are able to estimate genetic and environmental contributions to complex human behaviors.

In the standard biometric model when MZ or DZ twin similarity differs from 1.00 or 0.50, respectively, the variance that should be attributed to genetic influences is instead attributed to nonshared environmental influences, thus deflating the estimates of genetic influences and inflating the estimates of nonshared environmental influences.

Although estimates of genetic and nonshared environmental influences from the standard biometric model were found to deviate from “true” values, the bias was usually smaller than 10% points indicating that the interpretations of findings from previous twin studies are mostly correct.”

The study model’s input was five phenotypes that varied the degrees of:

  1. Genetic and epigenetic heritability;
  2. Shared environmental factors; and
  3. Nonshared environmental factors.

Item 1 above was different than the standard model’s treatment of heritable factors, which considers only additive genetic influences.

The authors cited studies for moderate and significant shared environmental influences in child and adolescent psychopathology and parenting to support the model’s finding that overall, item 2 above wasn’t underestimated.

I wasn’t satisfied with the simulation’s description of item 1 above. With

  1. environmental influences accounted for elsewhere, and
  2. no references to transgenerational epigenetic inheritance,
  3. randomness seemed to be the only remaining explanation for an epigenetic heritability factor.

Inserting the model’s non-environmental randomness explanation for epigenetic heritability into the abstract’s statement above exposed the non sequitur:

In the standard biometric model when MZ or DZ twin similarity differs from 1.00 or 0.50, respectively, the variance that should be attributed to genetic [and non-environmental stochastic heritability] influences is instead attributed to nonshared environmental influences, thus deflating the estimates of genetic [and non-environmental stochastic heritability] influences and inflating the estimates of nonshared environmental influences.

Why did the researchers design their model with an adjustment for non-environmental epigenetic heritability? Maybe it had something to do with:

“..estimates of genetic and nonshared environmental influences from the standard biometric model were found to deviate from “true” values.”

In any event, I didn’t see that this simulation was much more than an attempt to reaffirm a belief that:

“..the interpretations of findings from previous twin studies are mostly correct.”

Empirical rather than simulated findings in human twin study research are more compelling, such as The primary causes of individual differences in DNA methylation are environmental factors with its finding:

“Differential methylation is primarily non-genetic in origin, with non-shared environment accounting for most of the variance. These non-genetic effects are mainly tissue-specific.

The full scope of environmental variation remains underappreciated.” “The Impact of Variation in Twin Relatedness on Estimates of Heritability and Environmental Influences” (not freely available)

Do preventive interventions for children of mentally ill parents work?

The fifth and final paper of Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance week was a 2017 German/Italian meta-analysis of psychiatric treatments involving human children:

“The transgenerational transmission of mental disorders is one of the most significant causes of psychiatric morbidity. Several risk factors for children of parents with mental illness (COPMI) have been identified in numerous studies and meta-analyses.

There is a dearth of high quality studies that effectively reduce the high risk of COPMI for the development of mental disorders.”

I found the study by searching a medical database on the “transgenerational” term. The authors fell into the trap of misusing “transgenerational” instead of “intergenerational” to describe individuals in different generations.

Per the definitions in A review of epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of reproductive disease and Transgenerational effects of early environmental insults on aging and disease, for the term “transgenerational transmission” to apply, the researchers needed to provide evidence in at least the next 2 male and/or 3 female generations of:

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

The meta-analysis didn’t provide evidence for “transgenerational transmission of mental disorders.”

Several aspects of the meta-analysis stood out:

  1. Infancy was the earliest period of included studies, and studies of treatments before the children were born were excluded;
  2. Parents had to be diagnosed with a mental illness for the study to be included;
  3. Studies with children diagnosed with a mental illness were excluded; and
  4. Studies comparing more than one type of intervention were excluded.

Fifty worldwide studies from 1983 through 2014 were selected for the meta-analysis.

Per item 1 above, if a researcher doesn’t look for something, it’s doubtful that they will find it. As shown in the preceding papers of Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance week, the preconception and prenatal periods are when the largest epigenetic effects on an individual are found. There are fewer opportunities for effective “preventive interventions” in later life compared with these early periods.

Science provides testable explanations and predictions. The overall goal of animal studies is to help humans.

Animal studies thus provide explanations and predictions for the consequences of environmental insults to the human fetus – predictable disrupted neurodevelopment with subsequent deviated behaviors and other lifelong damaging effects in the F1 children. The first four papers I curated during Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance week provided samples of which of these and/or other harmful effects may be predictably found in F2 grandchildren, F3 great-grandchildren, and future human generations.

When will human transgenerational epigenetic inheritance be taken seriously? Is the root problem that human societies don’t give humans in the fetal stage of life a constituency, or protection against mistreatment, or even protection against being arbitrarily killed?

The default answer to the meta-analysis title “Do preventive interventions for children of mentally ill parents work?” is No. As for the “dearth of high quality studies” complaint: when treatments aren’t effective, is the solution to do more of them?


The researchers provided an example of the widespread belief that current treatments for “psychiatric morbidity” are on the right path, and that the usual treatments – only done more rigorously – will eventually provide unquestionable evidence that they are effective.

This belief is already hundreds of years old. How much longer will this unevidenced belief survive? “Do preventive interventions for children of mentally ill parents work? Results of a systematic review and meta-analysis” (not freely available)

Transgenerational effects of early environmental insults on aging and disease

The first paper of Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance week was a 2017 Canadian/Netherlands review that’s organized as follows:

“First, we address mechanisms of developmental and transgenerational programming of disease and inheritance. Second, we discuss experimental and clinical findings linking early environmental determinants to adverse aging trajectories in association with possible parental contributions and sex-specific effects. Third, we outline the main mechanisms of age-related functional decline and suggest potential interventions to reverse negative effects of transgenerational programming.”

A transgenerational phenotype was defined as an epigenetic modification that was maintained at least either to the F2 grandchildren in the paternal lineage or to the F3 great-grandchildren in the maternal lineage.

The reviewers noted that the mechanisms of transgenerational programming are complex and multivariate.  The severity, timing, and type of exposure, lineage of transmission, germ cell exposure, and gender of an organism were the main factors that may determine the consequences. The mechanisms reviewed were:

  1. Parental exposure to an adverse environment;
  2. Altered maternal behavior and care of the offspring; and
  3. Experience-dependent modifications of the epigenome.

There was a long list of diseases and impaired functionalities that were consequences of ancestral experiences and exposures. Most of the studies were animal, but a few were human, such as those done on effects of extended power outages during the Quebec ice storm of January 1998.

One intervention that was effective in reversing a transgenerational phenotype induced by deficient rodent maternal care was to place pups with a caring foster female soon after birth. It’s probably unacceptable in human societies to preemptively recognize all poor-care human mothers and remove the infant to caring foster mothers, but researchers could probably find enough instances to develop studies of the effectiveness of the placements in reversing a transgenerational phenotype.

The review didn’t have suggestions for reversing human transgenerational phenotypes, just  “..potential interventions to reverse negative effects of transgenerational programming.” The interventions suggested for humans – exercise, enriched lifestyle, cognitive training, dietary regimens, and expressive art and writing therapies – only reduced the impact of transgenerational epigenetic effects.

The tricky wording of “..reverse negative effects of transgenerational programming” showed that research paradigms weren’t aimed at resolving causes. The review is insufficient for the same reasons mentioned in How one person’s paradigms regarding stress and epigenetics impedes relevant research, prompting my same comment:

“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?”

When reversals of human transgenerational phenotypes aren’t researched, the problems compound as they’re transmitted to the next generations. “Transgenerational effects of early environmental insults on aging and disease incidence” (not freely available)

A gaping hole in a review of nutritional psychiatry

This December 2016 Australian review published in September 2017 concerned:

“..the nutritional psychiatry field..the neurobiological mechanisms likely modulated by diet, the use of dietary and nutraceutical interventions in mental disorders, and recommendations for further research.”

The reviewers inexplicably omitted acetyl-L-carnitine, which I first covered in A common dietary supplement that has rapid and lasting antidepressant effects. A PubMed search on “acetyl carnitine” showed over a dozen studies from the past twelve months that were relevant to the review’s subject areas. Here’s a sample, beginning with follow-on research published in June 2016 of the study I linked above:

Reply to Arduini et al.: Acetyl-l-carnitine and the brain: Epigenetics, energetics, and stress

Dietary supplementation with acetyl-l-carnitine counteracts age-related alterations of mitochondrial biogenesis, dynamics and antioxidant defenses in brain of old rats

Neuroprotective effects of acetyl-l-carnitine on lipopolysaccharide-induced neuroinflammation in mice: Involvement of brain-derived neurotrophic factor

ALCAR promote adult hippocampal neurogenesis by regulating cell-survival and cell death-related signals in rat model of Parkinson’s disease like-phenotypes

Analgesia induced by the epigenetic drug, L-acetylcarnitine, outlasts the end of treatment in mouse models of chronic inflammatory and neuropathic pain

The cited references in these recent studies were older, of course, and in the time scope of the review. There’s no excuse for this review’s omission of acetyl-L-carnitine. “Nutritional psychiatry: the present state of the evidence” (not freely available)

How one person’s paradigms regarding stress and epigenetics impedes relevant research

This 2017 review laid out the tired, old, restrictive guidelines by which current US research on the epigenetic effects of stress is funded. The reviewer rehashed paradigms circumscribed by his authoritative position in guiding funding, and called for more government funding to support and extend his reach.

The reviewer won’t change his beliefs regarding individual differences and allostatic load since he helped to start those memes. US researchers with study ideas to develop evidence beyond such memes may have difficulties finding funding.

Here’s one example of the reviewer’s restrictive views taken from the Conclusion section:

Adverse experiences and environments cause problems over the life course in which there is no such thing as “reversibility” (i.e., “rolling the clock back”) but rather a change in trajectory [10] in keeping with the original definition of epigenetics [132] as the emergence of characteristics not previously evident or even predictable from an earlier developmental stage. By the same token, we mean “redirection” instead of “reversibility”—in that changes in the social and physical environment on both a societal and a personal level can alter a negative trajectory in a more positive direction.”

What would happen if US researchers proposed tests of his “there is no such thing as reversibility” axiom? To secure funding, his sphere of influence would probably steer the prospective studies’ experiments toward altering “a negative trajectory in a more positive direction” instead.

An example of his influence may be found in the press release of Familiar stress opens up an epigenetic window of neural plasticity where the lead researcher stated a goal of:

“..not to ‘roll back the clock’ but rather to change the trajectory of such brain plasticity toward more positive directions.”

I found nothing in citation [10] (of which the reviewer is a coauthor) where the rodent study researchers even attempted to directly reverse the epigenetic changes! The researchers under his guidance simply asserted:

“..a history of stress exposure can permanently alter gene expression patterns in the hippocampus and the behavioral response to a novel stressor”

without making any therapeutic efforts to test the permanence assumption!

Never mind that researchers outside the reviewer’s sphere of influence have done exactly that, reverse both gene expression patterns and behavioral responses! 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?” “Neurobiological and Systemic Effects of Chronic Stress”