The hypothalamus and aging

This 2018 Korean review discussed aspects of the hypothalamus and aging:

“A majority of physiological functions that decline with aging are broadly governed by the hypothalamus, a brain region controlling development, metabolism, reproduction, circadian rhythm, and homeostasis. In addition, the hypothalamus is poised to connect the brain and the body so that the environmental information affecting aging can be transmitted through the hypothalamus to affect the systematic aging of the peripheral organs.

The hypothalamus is hypothesized to be a primary regulator of the process of aging of the entire body. This review aims to assess the contribution of hypothalamic aging to the age-related decline in body functions, particularly from the perspective of:

  • energy homeostasis,
  • hormonal balance,
  • circadian rhythm, and
  • reproduction,

and to highlight its underlying cellular mechanisms with a focus on:

  • nutrient sensing
  • inflammation,
  • loss of stem cell,
  • loss of proteostasis, and
  • epigenetic alterations.”

The reviewers didn’t consider aging to be an “unintended consequence” of development. This perspective was found in a reference to A study of DNA methylation and age:

“Aging is not and cannot be programmed. Instead, aging is a continuation of developmental growth, driven by genetic pathways.

Genetic programs determine developmental growth and the onset of reproduction. When these programs are completed, they are not switched off.

Aging has no purpose (neither for individuals nor for group), no intention. Nature does not select for quasi-programs. It selects for robust developmental growth.”

The epigenetic clock theory of aging cited the same author, and modified his point to say:

“The proposed epigenetic clock theory of ageing views biological ageing as an unintended consequence of both developmental programmes and maintenance programmes.”

This review’s opposite paradigm was:

“The hypothalamus is hypothesized to be a primary regulator of the process of aging.”

Almost all of the details discussed were from rodent studies.

I favor the “unintended consequence” explanation of aging. As detailed in How to cure the ultimate causes of migraines? and its references, the hypothalamus is a brain structure that lacks feedback mechanisms for several of its activities.

This structure develops shortly after conception and has an active prenatal role. The hypothalamus plays its part in getting us developed and ready to reproduce, with several feedback loops being evolutionarily unnecessary.

The hypothalamus perfectly illustrates the point of:

“When these programs are completed, they are not switched off.”

Should hypothalamic activity not winding down when its developmental role is over be interpreted to construe a role that has some other meaning or purpose as we age? “Role of hypothalamus in aging and its underlying cellular mechanisms” (not freely available)


An evolutionary view of stress and cancer

This 2018 Michigan review subject was cancer evolution:

“Based on the fact that cancer typically represents a complex adaptive system, where there is no linear relationship between lower-level agents (such as each individual gene mutation) and emergent properties (such as cancer phenotypes), we call for a new strategy based on the evolutionary mechanism of aneuploidy [abnormal number of chromosomes] in cancer, rather than continuous analysis of various individual molecular mechanisms.

Cancer evolution can be understood by the dynamic interaction among four key components:

  1. Internal and external stress;
  2. Elevated genetic and non-genetic variations (either necessary for cellular adaptation or resulting from cellular damages under stress);
  3. Genome-based macro-cellular evolution (genome replacement, emergent as new systems); and
  4. Multiple levels of system constraint which prevent/slow down cancer evolution (from tissue/organ organization to the immune system..interaction).

Since the sources of stress are unlimited and unavoidable (as they are required by all living systems), there are large numbers of gene mutations / epigenetic events / chromosomal aberrations, such as aneuploidy, that can be linked to stress-mediated genomic variants; furthermore, as environmental constraints are constantly changing, even identical instances of aneuploidy will have completely different outcomes in the context of cancer evolution, as the results of each independent run of evolution will most likely differ.

Most current research efforts are focusing on molecular profiles based on an average population, and outliers are eliminated or ignored, either by the methods used or statistical tools. The traditional view of biological research is to identify patterns from “noise,” without the realization that the so-called “noise” in fact is heterogeneity, which represents a key feature of cancer evolution by functioning as the evolutionary potential.

Understanding the molecular mechanism (both cause and effect) of aneuploidy is far from enough. A better strategy is to monitor the evolutionary process by measuring evolutionary potential. For example, the overall degree of CIN [chromosome instability] is more predictive than individual gene mutation profile.”

Although I read many abstracts of cancer research papers every week, I usually don’t curate them. I curated this paper because the reviewers emphasized several themes of this blog, including:

  • Further examples of how stress may shape one’s life.
  • How researchers miss information when they ignore or process away variation:

    Studies have demonstrated the importance of outliers in cancer evolution, as cancer is an evolutionary game of outliers..while this phenomenon can provide a potential advantage for cellular adaptation, it can also, paradoxically, generate non-specific system stress, which can further produce more genetic and non-genetic variants which favor the disease condition.”

Epigenetics researchers may benefit from evolutionary viewpoints that incorporate the interactions of stress and “genetic and non-genetic variants.”

Since epigenetic changes require inheritance in order to persist, it would be a step forward to see researchers start “measuring evolutionary potential” of these inheritance processes. “Understanding aneuploidy in cancer through the lens of system inheritance, fuzzy inheritance and emergence of new genome systems”

Immune memory of pregnancies

This 2018 Israeli human study subject was natural killer cell epigenetic memory of pregnancies:

“Natural killer (NK) cells were first discovered for their ability to kill tumor cells, and later found to also kill pathogen-infected cells.

Different tissue-resident subpopulations of human NK cells exist throughout the body, displaying unique phenotypic and functional properties. One of the most fascinating tissue-resident subsets of NK cells, termed decidual NK cells, is found at the maternal fetal interface (decidua) in direct contact with the placenta.

We discovered a population found in repeated pregnancies, which has a unique transcriptome and epigenetic signature..have open chromatin around the enhancers of [growth factor genes] IFNG [essential for angiogenesis] and VEGFA [supporting vascular formation].

The pregnancy-related NK memory cells identified here might represent the first example of improved function of NK cells that occurs under healthy physiological conditions.”

One source for the experiments was:

“Decidual samples from healthy women who underwent elective first trimester terminations of normal pregnancies.” “Trained Memory of Human Uterine NK Cells Enhances Their Function in Subsequent Pregnancies” (not freely available)

A trio of epigenetic clock studies

The first 2018 epigenetic clock human study was from Finland:

“We evaluated the association between maternal antenatal depression and a novel biomarker of aging at birth, namely epigenetic gestational age (GA) based on fetal cord blood methylation data. We also examined whether this biomarker prospectively predicts and mediates maternal effects on early childhood psychiatric problems.

Maternal history of depression diagnosed before pregnancy and greater antenatal depressive symptoms were associated with child’s lower epigenetic GA. Child’s lower epigenetic GA, in turn, prospectively predicted total and internalizing problems and partially mediated the effects of maternal antenatal depression on internalizing problems in boys.”

Listening to a podcast by one of the coauthors, although the researchers’ stated intent was to determine the etiology of the findings, I didn’t hear any efforts to study the parents in sufficient detail to be able to detect possible intergenerational and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance causes and effects. There were the usual “associated with” and “it could be this, it could be that” hedges, which were also indicators of the limited methods employed toward the study’s limited design.

Why was an opportunity missed to advance human research in this area? Are researchers satisfied with non-causal individual differences non-explanations instead of making efforts in areas that may produce etiological findings? “The Epigenetic Clock at Birth: Associations With Maternal Antenatal Depression and Child Psychiatric Problems” (not freely available)

The second 2018 epigenetic clock human study was from Alabama:

“We estimated measures of epigenetic age acceleration in 830 Caucasian participants from the Genetics Of Lipid Lowering Drugs and diet Network (GOLDN) considering two epigenetic age calculations.

Both DNA methylation age estimates were highly correlated with chronological age. We found that the Horvath and Hannum measures of epigenetic age acceleration were moderately correlated.

The Horvath age acceleration measure exhibited marginal associations with increased postprandial [after eating a meal] HDL [high-density lipoprotein], increased postprandial total cholesterol, and decreased soluble interleukin 2 receptor subunit alpha (IL2sRα). The Hannum measure of epigenetic age acceleration was inversely associated with fasting HDL and positively associated with postprandial TG [triglyceride], interleukin-6 (IL-6), C-reactive protein (CRP), and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFα).

Overall, the observed effect sizes were small. “Metabolic and inflammatory biomarkers are associated with epigenetic aging acceleration estimates in the GOLDN study”

The third 2018 epigenetic clock human study was a meta-analysis of cohorts from the UK, Italy, Sweden, and Scotland:

“The trajectories of Δage showed a declining trend in almost all of the cohorts with adult sample collections. This indicates that epigenetic age increases at a slower rate than chronological age, especially in the oldest population.

Some of the effect is likely driven by survival bias, where healthy individuals are those maintained within a longitudinal study, although other factors like underlying training population for the respective clocks may also have influenced this trend. It may also be possible that there is a ceiling effect for Δage whereby epigenetic clock estimates plateau.” “Tracking the Epigenetic Clock Across the Human Life Course: A Meta-analysis of Longitudinal Cohort Data”

A self-referencing study of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance

This 2018 Washington rodent study subject was transgenerational epigenetic inheritance caused by a fungicide that’s been phased out or banned for over a decade:

“This study was designed to help understand how three different epigenetic processes in sperm are correlated with vinclozolin-induced epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of disease.

  1. Most DMRs [differential DNA-methylated regions] identified in this study are unique between the F1, F2, and F3 generations.
  2. The number of lncRNA was much higher than the number of sncRNA [small noncoding RNA, including microRNA]. The overlap between each generation was very low or nonexistent.
  3. The F1 and the F2 generation control versus vinclozolin lineage sperm had negligible DHRs [differential histone retention sites]. This observation suggests that the direct vinclozolin exposure does not alter histone retention or trigger any changes. However, the F3 generation control versus vinclozolin lineage sperm DHRs increased considerably.

It appears that the phenomenon is more complex than just a direct exposure triggering the formation of epimutations that are then simply maintained in the subsequent generations.”

There’s something odd about a study where a third of the 87 cited references list one of the study’s coauthors, who also coauthored A review of epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of reproductive disease. I couldn’t find a satisfactory explanation for the study’s over-the-top self-referencing.

What do you think?

I asked the coauthors why a third of the cited references were self-referencing. The lead author replied:

“The field in epigenetic transgenerational inheritance is expanding, however it is still hard for us to find relevant studies in rodents or human that we can cite. Most of the time DNA methylation, ncRNA and histone modifications are investigated from a direct exposure and/or from a purely mechanistic angle (e.g. DNA methylation of specific genes).

In contrast, transgenerational phenotypes and toxicology by definition excludes direct exposure and must be transmitted through multiple generations (the F3 generation is the first transgenerational one). We are not looking at specific genes but using whole genome sequencing technologies which is a broader approach.

Besides, if you do a pubmed search with the keywords “epigenetics” and “transgenerational”, you will probably find that more than 50% of the studies have been done by Dr Michael K. Skinner. He is also one of the first researcher who started to work on the epigenetic transgenerational inheritance phenomenon 15 years ago. Not citing his previous work is challenging.

We hope to see other labs contributing to this particular field and we will be delighted to cite them. In the meantime, our only option is to reference our previous work.”

I replied:

“Thank you for your reply! It must be exasperating to see other researchers stop their studies short of the F3 generation for no apparent or disclosed reason.

Have you seen even one scientifically adequate human study of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance?” “Alterations in sperm DNA methylation, non-coding RNA expression, and histone retention mediate vinclozolin-induced epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of disease”

Methods of detecting additional epigenetic modifications

This 2018 German review subject was detecting DNA modifications that are derivatives of the much-studied 5-methlycytosine:

“The discovery of modified nucleobases arising from 5-methylcytosine (5mC) through consecutive oxidation to give 5-hydroxymethylcytosine (5hmC), 5-formylcytosine (5fC), and 5-carboxylcytosine (5caC) has stimulated intense research efforts regarding the biological functions of these epigenetic marks.

Recent findings revealed that 5hmC and 5fC are stable DNA modifications in the genome, thus suggesting that oxidized 5mC derivatives may function as epigenetic marks in their own right, exhibiting regulatory purposes and participating in DNA replication, transcription, repair, and recombination.

The bisulfite-sequencing method (BS-Seq) has widely been used as the gold standard in determining the methylation status with single-base resolution in genomic DNA. The BS-Seq method, however, has some severe drawbacks, such as:

  • Harsh reaction conditions which might cause undesired DNA damage,
  • Requirements for relatively large amounts of input DNA,
  • Dependence on PCR, and resulting short sequence reads, as well as
  • Reduced sequence complexity due to deamination of all nonmethylated cytosines and
  • Accompanied challenges for primer hybridization.

Most importantly, however, with BS-Seq it is not possible to discriminate between 5mC and 5hmC..Furthermore, since 5fC and 5aC undergo deamination similar to unmodified cytosine, they are indistinguishable from C under bisulfite conditions.” “Chemoselective labeling and site-specific mapping of 5-formylcytosine as a cellular nucleic acid modification” (click the PDF link)

Little evidence for mitochondrial DNA methylation

This 2018 Japanese rodent study used three different techniques to detect mitochondrial DNA methylation:

“Whilst 5-methylcytosine (5mC) is a major epigenetic mark in the nuclear DNA in mammals, whether or not mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) receives 5mC modification remains controversial.

We used bisulfite sequencing, McrBC digestion analyses and liquid chromatography mass spectrometry, which are distinctly differing methods for detecting 5mC..we analysed mtDNAs from mouse ESCs [embryonic stem cells] and from mouse liver and brain tissues.

Taken together, we propose that 5mC is not present at any specific region(s) of mtDNA and that levels of the methylated cytosine are fairly low, provided the modification occurs. It is thus unlikely that 5mC plays a universal role in mtDNA gene expression or mitochondrial metabolism.”

Bisulfite sequencing infers the presence of CpG (CG above) and non-CpG (CH above) methylation through unconverted residues:

“Synthetic and native mtDNA gave similar patterns, suggesting that the resistance of cytosines to bisulfite conversion is not due to methylation.”

It seems that epigenetic changes to mitochondrial DNA occur primarily through histone modifications. Lysine acetylation is gnarly and dynamic is one paper that detailed aspects of this functionality in mitochondria. “Accurate estimation of 5-methylcytosine in mammalian mitochondrial DNA”