A study of gene-environment interactions

This 2018 Hungary/UK study used Bayesian analysis to better understand gene-environment interactions that produce depression:

“Most genetic studies do not consider the effect of stressors which may be one reason for the lack of replicable results in candidate gene studies, GWAS [genome-wide association studies] and between human studies and animal models..Animal models of depression usually imply environmental factors, such as chronic unpredictable stress or learned helplessness.

Relevance of functional polymorphisms in seven candidate genes previously implicated in animal and human studies on a depression-related phenotype given various recent stress exposure levels was assessed with Bayesian relevance analysis in 1682 subjects.

Our data support the strong causative role of the environment modified by genetic factors, similar to animal models.”

From the Methods and Materials section:

“In order to identify recent negative life events (RLE) we used the List of Threatening Experiences questionnaire which queried problems related to illnesses/injuries, financial difficulties, problems related to intimate relationships, and social network occurring in the last year. Based on corresponding items the number of RLEs was counted for each subject, and categorized (low = 0–1, moderate = 2, high = 3/more).”

One item from the findings, and two from the cited references were:

“5-HTTLPR [serotonin transporter], the most extensively investigated polymorphism with respect to interaction with life events, showed only very low relevance.

Compared to heritability which accounts for 37–42% in the variance in general population samples, influence of environmental effects is estimated at 63% in depression.

Etiologically relevant distal and proximal stressors are relatively common, and while frequency of severe life events is estimated to be one in every 3–4 years, depression is triggered in only about one fifth of those with acute stress exposure.”

The methods of this study bypassed problems with GWAS and provided evidence for the lasting effects of “Etiologically relevant distal..stressors.” This was another way of saying that traumatic experiences beginning from the earliest parts of our lives still affect our biology and behavior.

As mentioned in Changing an individual’s future behavior even before they’re born, GWAS:

“Focuses on the average effect of alternative alleles averaged in a population.”

What this methodology often missed was:

“When phenotypic variation results from alleles that modify phenotypic variance rather than the mean, this link between genotype and phenotype will not be detected.”

The problems found in GWAS may also be found in epigenome-wide association studies. Researchers conducting DNA methylation analyses in particular may benefit from changing their approach if what they’re doing follows the GWAS paradigm.

Using twins to estimate the extent of epigenetic effects summarized three studies’ methods that showed:

“The epigenetic effects of each of our unique experiences of our non-shared environment predominately determine our individual physiology.”

This study’s approach should be considered, given the almost 2:1 relative impacts of environmental over genetic factors in influencing our biology and behavior. It’s especially indicated when human studies don’t replicate animal studies’ findings from strictly controlled experimental environments.

It wasn’t the study’s purpose to evaluate effective treatments for depression. Yet the abstract ended with:

“Galanin-2 receptor, BDNF and X-type purin-7 receptor could be drug targets for new antidepressants.”

The researchers were very careful to document the benefits of using a different approach to a problem. I hope that in the future, they will maintain their carefulness and independence in their approach to solutions, and not be influenced by:

“Consultancy, speaking engagements and research for Bristol-Myers Squibb, AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly, Schering Plough, Janssen-Cilag and Servier..share options in P1vital..consultancy fees from Alkermes, Lundbeck-Otsuka Ltd., Janssen-Cilag Ltd and fees for speaking from Lundbeck.”

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-22221-z “Significance of risk polymorphisms for depression depends on stress exposure”


Sleep and adult brain neurogenesis

This 2018 Japan/Detroit review subject was the impact of sleep and epigenetic modifications on adult dentate gyrus neurogenesis:

“We discuss the functions of adult‐born DG neurons, describe the epigenetic regulation of adult DG neurogenesis, identify overlaps in how sleep and epigenetic modifications impact adult DG neurogenesis and memory consolidation..

Whereas the rate of DG neurogenesis declines exponentially with age in most mammals, humans appear to exhibit a more modest age‐related reduction in DG neurogenesis. Evidence of adult neurogenesis has also been observed in other regions of the mammalian brain such as the subventricular zone, neocortex, hypothalamus, amygdala, and striatum.

Adult‐born DG neurons functionally integrate into hippocampal circuitry and play a special role in cognition during a period of heightened excitability and synaptic plasticity occurring 4–6 weeks after mitosis..Adult DG neurogenesis is regulated by a myriad of intrinsic and extrinsic factors, including:

  • drugs,
  • diet,
  • inflammation,
  • physical activity,
  • environmental enrichment,
  • stress, and
  • trauma.”

Some of what the review stated was contradicted by other evidence. For example, arguments for sleep were based on the memory consolidation paradigm, but evidence against memory consolidation wasn’t cited for balanced consideration.

It reminded me of A review that inadvertently showed how memory paradigms prevented relevant research. That review’s citations included a study led by one of those reviewers where:

“The researchers elected to pursue a workaround of the memory reconsolidation paradigm when the need for a new paradigm of enduring memories directly confronted them!”

Some of what this review stated was speculation. I didn’t quote any sections that followed:

 “We go one step further and propose..”

The review also had a narrative directed toward:

“Employing sleep interventions and epigenetic drugs..”

It’s storytelling rather than pursuing the scientific method when reviewers approach a topic as these reviewers did.

Instead of reading the review, I recommend this informative blog post from a Canadian researcher who provided scientific contexts rather than a directed narrative to summarize what is and isn’t known so far in 2018 about human neurogenesis.

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/stem.2815/epdf “Regulatory Influence of Sleep and Epigenetics on Adult Hippocampal Neurogenesis and Cognitive and Emotional Function”

An example of researchers changing their field’s paradigms

This 2018 German review subject was retroviruses:

“Initial indications that retroviruses are connected to neoplastic transformation were seen more than a century ago..43% of the human genome is made up of such elements and 8% of the genome is comprised of retroviruses that infected human ancestors, entering cells of the germ line or proliferating thereafter by retrotransposition.

Endogenized retroviruses (ERVs) are abundantly expressed in many transformed cells. In healthy cells, ERV expression is commonly prevented by DNA methylation and other epigenetic control mechanisms.

A recent string of papers has described favorable outcomes of increasing human ERV (HERV) RNA and DNA abundance by treatment of cancer cells with methyltransferase inhibitors. Analogous to an infecting agent, the ERV-derived nucleic acids are sensed in the cytoplasm and activate innate immune responses that drive the tumor cell into apoptosis.”

Some researchers weren’t satisfied with the status quo of this century-old field:

“Chiappinelli et al. (2015) and Roulois et al. (2015) demonstrated a link between DNMTi-induced activation of HERV expression and innate sensing of transcribed viral RNAs and activation of innate immunity signaling pathways leading to an inhibition of tumor cell growth. These results represent a paradigm shift in our comprehension of the antitumor activity of demethylating agents.”

There are opportunities for any researcher whose field can be related to epigenetics to update the way studies are done. Why should researchers settle for mediocrity when they can make a difference?

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5816757/pdf/fmicb-09-00178.pdf “HERVs New Role in Cancer: From Accused Perpetrators to Cheerful Protectors”

What will it take for childhood trauma research to change paradigms?

This 2018 German human study found:

“DNA methylation in a biologically relevant region of NR3C1-1F [the glucocorticoid receptor gene] moderates the specific direction of HPA-axis dysregulation (hypo- vs. hyperreactivity) in adults exposed to moderate-severe CT [childhood trauma].

In contrast, unexposed and mildly-moderately exposed individuals displayed moderately sized cortisol stress responses irrespective of NR3C1-1F DNA methylation. Contrary to some prior work, however, our data provides no evidence for a direct association of CT and NR3C1-1F DNA methylation status.”

The study was an example of why researchers investigating the lasting impacts of human traumatic experiences won’t find causes, effects, and productive therapies until their paradigms change.

1. Limited subject histories

A. Why weren’t the subjects asked for historical information about their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents?

The researchers had no problem using animal studies to guide the study design, EXCEPT for animal studies of the etiologic bases of intergenerational and transgenerational transmission of biological and behavioral phenotypes. Just the approximate places and dates of three generations of the German subjects’ ancestors’ births, childhoods, adolescences, and early adulthoods may have provided relevant trauma indicators.

B. Why are studies still using the extremely constrained Childhood Trauma Questionnaire? Only one CTQ aspect was acknowledged as a study design limitation:

“Our findings rely on retrospective self-report measures of CT, which could be subject to bias.”

But bias was among the lesser limiting factors of the CTQ.

The study correlated epigenetic changes with what the subjects selectively remembered, beginning when their brains developed enough to put together the types of memories that could provide CTQ answers, around age four. The basic problem prohibiting the CTQ from discovering likely most of the subjects’ historical traumatic experiences that caused epigenetic changes is that these experiences predated the CTQ’s developmental starting point:

  1. A human’s conception through prenatal period is when both the largest and the largest number of epigenetic changes occur, and is when our susceptibility and sensitivity to our environment is greatest;
  2. Birth through infancy is the second-largest; and
  3. Early childhood through the age of three is the third largest.

CTQ self-reports were – at best – evidence of experiences after age three, distinct from earlier experience-dependent epigenetic changes. If links existed between the subjects’ early-life DNA methylation and later-life conditions, they weren’t necessarily evidenced by CTQ answers about later life that can’t self-report relevant early-life experiences that may have caused DNA methylation.

2. Limited subject selection

The researchers narrowed down the initial 622 potential subjects to the eventual 200 subjects aged 18 to 30. An exclusion criteria that was justified as eliminating confounders led to this limitation statement:

“Our results might be based on a generally more resilient sample as we had explicitly excluded individuals with current or past psychopathology.”

Was it okay for the researchers to assert:

“Exposure to environmental adversity such as childhood trauma (CT) affects over 10% of the Western population and ranges among the best predictors for psychopathology later in life.”

but not develop evidence for the statement by letting people who may have been already affected by age 30 and received treatment participate in the study? Was the study design so fragile that it couldn’t adjust to the very people who may be helped by the research findings?

3. Limited consequential measurements

The current study design was very conformant to previous studies’ protocols. The researchers chose cortisol and specific DNA methylation measurements.

A. Here’s what Sex-specific impacts of childhood trauma had to say about cortisol:

“Findings are dependent upon variance in extenuating factors, including but not limited to, different measurements of:

  • early adversity,
  • age of onset,
  • basal cortisol levels, as well as
  • trauma forms and subtypes, and
  • presence and severity of psychopathology symptomology.”

The researchers knew or should have known all of the above since this quotation came from a review.

B. What other consequential evidence for prenatal, infancy, and early childhood experience-dependent epigenetic changes can be measured? One overlooked area is including human emotions as evidence.

There are many animal studies from which to draw inferences about human emotions. There are many animal models of creating measurable behavioral and biological phenotypes of human emotion correlates, with many methods, including manipulating environmental variables during prenatal, infancy, and early childhood periods.

Studies that take detailed histories may arrive at current emotional evidence for human subjects’ earliest experience-dependent changes. It’s not too big a leap to correlate specific historical environments and events, stress measurements, and lasting human emotions expressed as “I’m all alone” and “No one can help me” to better understand causes and effects.

CTQ answers aren’t sufficiently detailed histories.

4. Limited effective treatments and therapies

The current study only addressed this area in the final sentence:

“Given their potential reversibility, uncovering epigenetic contributions to differential trajectories following childhood adversity may serve the long-term goal of delivering personalized prevention strategies.”

So, researchers, if your paradigms demonstrate these characteristics, why are you spending your working life in efforts that can’t make a difference? Isn’t your working life more valuable than that? What else could you investigate that could make a difference in your field?

I hope that the researchers value their professions enough to make a difference with their expertise. And that sponsors won’t thwart researchers’ desires for difference-making science by putting them into endless funding queues.

http://www.psyneuen-journal.com/article/S0306-4530(17)31355-0/pdf “Glucocorticoid receptor gene methylation moderates the association of childhood trauma and cortisol stress reactivity” (not freely available)

Cell senescence and DNA methylation

This 2018 Baltimore cell study found:

“Based on similarities in overall methylation patterns in replicative senescence and cancers, it is hypothesized that tumor-promoting DNA methylation in cancers derives from cells escaping senescence.

We show that the tumor-associated methylation changes evolve independently of senescence and are pro-survival events with functional implications contrasting that in senescence.

In our analyses, although overall global gains and losses in DNA methylation are similar, at individual genomic regions the methylation patterns are very different for senescence versus transformation.”

I hesitated to use the study’s main graphic:
because the “Stochastic” labeling of the upper branch didn’t represent the vector’s meaning. The In Brief and the Summary sections contributed to the misrepresentation by stating:

“transformation-associated methylation changes arise stochastically..”

which wasn’t the purpose of the study:

“Our data outlined in the above sections strongly suggest against this senescence bypass hypothesis..”

although the experimental design and methods evoked randomness:

“Immortalization on the path to malignant transformation involves stochastic epigenetic patterns from which cells contributing to transformation may evolve.”

The graphic’s upper branch vector represented the cells’ evolutionary responses. The Significance section best characterized what the study found:

“tumor-associated methylation changes evolve independently of senescence and are pro-survival events..”

Would anyone at John Hopkins argue, as the graphic’s upper branch labeling suggested, that cellular aging is a predominantly random process?

Epigenetics research and evolution promoted understanding the graphic’s upper branch vector:

“Evolution is an ongoing set of iterative interactions between organisms and the environment..Directionality is introduced by the agency of organisms themselves.”

The current study provided another data point about the utility of convenient but non-etiologic, inconsequential measurements of global methylation:

“..although overall global gains and losses in DNA methylation are similar, at individual genomic regions the methylation patterns are very different..”

The current study was congruent with the below finding of Using an epigenetic clock to distinguish cellular aging from senescence regarding the differentiation of cellular aging from senescence:

“The fact that maintenance of telomere length by telomerase did not prevent cellular ageing defines the singular role of telomeres as that of a means by which cells restrict their proliferation to a certain number; which was the function originally ascribed to it. Cellular ageing on the other hand proceeds regardless of telomere length.”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1535610818300084 “DNA Methylation Patterns Separate Senescence from Transformation Potential and Indicate Cancer Risk” (not freely available)

The influence of donor age on induced pluripotent stem cell functionality

This 2018 German review subject was the influence of donor age on induced pluripotent stem cell functionality:

“Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) avoid many of the restrictions that hamper the application of human embryonic stem cells..Also, the donor’s clinical phenotype is often known when working with iPSCs.

Typical signs of cellular ageing are reverted in the process of iPSC reprogramming, and iPSCs from older donors do not show diminished differentiation potential nor do iPSC-derived cells from older donors suffer early senescence or show functional impairments when compared with those from younger donors.”

The reviewers discussed limitations in the current research:

  • “Mutations in nuclear and mitochondrial DNA acquired over the donor’s lifespan and during the reprogramming process might persist.
  • It is not yet known how strongly the variable genetic background of individual donors affects the reprogramming process and the quality of resulting iPSCs.
  • A low number of donors and cell lines is a general problem in almost all research articles on the topic of iPSCs. This combined with the lack of a standardised protocol for optimal iPSC derivation, culture and quality control makes any comparison between different publications very difficult if not impossible. Especially, since it has been shown that many factors influence the quality of iPSCs and iPSC-derived cells, such as time and cell type used for reprogramming, time in culture, or reprogramming modality.
  • A problem lies in the retention of tissue-specific epigenetic alterations which in part could be caused by incomplete reprogramming and might be improved by vigorous quality testing and careful selection of iPSC colonies during reprogramming and passaging.
  • The question regarding tumourigenicity will most likely only be answered satisfactorily once the differentiation methods are further improved, iPSC-derived cell-based therapies have made their way further into clinical practice, and patients receiving treatments have been observed for multiple years.”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5790033/pdf/fcvm-05-00004.pdf “Age Is Relative-Impact of Donor Age on Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell-Derived Cell Functionality”

Sex-specific impacts of childhood trauma

This 2018 Canadian paper reviewed evidence for potential sex-specific differences in the lasting impacts of childhood trauma:

“This paper will provide a contextualized summary of neuroendocrine, neuroimaging, and behavioral epigenetic studies on biological sex differences contributing to internalizing psychopathology, specifically posttraumatic stress disorder and depression, among adults with a history of childhood abuse.

Given the breadth of this review, we limit our definition [of] trauma to intentional and interpersonal experiences (i.e., childhood abuse and neglect) in childhood. Psychopathological outcomes within this review will be limited to commonly explored internalizing disorders, specifically PTSD and depression.

Despite the inconsistent and limited findings in this review, a critical future consideration will be whether the biological effects of early life stress can be reversed in the face of evidence-based behavioral interventions, and furthermore, whether these changes may relate to potentially concurrent reductions in susceptibility to negative mental health outcomes.”

It was refreshing to read a paper where the reviewers often interrupted the reader’s train of thought to interject contradictory evidence, and display the scientific method. For example, immediately after citing a trio of well-respected studies that found:

“Psychobiological research on relationships linking impaired HPA axis functioning and adult internalizing disorders are suggestive of lower basal and afternoon levels of plasma cortisol in PTSD phenotype.”

the reviewers stated:

“However, a recent meta-analysis suggests no association between basal cortisol with PTSD.”

and effectively ended the cortisol discussion with:

“Findings are dependent upon variance in extenuating factors, including but not limited to, different measurements of:

  • early adversity,
  • age of onset,
  • basal cortisol levels, as well as
  • trauma forms and subtypes, and
  • presence and severity of psychopathology symptomology.”

The reviewers also provided good summaries of aspects of the reviewed subject. For example, the “Serotonergic system genetic research, childhood trauma and risk of psychopathology” subsection ended with:

“Going forward, studies must explore the longitudinal effects of early trauma on methylation as well as comparisons of multiple loci methylation patterns and interactions to determine the greatest factors contributing to health outcomes. Only then, can we start to consider the role of sex in moderating risk.”

I don’t agree with the cause-ignoring approach of the behavior therapy mentioned in the review. Does it make sense to approach one category of symptoms:

“the biological effects of early life stress..”

by treating another category of symptoms?

“can be reversed in the face of evidence-based behavioral interventions..”

But addressing symptoms instead of the sometimes-common causes that generate both biological and behavioral effects continues to be the direction.

After receiving short-term symptom relief, wouldn’t people prefer treatments of originating causes so that their various symptoms don’t keep bubbling up? Why wouldn’t research paradigms be aligned accordingly?

I was encouraged by the intergenerational and transgenerational focus of one of the reviewer’s research:

“Dr. Gonzalez’s current research focus is to understand the mechanisms by which early experiences are transmitted across generations and how preventive interventions may affect this transmission.”

This line of hypotheses requires detailed histories, and should uncover causes for many effects that researchers may otherwise shrug off as unexplainable individual differences. Its aims include the preconception through prenatal periods where 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.

Unlike lab rats, women and men can reach some degree of honesty about our early lives’ experiential causes of ongoing adverse effects. The potential of experiential therapies to allow an individual to change their responses to these causes deserves as much investigation as do therapies that apply external “interventions.”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272735817302647 “Biological alterations affecting risk of adult psychopathology following childhood trauma: A review of sex differences” (not freely available) Thanks to lead author Dr. Ashwini Tiwari for providing a copy.