Resiliency in stress responses

This 2018 US Veterans Administration review subject was resiliency and stress responses:

Neurobiological and behavioral responses to stress are highly variable. Exposure to a similar stressor can lead to heterogeneous outcomes — manifesting psychopathology in one individual, but having minimal effect, or even enhancing resilience, in another.

We highlight aspects of stress response modulation related to early life development and epigenetics, selected neurobiological and neurochemical systems, and a number of emotional, cognitive, psychosocial, and behavioral factors important in resilience.”

The review cited studies I’ve previously curated:


There were two things I didn’t understand about this review. The first was why the paper isn’t freely available. It’s completely paid for by the US taxpayer, and no copyright is claimed. I recommend contacting the authors for a copy.

The second was why the VA hasn’t participated in either animal or human follow-on studies to the 2015 Northwestern University GABAergic mechanisms regulated by miR-33 encode state-dependent fear. That study’s relevance to PTSD, this review’s subject, and the VA’s mission is too important to ignore. For example:

“Fear-inducing memories can be state dependent, meaning that they can best be retrieved if the brain states at encoding and retrieval are similar.

“It’s difficult for therapists to help these patients,” Radulovic said, “because the patients themselves can’t remember their traumatic experiences that are the root cause of their symptoms.”

The findings imply that 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.”

I curated the research in A study that provided evidence for basic principles of Primal Therapy. These researchers have published several papers since then. Here are the abstracts from three of them:

Experimental Methods for Functional Studies of microRNAs in Animal Models of Psychiatric Disorders

“Pharmacological treatments for psychiatric illnesses are often unsuccessful. This is largely due to the poor understanding of the molecular mechanisms underlying these disorders. We are particularly interested in elucidating the mechanism of affective disorders rooted in traumatic experiences.

To date, the research of mental disorders in general has focused on the causal role of individual genes and proteins, an approach that is inconsistent with the proposed polygenetic nature of these disorders. We recently took an alternative direction, by establishing the role of miRNAs in the coding of stress-related, fear-provoking memories.

Here we describe in detail our work on the role of miR-33 in state-dependent learning, a process implicated in dissociative amnesia, wherein memories formed in a certain brain state can best be retrieved if the brain is in the same state. We present the specific experimental approaches we apply to study the role of miRNAs in this model and demonstrate that miR-33 regulates the susceptibility to state-dependent learning induced by inhibitory neurotransmission.”

Neurobiological mechanisms of state-dependent learning

“State-dependent learning (SDL) is a phenomenon relating to information storage and retrieval restricted to discrete states. While extensively studied using psychopharmacological approaches, SDL has not been subjected to rigorous neuroscientific study.

Here we present an overview of approaches historically used to induce SDL, and highlight some of the known neurobiological mechanisms, in particular those related to inhibitory neurotransmission and its regulation by microRNAs (miR).

We also propose novel cellular and circuit mechanisms as contributing factors. Lastly, we discuss the implications of advancing our knowledge on SDL, both for most fundamental processes of learning and memory as well as for development and maintenance of psychopathology.”

Neurobiological correlates of state-dependent context fear

“Retrieval of fear memories can be state-dependent, meaning that they are best retrieved if the brain states at encoding and retrieval are similar. Such states can be induced by activating extrasynaptic γ-aminobutyric acid type A receptors (GABAAR) with the broad α-subunit activator gaboxadol. However, the circuit mechanisms and specific subunits underlying gaboxadol’s effects are not well understood.

Here we show that gaboxadol induces profound changes of local and network oscillatory activity, indicative of discoordinated hippocampal-cortical activity, that were accompanied by robust and long-lasting state-dependent conditioned fear. Episodic memories typically are hippocampus-dependent for a limited period after learning, but become cortex-dependent with the passage of time.

In contrast, state-dependent memories continued to rely on hippocampal GABAergic mechanisms for memory retrieval. Pharmacological approaches with α- subunit-specific agonists targeting the hippocampus implicated the prototypic extrasynaptic subunits (α4) as the mediator of state-dependent conditioned fear.

Together, our findings suggest that continued dependence on hippocampal rather than cortical mechanisms could be an important feature of state-dependent memories that contributes to their conditional retrieval.”


Here’s an independent 2017 Netherlands/UC San Diego review that should bring these researchers’ efforts to the VA’s attention:

MicroRNAs in Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that can develop following exposure to or witnessing of a (potentially) threatening event. A critical issue is to pinpoint the (neuro)biological mechanisms underlying the susceptibility to stress-related disorder such as PTSD, which develops in the minority of ~15% of individuals exposed to trauma.

Over the last few years, a first wave of epigenetic studies has been performed in an attempt to identify the molecular underpinnings of the long-lasting behavioral and mental effects of trauma exposure. The potential roles of non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) such as microRNAs (miRNAs) in moderating or mediating the impact of severe stress and trauma are increasingly gaining attention. To date, most studies focusing on the roles of miRNAs in PTSD have, however, been completed in animals, using cross-sectional study designs and focusing almost exclusively on subjects with susceptible phenotypes.

Therefore, there is a strong need for new research comprising translational and cross-species approaches that use longitudinal designs for studying trajectories of change contrasting susceptible and resilient subjects. The present review offers a comprehensive overview of available studies of miRNAs in PTSD and discusses the current challenges, pitfalls, and future perspectives of this field.”

Here’s a 2017 Netherlands human study that similarly merits the US Veterans Administration’s attention:

Circulating miRNA associated with posttraumatic stress disorder in a cohort of military combat veterans

“Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects many returning combat veterans, but underlying biological mechanisms remain unclear. In order to compare circulating micro RNA (miRNA) of combat veterans with and without PTSD, peripheral blood from 24 subjects was collected following deployment, and isolated miRNA was sequenced.

PTSD was associated with 8 differentially expressed miRNA. Pathway analysis shows that PTSD is related to the axon guidance and Wnt signaling pathways, which work together to support neuronal development through regulation of growth cones. PTSD is associated with miRNAs that regulate biological functions including neuronal activities, suggesting that they play a role in PTSD symptomatology.”


See the below comments for reasons why I downgraded this review’s rating.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11920-018-0887-x “Stress Response Modulation Underlying the Psychobiology of Resilience” (not freely available)

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The truth about complex traits and GWAS

This 2017 Colorado analysis, “No Evidence That Schizophrenia Candidate Genes Are More Associated With Schizophrenia Than Noncandidate Genes,” found:

“A recent analysis of 25 historical candidate gene polymorphisms for schizophrenia in the largest genome-wide association study [GWAS] conducted to date suggested that these commonly studied variants were no more associated with the disorder than would be expected by chance.

However, the same study identified other variants within those candidate genes that demonstrated genome-wide significant associations with schizophrenia. As such, it is possible that variants within historic schizophrenia candidate genes are associated with schizophrenia at levels above those expected by chance, even if the most-studied specific polymorphisms are not.

As a group, variants in the most-studied candidate genes were no more associated with schizophrenia than were variants in control sets of noncandidate genes. While a small subset of candidate genes did appear to be significantly associated with schizophrenia, these genes were not particularly noteworthy given the large number of more strongly associated noncandidate genes.

The history of schizophrenia research should serve as a cautionary tale to candidate gene investigators examining other phenotypes: our findings indicate that the most investigated candidate gene hypotheses of schizophrenia are not well supported by genome-wide association studies, and it is likely that this will be the case for other complex traits as well.”


One reason I admire scientists is that many of them are genuinely interested in advancing science. They eventually expose the storytelling and directed narratives in reviews such as:

They uncover questionable methods and moneygrubbing to fund research with a goal of confirming sponsors’ biases such as:

They impartially examine evidence supporting agendas and personal aggrandizements in studies such as:

Unbiased facts and analyses are eventually reported by these dedicated scientists. The problem is that their works aren’t on page 1 of journals and search results.

https://www.biologicalpsychiatryjournal.com/article/S0006-3223(17)31772-9/fulltext “No Evidence That Schizophrenia Candidate Genes Are More Associated With Schizophrenia Than Noncandidate Genes” (not freely available)

Are there epigenetic causes for sexual orientation and gender identity?

This US 2018 review lead author was a gynecologic oncologist in private practice:

“Sexual orientation is biologically conferred in the first trimester of pregnancy. Gender identity is biologically conferred during the middle trimester of pregnancy.

Since the genitals differentiate in the first trimester, and the brain becomes imprinted in the latter half of gestation, it is possible for the fetal brain to be imprinted differently than the genitals..As children mature, this innate imprinting expresses as genital anatomy, gender identity, sexual orientation and other physiologic capabilities and natural preferences along a continuum, between masculine and feminine.

The evidence shows that both orientation and identity are biologic features that co-vary with a very large number of other biologic sexually dimorphic traits.”


A fetus’ development is influenced by survival reactions to their environment. Although fetal and placental responses to environmental stressors are relevant to sexual orientation and gender identity, the subject wasn’t explored.

Epigenetic adaptations to the prenatal environment involving microRNA were mentioned in a small subsection. But the review didn’t cite relevant studies involving DNA methylation, chromatin and histone modifications for epigenetic causes of and effects on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The authors included a half-dozen anecdotal quotations from personal correspondence that promoted their narrative. These came across as appeals to authority rather than methods to create scientific understanding of the subject.

It was insufficient for the review to note “a continuum between masculine and feminine” without also exploring evidence for an individual’s placement on the continuum, including possible epigenetic causes for sexual orientation and gender identity.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S009082581731510X “Biological origins of sexual orientation and gender identity: Impact on health” (not freely available)

Faith-tainted epigenetics

This 2018 Loma Linda review subject was epigenetic interventions for aging:

“Epigenomic markers of aging, global DNA hypomethylation and promoter-specific hypermethylation may be engendered by iron and HCys [homocysteine] retention.

MiR-29/p53 axis may reverse age-related methylomic shifts, stabilizing both the genome and the epigenome, therefore removing a major risk factor of neurodegeneration. Lowering iron and HCys overload can be accomplished via chelation, blood donation and maintaining an adequate omega-6/omega-3 ratio.”


Sometimes it’s difficult to detect researchers’ biases. If a reader didn’t know about the funding sponsor’s mission:

“Each day we seek to extend the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus Christ”

they may view this paper as unbiased rather than as a directed narrative.

Consider the sponsor’s influence from the perspective of someone seeking treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. If a doctor in this review sponsor’s hospital system recommended chelation treatment, hope would be generated for the patient. Adopting the doctor’s belief about the treatment, though, would be contrary to other evidence per this review:

“In 2008, the NIH chelation trial stopped enrolling patients, approximately two years early..

There is no indication for exposing patients with dementia to the risks of chelation therapy because current chelators cannot help them.”

http://www.nrronline.org/downloadpdf.asp?issn=1673-5374;year=2018;volume=13;issue=4;spage=635;epage=636;aulast=Sfera;type=2 “Epigenetic interventions for brain rejuvenation: anchoring age-related transposons” (click the pdf button)

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.”


https://febs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/1873-3468.13058 “Chemoselective labeling and site-specific mapping of 5-formylcytosine as a cellular nucleic acid modification” (click the PDF link)

The Not-Invented-Here syndrome

I have high expectations of natural science researchers. I assume that their studies will improve over time, and develop methods and experiments that produce reliable evidence to inform us of human conditions.

My confidence is often unrealistic. Scientists are people, after all, and have the same foibles as the rest of us.

I anticipate that researchers will keep abreast of others’ work around the world. If other groups in their research areas are developing better methods and exploring hypotheses that discover better applications for humans, why not adopt them in the interest of advancing science?

That’s not what happened with this 2018 UK rodent study. The rat model some of the coauthors have built their reputations on depends on disturbing rat pregnancies by administering glucocorticoids. But both the rat model and a guinea pig model in Do you have your family’s detailed medical histories? demonstrated that physicians who disturb their pregnant human patients in this way may be acting irresponsibly toward their patients’ fetuses and their future generations.

This study didn’t find mechanisms that explained transgenerational epigenetic birth weight effects through the F2 generation:

“Although the phenotype is transmitted to a second generation, we are unable to detect specific changes in DNA methylation, common histone modifications or small RNA [including microRNA] profiles in sperm.

The inheritance mechanism for the paternally derived glucocorticoid-reprogrammed phenotype may not be linked with the specific germline DNA, sRNA and chromatin modifications that we have profiled here.”


The linked guinea pig model was developed specifically to inform physicians of the consequences through the F3 generation of disturbing human pregnancies with glucocorticoids:

“Antenatal exposure to multiple courses of sGC [synthetic glucocorticoid] has been associated with hyperactivity, impaired attention, and neurodevelopmental impairment in young children and animals. It is imperative that the long-term effects of antenatal exposure to multiple courses of sGC continue to be investigated since the use of a ‘rescue’ (i.e. a second) course of sGC has recently re-introduced the practice of multiple course administration.”


If a study’s purpose is to investigate potential mechanisms of epigenetic inheritance, why not adopt a model that better characterizes common human conditions, regardless of which research group initially developed it?

The prenatal stress model used in The lifelong impact of maternal postpartum behavior is one model that’s more representative of human experiences. Those researchers pointed out in Prenatal stress produces offspring who as adults have cognitive, emotional, and memory deficiencies that:

“Corticosterone-treated mice and rats exposed to chronic stress are models that do not recapitulate the early programming of stress-related disorders, which likely originates in the perinatal period.”

Animal models that chemically redirect fetal development also “do not recapitulate the early programming of stress-related disorders.”

Other than research that’s done to warn against disrupted development, how can animal studies like the current study help humans when their models don’t replicate common human conditions? This failure to use more relevant models has follow-on effects such as human intergenerational and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance being denigrated due to insufficient evidence.

Of course there’s insufficient human evidence! Researchers developed and sponsors funded animal study designs that ensured there wouldn’t be wide applicability to humans. Few derivative human studies were developed and funded as a result.

https://genomebiology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13059-018-1422-4 “Investigation into the role of the germline epigenome in the transmission of glucocorticoid-programmed effects across generations”