A mid-year selection of epigenetic topics

Here are the most popular of the 65 posts I’ve made so far in 2018, starting from the earliest:

The pain societies instill into children

DNA methylation and childhood adversity

Epigenetic mechanisms of muscle memory

Sex-specific impacts of childhood trauma

Sleep and adult brain neurogenesis

This dietary supplement is better for depression symptoms than placebo

The epigenetic clock theory of aging

A flying human tethered to a monkey

Immune memory in the brain

The lack of oxygen’s epigenetic effects on a fetus


Melatonin and depression

This 2018 Polish review subject was the relationship between melatonin and depression:

“Although melatonin has been known about and referred to for almost 50 years, the relationship between melatonin and depression is still not clear. In this review, we summarize current knowledge about the genetic and epigenetic regulation of enzymes involved in melatonin synthesis and metabolism as potential features of depression pathophysiology and treatment.

Melatonin has an antidepressant effect by:

  • Maintaining the body’s circadian rhythm,
  • Regulating the pattern of expression of the clock genes in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) and
  • Modifying the key genes of serotoninergic neurotransmission that are linked with a depressive mood.

Light input causes the release of γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) by the SCN, and the inhibitory signal is transmitted to the pineal gland to inhibit melatonin production.

Melatonin is produced via the metabolism of serotonin in two steps which are catalyzed by serotonin N-acetyltransferase (SNAT) and acetylserotonin-O-methyltransferase (ASMT). Serotonin, SNAT, and ASMT are key melatonin level regulation factors.

Both melatonin and serotonin are synthesized from the same amino acid, tryptophan. People on a high tryptophan diet (>10 mg/kg body weight per day) have a significantly lower level of depressive symptoms, irritation, and anxiety than people on a low tryptophan diet (<5 mg/kg body weight per day).

To our knowledge, there are only 2 studies in the literature that characterize mRNA expression of ASMT in the peripheral blood of recurrent DD [depressive disorders]. [They] have demonstrated the reduced mRNA expression of ASMT in patients with depression and cognitive impairment. Surprisingly, these studies, despite promising results, have not been replicated. Moreover, no analysis of other melatonin related-genes as potential biomarkers of depression has been provided.

The main monoamine hypothesis of the pathophysiology of depression indicates that depression is induced by a change in the level of ≥1 monoamines such as serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine. The evidence for the serotonergic theory is an observation that antidepressants such as tricyclic antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors increase the level of serotonin in the brain.

We focus on serotonin as a neurotransmitter which is a precursor of melatonin synthesis. In a depressed patient, serotonin synthesis is impaired and the poor precursor availability may prevent the formation of an adequate amount of melatonin. However, only a few studies have analyzed the relationship between serotonin and melatonin levels and the correlation with the blood serum.”

At eight cents a day ($.04 for women) melatonin is a cheap and effective supplement.

I hadn’t considered possible antidepressant effects until reading this review. More human studies are needed.

https://www.karger.com/Article/Pdf/489470 “Pathophysiology of Depression: Molecular Regulation of Melatonin Homeostasis – Current Status” (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?

https://www.jaacap.org/article/S0890-8567(18)30107-2/pdf “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.

https://clinicalepigeneticsjournal.biomedcentral.com/track/pdf/10.1186/s13148-018-0481-4 “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.”

https://academic.oup.com/biomedgerontology/advance-article/doi/10.1093/gerona/gly060/4944478 “Tracking the Epigenetic Clock Across the Human Life Course: A Meta-analysis of Longitudinal Cohort Data”

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)

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 sara.morley-fletcher@univ-lille1.fr 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?

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0161813X18301062 “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)

Prenatal stress produces offspring who as adults have cognitive, emotional, and memory deficiencies

This 2018 French/Italian/Swiss rodent study used the prenatally restraint stressed (PRS) model to create problems that could be resolved by various chemicals:

“S 47445 is a positive modulator of glutamate AMPA-type receptors, possessing neurotrophic and enhancing synaptic plasticity effects as well as pro-cognitive and anti-stress properties.

Most of studies examining the antidepressant effects of new molecules are carried out using behavioral tests performed in unstressed animals.

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. The PRS rat model is characterized by a prolonged corticosterone response to stress and by abnormal behavior.

All the behavioral alterations induced by PRS..were corrected by chronic S 47445 administration at both doses.”

The paper included a section comparing S 47445 to ketamine:

“Ketamine, however, causes severe cognitive impairment and psychotomimetic [mimics the symptoms of psychosis, reference not freely available] effects that are direct consequences of the prolonged inhibition of NMDA receptors in cortical and hippocampal interneurons, and seriously limit the chronic administration of the drug in the clinical setting. [reference not freely available]

S 47445 by inducing a direct activation of AMPARs displayed an antidepressant activity without the adverse effect of ketamine. Indeed, contrary to ketamine, S 47445 presented no psychotomimetic effects and induced no occurrence of spontaneous epileptic seizures. [reference freely available] Moreover, S 47445 also presented pro-cognitive properties.”

Compare the above with this April 2018 Chicago Tribune story that had opinions with no linked references:

“..ketamine, an anesthetic used to sedate both people and animals before surgery. It’s also a notorious street drug, abused by clubgoers seeking a trancelike, hallucinatory high. But in recent years, numerous studies have found that ketamine can be an effective and speedy treatment for people with depression.”

Which coverage better informed us?

Treating prenatal stress-related disorders with an oxytocin receptor agonist was performed by several of this paper’s coauthors. One of this paper’s references to it was:

“We have already reported that depolarization-evoked glutamate release in the ventral hippocampus is negatively correlated with risk-taking behavior of PRS rats, and that such correlation can be corrected by chronic treatment with monoaminergic/melatoninergic antidepressants or oxytocin receptor agonist. Thus, an impairment of glutamatergic transmission in the ventral hippocampus lies at the core of the pathological phenotype of PRS rats.”

Looking at the above graphic of the experimental design, I’m not sure why the term perinatal (occurring during or pertaining to the phase surrounding the time of birth) was used in the paper’s title and content to describe the stress period. The pregnant females were stressed three times every day during the second half of pregnancy up until delivery, so the prenatal (previous to birth) term was more applicable.

So, how does this study help humans?

One takeaway is to avoid stressing pregnant mothers-to-be if her children will be expected to become adults without cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems.

The study demonstrated one way prenatal events cause lifelong effects. The PRS model provides another example of why it’s useless to ask adult humans to self-report the causes of epigenetic problems in their lives when these originated before birth, during infancy, or in early childhood well before humans develop the cognitive capability to recognize such situations. It’s incomprehensible that this unreliable paradigm is still given significant weight in stress studies, especially when the experimental designs:

“..do not recapitulate the early programming of stress-related disorders, which likely originates in the perinatal period.”

Also, the relevant difference between humans and PRS rats is that we can ourselves individually change our responses to experiential causes of ongoing adverse effects. Standard methodologies can only apply external treatments such as those mentioned above.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0028390818301291 “The reduction in glutamate release is predictive of cognitive and emotional alterations that are corrected by the positive modulator of AMPA receptors S 47445 in perinatal stressed rats” (not freely available) Thanks to coauthors Stefania Maccari and Dr. Jerome Mairesse for providing a copy.

This dietary supplement is better for depression symptoms than placebo

This 2018 Italy/UK meta-analysis subject was the use of dietary supplement acetyl-L-carnitine to treat depression symptoms:

“Deficiency of acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC) appears to play a role in the risk of developing depression, indicating dysregulation of fatty acids transport across the inner membrane of mitochondria. However, the data regarding ALC supplementation in humans are limited. We thus conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis investigating the effect of ALC on depressive symptoms across randomized controlled trials (RCTs).

Pooled data across nine RCTs (231 treated with ALC versus 216 treated with placebo and 20 no intervention) showed that ALC significantly reduced depressive symptoms.

In three RCTs comparing ALC versus antidepressants (162 for each group), ALC demonstrated similar effectiveness compared with established antidepressants [fluoxetine (Prozac), duloxetine (Cymbalta), amisulpride (Solian) respectively below] in reducing depressive symptoms. In these latter RCTs, the incidence of adverse effects was significantly lower in the ALC group [79%] than in the antidepressant group.

Subgroup analyses suggested that ALC was most efficacious in older adults..Future large scale trials are required to confirm/refute these findings.”

From the Study selection subsection:

“Studies were excluded if:

  1. did not include humans;
  2. did not include a control group;
  3. did not use validated scales for assessing depression;
  4. did not report data at follow-up evaluation regarding tests assessing depression;
  5. included the use of ALC with another agent vs. placebo/no intervention.”

The Discussion section was informative regarding possible mechanisms of ALC affecting depression, pain, and linked symptoms. Several citations were of a review rather than of the original studies, however.

Research needs to proceed on to investigate therapies that address ultimate causes for depression and pain. Researchers and sponsors shouldn’t stop at just symptoms and symptom relief, notwithstanding the requirement from a statistical point of view for “future large scale trials.”

Here are other acetyl-L-carnitine topics I’ve curated:

https://journals.lww.com/psychosomaticmedicine/Citation/2018/02000/Acetyl_L_Carnitine_Supplementation_and_the.4.aspx “Acetyl-L-Carnitine Supplementation and the Treatment of Depressive Symptoms: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis” (not freely available)

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