Experience-induced transgenerational programming of neuronal structure and functions

The second paper of Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance week was a 2017 German/Israeli review focused on:

“The inter- and transgenerational effects of stress experience prior to and during gestation..the concept of stress-induced (re-)programming in more detail by highlighting epigenetic mechanisms and particularly those affecting the development of monoaminergic transmitter systems, which constitute the brain’s reward system..we offer some perspectives on the development of protective and therapeutic interventions in cognitive and emotional disturbances resulting from preconception and prenatal stress.”

The reviewers noted that human studies have difficulties predicting adult responses to stress that are based on gene expression and early life experience. Clinical studies that experimentally manipulate the type, level and timing of the stressful exposure aren’t possible. Clinical studies are also predicated on the symptoms being recognized as disorders and/or diseases.

The researchers noted difficulties in human interventions and treatments. Before and during pregnancy, and perinatal periods are where stress effects are largest, but current human research hasn’t gathered sufficient findings to develop practical guidelines for early intervention programs.


I’m not persuaded by arguments that cite the difficulties of performing human research on transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. There are overwhelming numbers of people who have obvious stress symptoms: these didn’t develop in a vacuum.

Researchers:

  • Design human studies to test what’s known from transgenerational epigenetic inheritance animal studies that will include documenting the subjects’ detailed histories with sufficient biometric samples and data obtained from their lineage.
  • Induce the subjects to at least temporarily avoid what’s harmful for them and/or the offspring, in favor of what’s beneficial.
  • Document the subjects’ actions with history and samples.

I acknowledge that economic incentives may not be enough to get people to participate. I’m familiar with a juvenile sickle-cell study that didn’t get enough subjects despite offering free transportation and hundreds of dollars per visit. The main problem seemed to be that the additional income would be reported and threaten the caregiver’s welfare benefits.

Stop whining that your jobs are difficult, researchers. Society doesn’t owe you a job. Earn it – get yourself and the people in your organization motivated to advance science.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014976341630731X “Experience-induced transgenerational (re-)programming of neuronal structure and functions: Impact of stress prior and during pregnancy” (not freely available)

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Epigenetic effects of early life stress exposure

This 2017 Netherlands review subject was the lasting epigenetic effects of early-life stress:

“Exposure to stress during critical periods in development can have severe long-term consequences..One of the key stress response systems mediating these long-term effects of stress is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis..early life stress (ELS) exposure has been reported to have numerous consequences on HPA-axis function in adulthood.

ELS is able to “imprint” or “program” an organism’s neuroendocrine, neural and behavioral responses to stress..research focuses along two complementary lines.

Firstly, ELS during critical stages in brain maturation may disrupt specific developmental processes (by altered neurotransmitter exposure, gene transcription, or neuronal differentiation), leading to aberrant neural circuit function throughout life..

Secondly, ELS may induce modifications of the epigenome which lastingly affect brain function..These epigenetic modifications are inducible, stable, and yet reversible, constituting an important emerging mechanism by which transient environmental stimuli can induce persistent changes in gene expression and ultimately behavior.”

In early life, the lower brain and limbic system brain structures are more developed and dominant, whereas the cerebrum and other brain structures are less developed (use the above graphic as a rough guide). Stress and pain generally have a greater impact on the fetus, then the infant, and then the adult.


The reviewers cited 50+ studies from years 2000-2015 in the “Early Life Stress Effects in a “Matching” Stressful Adult Environment” section to argue for the match/mismatch theory:

“Encountering ELS prepares an organism for similar (“matching”) adversities during adulthood, while a mismatching environment results in an increased susceptibility to psychopathology, indicating that ELS can exert either beneficial or disadvantageous effects depending on the environmental context.

Initial evidence for HPA-axis hypo-reactivity is observed for early social deprivation, potentially reflecting the abnormal HPA-axis function as observed in post-traumatic stress disorder.

Interestingly, experiencing additional (chronic) stress in adulthood seems to normalize these alterations in HPA-axis function, supporting the match/mismatch theory.”

Evidence for this theory was contrasted with the allostatic load theory presented in, for example, How one person’s paradigms regarding stress and epigenetics impedes relevant research.


The review mainly cites evidence from rodent studies that mismatched reactions in adulthood may be consequences of early-life events. These events:

“..imprint or program an organism’s neuroendocrine, neural and behavioral responses..leading to aberrant neural circuit function throughout life..which lastingly affect brain function..”

Taking this research to a personal level:

  • Have you had feelings that you were unsafe, although your environment was objectively safe?
  • Have you felt uneasy when people are nice to you?
  • Have you felt anxious when someone pays attention to you, even after you’ve acted to gain their attention?

I assert that mismatched human feelings are one form of mismatched reactions. As such, they may be interpreted as consequences of early-life experiences, and indicators of personal truths.

If researchers can let go of their biases and Advance science by including emotion in research, they may find that human subjects’ feelings produce better evidence for what actually happened during the subjects’ early lives than do standard scientific methods of:

Incorporating this evidence may bring researchers closer to backwardly predicting the major insults to an individual that knocked their development processes out of normally robust pathways and/or induced “persistent changes in gene expression and ultimately behavior.”

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fncel.2017.00087/full “Modulation of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis by Early Life Stress Exposure”


I discovered this review as a result of it being cited in http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1084952117302884 “Long-term effects of early environment on the brain: Lesson from rodent models” (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.

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/proceedings-of-the-nutrition-society/article/nutritional-psychiatry-the-present-state-of-the-evidence/88924C819D21E3139FBC48D4D9DF0C08 “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. 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?”

http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2470547017692328 “Neurobiological and Systemic Effects of Chronic Stress”

Epigenetic stress effects in preterm infants

This 2017 Italian review selected 9 human studies on the epigenetic effects of:

“..one of the major adverse events in human development. Preterm infants are hospitalized in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where they are exposed to life-saving yet pain-inducing procedures and to protective care.”

Highlights of the referenced studies included:

  • “..early exposure to adverse events during the third trimester of pregnancy is capable to alter the epigenetic status of imprinted and placenta-related genes which have relevant implications for fetal development and preterm infants’ HPA [hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal] stress reactivity during infancy.”
  • “..there was an association between DNAm [DNA methylation] and white matter tract tissue integrity and shape inferred from dMRI [diffusion MRI], suggesting that epigenetic variation may contribute to the cerebral phenotype of preterm birth.”

Limitations of the referenced studies included:

  • “A multiple sampling design that includes parental samples, placental tissue, cord blood and extends across the life-course would be required to investigate the relative contributions of in utero and postnatal exposures to changes in DNAm, and the extent to which preterm birth leaves a legacy on the methylome.”
  • Saliva, blood, and other tissues’ DNA methylation may not produce valid links to brain tissue DNA methylation of the same gene, which may hamper conclusive inferences about behavior, etc.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763417302117 “Preterm Behavioral Epigenetics: A systematic review” (not freely available)

http://www.nature.com/tp/journal/v6/n1/full/tp2015210a.html “Epigenomic profiling of preterm infants reveals DNA methylation differences at sites associated with neural function” (one of the studies selected, quoted above)

The current paradigm of child abuse limits pre-childhood causal research

As an adult, what would be your primary concern if you suspected that your early life had something to do with current problems? Would you be interested in effective treatments of causes of your symptoms?

Such information wasn’t available in this 2016 Miami review of the effects of child abuse. The review laid out the current paradigm mentioned in Grokking an Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) score, one that limits research into pre-childhood causes for later-life symptoms.


The review’s goal was to describe:

“How numerous clinical and basic studies have contributed to establish the now widely accepted idea that adverse early life experiences can elicit profound effects on the development and function of the nervous system.”

The hidden assumption of almost all of the cited references was that these distant causes can no longer be addressed. Aren’t such assumptions testable here in 2016?

As an example, the Discussion section posed the top nine “most pressing unanswered questions related to the neurobiological effects of early life trauma.” In line with the current paradigm, the reviewer assigned “Are the biological consequences of ELS [early life stress] reversible?” into the sixth position.

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?


The review also demonstrated how the current paradigm of child abuse misrepresents items like telomere length and oxytocin. Researchers on the bandwagon tend to forget about the principle Einstein expressed as:

“No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”

That single experiment for telomere length arrived in 2016 with Using an epigenetic clock to distinguish cellular aging from senescence. The seven references the review cited for telomere length that had “is associated with” or “is linked to” child abuse findings should now be viewed in a different light.

The same light shone on oxytocin with Testing the null hypothesis of oxytocin’s effects in humans and Oxytocin research null findings come out of the file drawer. See their references, and decide for yourself whether or not:

“Claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.”

http://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273%2816%2900020-9 “Paradise Lost: The Neurobiological and Clinical Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect”

Treating prenatal stress-related disorders with an oxytocin receptor agonist

This 2015 French/Italian rodent study found:

“Chronic systemic treatment with carbetocin [unavailable in the US] in PRS [prenatally restraint stressed] rats corrected:

  • the defect in glutamate release,
  • anxiety- and depressive-like behavior,

and abnormalities:

  • in social behavior,
  • in the HPA response to stress, and
  • in the expression of stress-related genes in the hippocampus and amygdala.

These findings disclose a novel function of oxytocin receptors in the hippocampus, and encourage the use of oxytocin receptor agonists in the treatment of stress-related psychiatric disorders in adult life.”

The adult male subjects were:

“PRS rats..the offspring of dams exposed to repeated episodes of restraint stress during pregnancy.

These rats display anxiety- and depressive-like behaviors and show an excessive glucocorticoid response to acute stress, which is indicative of a dysregulation of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis caused by an impaired hippocampal glucocorticoid negative feedback.

PRS rats show a selective reduction in glutamate release in the ventral hippocampus.”

The researchers cited several other studies they have performed with the PRS phenotype. In the current study:

“Carbetocin treatment had no effect on these behavioral and neuroendocrine parameters in prenatally unstressed (control) rats, with the exception of a reduced expression of the oxytocin receptor gene in the amygdala.

Carbetocin displayed a robust therapeutic activity in PRS rats, but had no effect in unstressed rats, therefore discriminating between physiological and pathological conditions.”

The phenotype showed the ease with which a child can be epigenetically changed – even before they’re born – to be less capable over their entire lifetime. Just stress the pregnant mother-to-be.

http://www.psyneuen-journal.com/article/S0306-4530%2815%2900239-5/abstract “Activation of presynaptic oxytocin receptors enhances glutamate release in the ventral hippocampus of prenatally restraint stressed rats” Thanks to one of the authors, Eleonora Gatta, for providing the full study