Do genes or maternal environments shape fetal brains?

This 2019 Singapore human study used Diffusion Tensor Imaging on 5-to-17-day old infants to find:

“Our findings showed evidence for region-specific effects of genotype and GxE on individual differences in human fetal development of the hippocampus and amygdala. Gene x Environment models outcompeted models containing genotype or environment only, to best explain the majority of measures but some, especially of the amygdaloid microstructure, were best explained by genotype only.

Models including DNA methylation measured in the neonate umbilical cords outcompeted the Gene and Gene x Environment models for the majority of amygdaloid measures and minority of hippocampal measures. The fact that methylation models outcompeted gene x environment models in many instances is compatible with the idea that DNA methylation is a product of GxE.

A genome-wide association study of SNP [single nucleotide polymorphism] interactions with the prenatal environments (GxE) yielded genome wide significance for 13 gene x environment models. The majority (10) explained hippocampal measures in interaction with prenatal maternal mental health and SES [socioeconomic status]. The three genome-wide significant models predicting amygdaloid measures, explained right amygdala volume in interaction with maternal depression.

The transcription factor CUX1 was implicated in the genotypic variation interaction with prenatal maternal health to shape the amygdala. It was also a central node in the subnetworks formed by genes mapping to the CpGs in neonatal umbilical cord DNA methylation data associating with both amygdala and hippocampus structure and substructure.

Our results implicated the glucocorticoid receptor (NR3C1) in population variance of neonatal amygdala structure and microstructure.

Estrogen in the hippocampus affects learning, memory, neurogenesis, synapse density and plasticity. In the brain testosterone is commonly aromatized to estradiol and thus the estrogen receptor mediates not only the effects of estrogen, but also that of testosterone.”

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gbb.12576 “Neonatal amygdalae and hippocampi are influenced by genotype and prenatal environment, and reflected in the neonatal DNA methylome” (not freely available)

Too cheap for clinical trials

Let’s compare and contrast a 2019 meta-analysis and a 2017 review of using acetyl-L-carnitine to treat diabetic neuropathy.

A 2019 Brazilian meta-analysis Acetyl‐L‐carnitine for the treatment of diabetic peripheral neuropathy of four previous trials stated:

  • “The risk of bias was high in both trials of different ALC doses and low in the other two trials.
  • No included trial measured the proportion of participants with at least moderate (30%) or substantial (50%) pain relief.
  • At doses greater than 1500 mg/day, ALC reduced pain more than placebo. This subgroup analysis should be viewed with caution as the evidence was even less certain than the overall analysis, which was already of very low certainty.
  • The placebo-controlled studies did not measure functional impairment and disability scores.
  • No study used validated symptom scales.
  • Two studies were funded by the manufacturer of ALC and the other two studies had at least one co-author who was a consultant for an ALC manufacturer.

Authors’ conclusions:

  • We are very uncertain whether ALC causes a reduction in pain after 6 to 12 months treatment in people with DPN, when compared with placebo, as the evidence is sparse and of low certainty.
  • Data on functional and sensory impairment and symptoms are lacking, or of very low certainty.
  • The evidence on adverse events is too uncertain to make any judgements on safety.”

A 2017 Italian review Effects of acetyl-L-carnitine in diabetic neuropathy and other geriatric disorders stated:

“A long history of diabetes mellitus and increasing age are associated with the onset of diabetic neuropathy, a painful and highly disabling complication with a prevalence peaking at 50% among elderly diabetic patients. The management of diabetic neuropathy is extremely difficult: in addition to the standard analgesics used for pain control, common treatments include opioids, anticonvulsants, antidepressants, and local anesthetics, alone or in combination. Such therapies still show a variable, often limited efficacy, however.

Many patients do not spontaneously report their symptoms to physicians, but, if asked, they often describe having experienced a persistent and non-abating pain for many years. The prevalence of painful symptoms is just as high in patients with mild neuropathy as in those with more advanced DPN.

Through the donation of acetyl groups, ALC exerts a positive action on mitochondrial energy metabolism. ALC has cytoprotective, antioxidant, and antiapoptotic effects in the nervous system.

ALC has also been proposed for the treatment of other neurological and psychiatric diseases, such as mood disorders and depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease, given that synaptic energy states and mitochondrial dysfunctions are core factors in their pathogenesis. Compared to other treatments, ALC is safe and extremely well tolerated.”

“In nerve injury, the mGlu2 receptor overexpressed by ALC binds the glutamate, reducing its concentration in the synapses with an analgesic effect. ALC may improve nerve regeneration and damage repair after primary nerve trauma.”


Where will the money come from to realize what the 2017 review promised, as well as provide what the 2019 meta-analysis required?

Do we prefer the current “limited efficacy” treatments of “opioids, anticonvulsants, antidepressants, and local anesthetics?”

Who will initiate clinical trials of a multiple of the normal dietary supplement dose (500 mg at $.25 a day, retail)? How profitable is a product whose hypothetical effective dosage for diabetic neuropathy (3000 mg) sells for only $1.50 a day?

A book review of “Neuroepigenetics and Mental Illness”

A 2018 online book “Neuroepigenetics and Mental Illness” was published at https://www.sciencedirect.com/bookseries/progress-in-molecular-biology-and-translational-science/vol/158/suppl/C (not freely available). Three chapters are reviewed here, with an emphasis on human studies:


Actually, I won’t waste my time or your time with what I planned to do. The lack of scientific integrity and ethics displayed by the book’s publisher, editor, and contributors in the below chapter spoke volumes.

How can the information in any other chapter of this book be trusted?


“Chapter Twelve: Transgenerational Epigenetics of Traumatic Stress”

This chapter continued propagating a transgenerational meme that had more to do with extending paradigms than advancing science. The meme is that there are adequately evidenced transgenerational epigenetic inheritance human results.

As noted in Epigenetic variations in metabolism, there aren’t any published human studies that provide incontrovertible evidence from the F0 great-grandparents, F1 grandparents, F2 parents, and F3 children to confirm definitive transgenerational epigenetic inheritance causes and effects. Researchers urgently need to do this human research, and stop pretending that it’s already been done.

How did the book’s editor overlook what this chapter admitted?

“Literature about the inheritance of the effects of traumatic stress in humans has slowly accumulated in the past decade. However, it remains thin and studies in humans also generally lack clear “cause and effect” association, mechanistic explanations or germline assessment.”

Were the publisher and editor determined to keep the chapter heading – and the reviewers determined to add another entry to their CVs – in the face of this weasel-wording?

“In conclusion, although less studied from a mechanistic point of view, inter- and possibly transgenerational inheritance of the effects of traumatic stress is supported by empirical evidence in humans.”

See the comments below for one example of the poor substitutes for evidence that propagators of this transgenerational meme use to pronounce human transgenerational epigenetic inheritance a fait accompli. Researchers supporting the meme and its funding pipeline most certainly know that not only this one example, but also ALL human transgenerational epigenetic inheritance studies:

“Lack clear “cause and effect” association, mechanistic explanations or germline assessment.”

Lack of scientific integrity is one reason why such human research hasn’t been undertaken with the urgency it deserves. Propagating this meme is unethical, and adversely affects anyone who values evidence-based research.

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)