Reversing epigenetic changes with CRISPR/Cas9

This 2018 Chinese review highlighted areas in which CRISPR/Cas9 technology has, is, and could be applied to rewrite epigenetic changes:

“CRISPR/Cas9-mediated epigenome editing holds a great promise for epigenetic studies and therapeutics.

It could be used to selectively modify epigenetic marks at a given locus to explore mechanisms of how targeted epigenetic alterations would affect transcription regulation and cause subsequent phenotype changes. For example, inducing histone methylation or acetylation at the Fosb locus in the mice brain reward region, nucleus accumbens, could affect relevant transcription network and thus control behavioral responses evoked by drug and stress.

Epigenome editing has the potential for epigenetic treatment, especially for the disorders with abnormal gene imprinting or epigenetic marks. Targeted epigenetic silencing or reactivation of the mutant allele could be a potential therapeutic approach for diseases such as Rett syndrome and Huntington’s disease.

Noncoding RNA plays important roles in gene imprinting and chromatin remodeling. CRISPR/Cas9 has been shown to be potential for manipulating noncoding RNA expression, including microRNA, long noncoding RNA, and miRNA families and clusters.

In vivo overexpression of the Yamanaka factors have proven to be able to fully or partially help somatic cells to regain pluripotency in situ. These rejuvenated cells would subsequently differentiate again to replace the lost cell types.”


The last paragraph was described in The epigenetic clock theory of aging as a promising technique:

“To date, the most effective in vitro intervention against epigenetic ageing is achieved through expression of Yamanaka factors, which convert somatic cells into pluripotent stem cells, thereby completely resetting the epigenetic clock.”

The reviewers cited three references for in vivo studies of this technique. Overall, I didn’t see that any of the review’s references were in vivo human studies.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6079388/ “Novel Epigenetic Techniques Provided by the CRISPR/Cas9 System”

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The epigenetic clock now includes skin

The originator of the 2013 epigenetic clock improved its coverage with this 2018 UCLA human study:

“We present a new DNA methylation-based biomarker (based on 391 CpGs) that was developed to accurately measure the age of human fibroblasts, keratinocytes, buccal cells, endothelial cells, skin and blood samples. We also observe strong age correlations in sorted neurons, glia, brain, liver, and bone samples.

The skin & blood clock outperforms widely used existing biomarkers when it comes to accurately measuring the age of an individual based on DNA extracted from skin, dermis, epidermis, blood, saliva, buccal swabs, and endothelial cells. Thus, the biomarker can also be used for forensic and biomedical applications involving human specimens.

The biomarker applies to the entire age span starting from newborns, e.g. DNAm of cord blood samples correlates with gestational week.

Furthermore, the skin & blood clock confirms the effect of lifestyle and demographic variables on epigenetic aging. Essentially it highlights a significant trend of accelerated epigenetic aging with sub-clinical indicators of poor health.

Conversely, reduced aging rate is correlated with known health-improving features such as physical exercise, fish consumption, high carotenoid levels. As with the other age predictors, the skin & blood clock is also able to predict time to death.

Collectively, these features show that while the skin & blood clock is clearly superior in its performance on skin cells, it crucially retained all the other features that are common to other existing age estimators.”

http://www.aging-us.com/article/101508/text “Epigenetic clock for skin and blood cells applied to Hutchinson Gilford Progeria Syndrome and ex vivo studies”


An introduction to the study highlighted several items:

“Although the skin-blood clock was derived from significantly less samples (~900) than Horvath’s clock (~8000 samples), it was found to more accurately predict chronological age, not only across fibroblasts and skin, but also across blood, buccal and saliva tissue. A potential factor driving this improved accuracy in blood could be related to the approximate 18-fold increase in genomic coverage afforded by using Illumina 450k/850k beadarrays.

It serves as a roadmap for future clock studies, pointing towards the importance of constructing tissue or cell-type specific epigenetic clocks, to more accurately measure biological aging in the given tissue/cell-type, and therefore with the potential to be more informative of disease-risk or the success of disease interventions in the tissue or cell-type of interest.”

http://www.aging-us.com/article/101533/text “Epigenetic clocks galore: a new improved clock predicts age-acceleration in Hutchinson Gilford Progeria Syndrome patients”

Epigenetic factors affecting female rat sexual behavior

This 2018 Baltimore/Montreal rodent study found:

“If sexually naïve females have their formative sexually rewarding experiences paired with the same male, they will recognize that male and display mate-guarding behavior towards him in the presence of a female competitor. Female rats that display mate-guarding behavior also show enhanced activation of oxytocin and vasopressin neurons in the supraoptic and paraventricular hypothalamic nucleus.

We examined the effect of a lysine-specific demethylase-1 inhibitor to block the action of demethylase enzymes and maintain the methylation state of corresponding genes. Female rats treated with the demethylase inhibitor failed to show any measure of mate guarding, whereas females treated with vehicle displayed mate guarding behavior. Demethylase inhibitor treatment also blocked the ability of familiar male cues to activate oxytocin and vasopressin neurons, whereas vehicle-treated females showed this enhanced activation.”

General principles and their study-specific illustrations were:

Histone modifications are a key element in gene regulation through chromatin remodeling. Histone methylation / demethylation does not have straightforward transcriptional outcomes as do other histone modifications, like acetylation, which is almost invariably associated with transcriptional activation.

What is of vital importance in regards to histone methylation / demethylation is the pattern of methylation that is established. Patterns of methylation incorporate both methylated and demethylated residues, and are what ultimately play a role in transcriptional outcomes.

In the present study, inhibiting LSD1 demethylase enzymes disrupted the ability of cells to properly establish histone methylation / demethylation patterns, thus creating a deficit in the cells’ ability to transcribe the gene products necessary for the enhanced induction of OT, AVP, and the subsequent mate-guarding behaviors we observed. This study is the first to demonstrate a definitive role of epigenetic histone modifications in a conditioned sexual response.”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0031938418303421 “Inhibition of lysine-specific demethylase enzyme disrupts sexually conditioned mate guarding in the female rat” (not freely available)

The role of recall neurons in traumatic memories

This 2018 Swiss rodent study found:

“Our data show that:

  • A subset of memory recall–induced neurons in the DG [dentate gyrus] becomes reactivated after memory attenuation,
  • The degree of fear reduction positively correlates with this reactivation, and
  • The continued activity of memory recall–induced neurons is critical for remote fear memory attenuation.

Although other brain areas such as the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala are likely to be implicated in remote fear memories and remain to be investigated, these results suggest that fear attenuation at least partially occurs in memory recall–induced ensembles through updating or unlearning of the original memory trace of fear.

These data thereby provide the first evidence at an engram-specific level that fear attenuation may not be driven only by extinction learning, that is, by an inhibitory memory trace different from the original fear trace.

Rather, our findings indicate that during remote fear memory attenuation both mechanisms likely coexist, albeit with the importance of the continued activity of memory recall–induced neurons experimentally documented herein. Such activity may not only represent the capacity for a valence change in DG engram cells but also be a prerequisite for memory reconsolidation, namely, an opportunity for learning inside the original memory trace.

As such, this activity likely constitutes a physiological correlate sine qua non for effective exposure therapies against traumatic memories in humans: the engagement, rather than the suppression, of the original trauma.”

The researchers also provided examples of human trauma:

“We dedicate this work to O.K.’s father, Mohamed Salah El-Dien, and J.G.’s mother, Wilma, who both sadly passed away during its completion.”


So, how can this study help humans? The study had disclosed and undisclosed limitations:

1. Humans aren’t lab rats. We can ourselves individually change our responses to experiential causes of ongoing adverse effects. Standard methodologies can only apply external treatments.

2. It’s a bridge too far to go from neural activity in transgenic mice to expressing unfounded opinions on:

“A physiological correlate sine qua non for effective exposure therapies against traumatic memories in humans.”

Human exposure therapies have many drawbacks, in addition to being applied externally to the patient on someone else’s schedule. A few others were discussed in The role of DNMT3a in fear memories:

  • “Inability to generalize its efficacy over time,
  • Potential return of adverse memory in the new/novel contexts,
  • Context-dependent nature of extinction which is widely viewed as the biological basis of exposure therapy.”

3. Rodent neural activity also doesn’t elevate recall to become an important goal of effective human therapies. Clearly, what the rodents experienced should be translated into human reliving/re-experiencing, not recall. Terminology used in animal studies preferentially has the same meaning with humans, since the purpose of animal studies is to help humans.

4. The researchers acknowledged that:

“Other brain areas such as the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala are likely to be implicated in remote fear memories and remain to be investigated.”

A study that provided evidence for basic principles of Primal Therapy determined another brain area:

“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.”

The study I curated yesterday, Organ epigenetic memory, demonstrated organ memory storage. It’s hard to completely rule out that other body areas may also store traumatic memories.

The wide range of epigenetic memory storage vehicles is one reason why effective human therapies need to address the whole person, the whole body, and each individual’s entire history.

http://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6394/1239 “Reactivation of recall-induced neurons contributes to remote fear memory attenuation” (not freely available)

Here’s one of the researchers’ outline:


This post has somehow become a target for spammers, and I’ve disabled comments. Readers can comment on other posts and indicate that they want their comment to apply here, and I’ll re-enable comments.

Organ epigenetic memory

This 2018 Japanese review subject was the relationships of organ memory and non-communicable diseases:

“Organ memory is the engraved phenotype of altered organ responsiveness acquired by a time-dependent accumulation of organ stress responses. This phenomenon is known as “metabolic memory” or “legacy effect,” which is similar to neuronal and immune memory.

Not only is the epigenetic change of key genes involved in the formation of organ memory but the alteration of multiple factors, including low molecular weight energy metabolites, immune mediators, and tissue structures, is involved as well. These factors intercommunicate during every stress response and carry out incessant remodeling in a certain direction in a spiral fashion through positive feedback mechanisms.

The systematic review revealed that each intervention type, that is:

  • Glucose lowering,
  • Blood pressure lowering, or
  • LDL-cholesterol lowering,

possessed unique characteristics of the memory phenomenon. Most of the observational periods of these studies lasted for > 10 years. Memory phenomenon was suggested to last for a long time and is thought to have a considerable effect on the clinical course of NCDs [non-communicable diseases].

Organs cannot possess consciousness, so it might not be appropriate to consider whether a recalling process exists in organs. However, the properties of organs are incessantly altered by external stimuli loaded on organs as if it is updating.

It is clinically important to investigate whether organ memory can be updated by our behaviors. Once organ memory is established in an organ, organ memory in each organ can influence one another and affect organ memory in a different organ.

Epigenome-modification enzymes, such as histone deacetylases and DNA methyltransferases, and transcription factors seem to be essential for the epigenetic regulation of gene expression, which is involved in the generation of organ memory. Cellular metabolism can epigenetically modulate the expression of genes that are related to the progression of diseases.”


The reviewers asserted:

“Organs cannot possess consciousness, so it might not be appropriate to consider whether a recalling process exists in organs.”

Memory studies don’t require this consciousness to investigate even the brain organ’s areas and functions. Researchers observe memory by measuring stimulus/response items like neuron activation and various levels of behavior. Consciousness is an emergent property.

Regarding recall: An organ’s “engraved phenotype of altered organ responsiveness” may not have recall itself, but it doesn’t have a separate existence apart from its body. An organ can’t be removed from its body for very long and still be part of its body.

When an organ is in its normal state as part of a body, it has access to recall-like functions via the “inter-organ communication of organ memory.” The review also mentioned:

“Organ memory in each organ can influence one another and affect organ memory in a different organ.

Evolution didn’t support unnecessary duplication for a kidney’s memory to include recall because it’s part of a body that includes a brain that has recall. Evolution didn’t duplicate functions of a kidney’s memory in a brain, either.

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41440-018-0081-x “Organ memory: a key principle for understanding the pathophysiology of hypertension and other non-communicable diseases” (not freely available)

Flawed epigenetic measurements of behavioral experiences

This 2018 New York rodent study not only wasted resources but also speciously attempted to extrapolate animal study findings to humans:

“While it is clear that behavioral experience modulates epigenetic profiles, it is less evident how the nature of that experience influences outcomes and whether epigenetic/genetic “biomarkers” could be extracted to classify different types of behavioral experience.

Male and female mice were subjected to either:

  • a Fixed Interval (FI) schedule of food reward, or
  • a single episode of forced swim followed by restraint stress, or
  • no explicit behavioral experience

after which global expression levels of two activating (H3K9ac and H3K4me3) and two repressive (H3K9me2 and H3k27me3) post-translational histone modifications (PTHMs), were measured in hippocampus (HIPP) and frontal cortex (FC).

A random subset of 5 of the 12 animals from each sex/behavioral experience group were used for these analyses. FC and HIPP were dissected from each of those 5 brains and homogenized for subsequent analyses. Thus, sample size for PTHM expression levels was n = 5 for each region/sex/behavioral treatment group and all PTHM expression level analyses utilized the homogenized tissue.

The specific nature of the behavioral experience differentiated profiles of PTHMs in a sex- and brain region-dependent manner, with all 4 PTHMs changing in parallel in response to different behavioral experiences. Global PTHMs may provide a higher-order pattern recognition function.”


The researchers knew or should have known that measuring “global expression levels” in “homogenized tissue” of “n = 5” subjects was flawed, and they did it anyway. They acknowledged some of the numerous study design defects with qualifiers such as:

“Even though these were global levels of histone modifications (and thus not indicative of changes at specific genes or sites on genes)..

As FS-RS behavioral experience was completed before FI behavioral experience, a longer overall post-behavior experience time (approximately 1 week) elapsed for this group, resulting in some differences in overall timing between these experiences and global PTHM assessment. However, extending the duration of the FS-RS experience (i.e., repeated exposures) would also have led to habituation..”

Did they purposely make these mistakes because of the “biomarkers” paradigm?

What would they have found if they had followed their judgments and training to design a better study? Experience-dependent histone modifications that differed by gender and brain region was certainly a promising research opportunity.

As for extrapolating the cited animal study findings to humans? Ummm..NO!

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6060276/ “Different Behavioral Experiences Produce Distinctive Parallel Changes in, and Correlate With, Frontal Cortex and Hippocampal Global Post-translational Histone Levels”

Prenatal programming of human HPA axis development

This 2017 UC Irvine human review subject provided details of how fetal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal components and systems develop, and how they are epigenetically changed by the mother’s environment:

“The developmental origins of disease or fetal programming model predicts that intrauterine exposures have life-long consequences for physical and psychological health. Prenatal programming of the fetal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is proposed as a primary mechanism by which early experiences are linked to later disease risk.

Development of the fetal HPA axis is determined by an intricately timed cascade of endocrine events during gestation and is regulated by an integrated maternal-placental-fetal steroidogenic unit. Mechanisms by which stress-induced elevations in hormones of maternal, fetal, or placental origin influence the structure and function of the emerging fetal HPA axis are discussed.

Human gestational physiology and fetal HPA axis development differ even from that of closely related nonhuman primates, thereby limiting the generalizability of animal models. This review will focus solely on studies of prenatal stress and fetal HPA axis development in humans.”


Every time I read a prenatal study I’m in awe of all that has to go right, and at the appropriate time, and in sequence, for a fetus to be undamaged. Add in what needs to happen at birth, during infancy, and throughout early childhood, and it seems impossible for a human to escape epigenetic damage.


1. The reviewers referenced human research performed with postnatal subjects, as well as animal studies, despite the disclaimer:

This review will focus solely on studies of prenatal stress and fetal HPA axis development in humans.”

This led to blurring of what had been studied or not with human fetuses regarding the subject.

2. The reviewers uncritically listed many dubious human studies that had both stated and undisclosed severe limitations on their findings. It’s more appropriate for reviewers to offer informed reviews of cited studies, as Sex-specific impacts of childhood trauma summarized with 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.”

3. It would have been preferable had the researchers stayed with their stated intention and critically reviewed only a few dozen studies with solid evidence of the review title: “Developmental origins of the human hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.” Let other reviews cover older humans, animals, and questionable evidence.

I asked the reviewers to provide a searchable file so that their work could be better used as a reference.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318469661_Developmental_origins_of_the_human_hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal_axis “Developmental origins of the human hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis” (registration required)