The epigenetics of perinatal stress

This 2019 McGill review discussed long-lasting effects of perinatal stress:

“Epigenetic processes are involved in embedding the impact of early-life experience in the genome and mediating between social environments and later behavioral phenotypes. Since these phenotypes are apparent a long time after the early experience, the changes in gene expression programming must be stable.

Although loss of methylation in a promoter is necessary for expression, it is not sufficient. Demethylation removes a barrier for expression, but expression might be realized at the right time or context when the needed factors or signals are present.

DNA methylation anticipates future transcriptional response to triggers. Comparing steady-state expression with DNA methylation does not capture the full meaning and scope of the regulatory roles of differential methylation.

A model for epigenetic programming by early life stress:

  1. Perinatal stress perceived by the brain triggers release of glucocorticoids (GC) from the adrenal in the mother prenatally or the newborn postnatally.
  2. GC activate nuclear glucocorticoid receptors across the body, which epigenetically program (demethylate) genes that are targets of GR in brain and white blood cells (WBC).
  3. The demethylation events are insufficient for activation of these genes. A brain specific factor (TF) is required for expression and will activate low expression of the gene in the brain but not in blood.
  4. During adulthood a stressful event transiently triggers a very high level of expression of the GR regulated gene specifically in the brain.

Horizontal arrow, transcription; circles, CpG sites; CH3 in circles, methylated sites; empty circles, unmethylated CpG sites; horizon[t]al curved lines, mRNA.”

Points discussed in the review:

  • “Epigenetic marks are laid down and maintained by enzymes that either add or remove epigenetic modifications and are therefore potentially reversible in contrast to genetic changes.
  • The response to early life stress and maternal behavior is also not limited to the brain and involves at least the immune system as well.
  • The placenta is also impacted by maternal social experience and early life stress.
  • Most studies are limited to peripheral tissues such as saliva and white blood cells, and the relevance to brain physiology and pathology is uncertain.
  • The low absolute differences in methylation seen in most human behavioral EWAS raise questions about their biological significance.

  • Although post-mortem studies examine epigenetic programming in physiologically relevant tissues, they represent only a final and single stage that does not capture the dynamic evolution of environments and epigenetic programming in living humans.”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6952743/ “The epigenetics of perinatal stress”


Other reviewers try to ignore the times when we were all fetuses and newborns. For example, in the same journal issue was a Boston review of PTSD that didn’t mention anything about the earliest times of human lives! Those reviewers speculated around this obvious gap on their way to being paid by NIH.

Why would researchers ignore perinatal stress events that prime humans for later-life PTSD? Stress generally has a greater impact on fetuses and newborns than even infants, and a greater impact on infants than adults.

Clearing out the 2019 queue of interesting papers

I’m clearing out the below queue of 27 studies and reviews I’ve partially read this year but haven’t taken the time to curate. I have a pesky full-time job that demands my presence elsewhere during the day. :-\

Should I add any of these back in? Let’s be ready for the next decade!


Early life

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12035-018-1328-x “Early Behavioral Alterations and Increased Expression of Endogenous Retroviruses Are Inherited Across Generations in Mice Prenatally Exposed to Valproic Acid” (not freely available)

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166432818309392 “Consolidation of an aversive taste memory requires two rounds of transcriptional and epigenetic regulation in the insular cortex” (not freely available)

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41380-018-0265-4 “Intergenerational transmission of depression: clinical observations and molecular mechanisms” (not freely available)

mother

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6454089/ “Epigenomics and Transcriptomics in the Prediction and Diagnosis of Childhood Asthma: Are We There Yet?”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6628997/Placental epigenetic clocks: estimating gestational age using placental DNA methylation levels”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6770436/ “Mismatched Prenatal and Postnatal Maternal Depressive Symptoms and Child Behaviours: A Sex-Dependent Role for NR3C1 DNA Methylation in the Wirral Child Health and Development Study”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0889159119306440 “Environmental influences on placental programming and offspring outcomes following maternal immune activation”

https://academic.oup.com/mutage/article-abstract/34/4/315/5581970 “5-Hydroxymethylcytosine in cord blood and associations of DNA methylation with sex in newborns” (not freely available)

https://physoc.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1113/JP278270 “Paternal diet impairs F1 and F2 offspring vascular function through sperm and seminal plasma specific mechanisms in mice”

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/nmo.13751 “Sex differences in the epigenetic regulation of chronic visceral pain following unpredictable early life stress” (not freely available)

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6811979/ “Genome-wide DNA methylation data from adult brain following prenatal immune activation and dietary intervention”

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00702-019-02048-2miRNAs in depression vulnerability and resilience: novel targets for preventive strategies”


Later life

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6543991/ “Effect of Flywheel Resistance Training on Balance Performance in Older Adults. A Randomized Controlled Trial”

https://www.mdpi.com/2411-5142/4/3/61/htm “Eccentric Overload Flywheel Training in Older Adults”

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41577-019-0151-6 “Epigenetic regulation of the innate immune response to infection” (not freely available)

https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-13-6123-4_1 “Hair Cell Regeneration” (not freely available)

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6422915/Histone Modifications as an Intersection Between Diet and Longevity”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0306453019300733 “Serotonin transporter gene methylation predicts long-term cortisol concentrations in hair” (not freely available)

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0047637419300338 “Frailty biomarkers in humans and rodents: Current approaches and future advances” (not freely available)

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/pcn.12901 “Neural mechanisms underlying adaptive and maladaptive consequences of stress: Roles of dopaminergic and inflammatory responses

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6627480/ “In Search of Panacea—Review of Recent Studies Concerning Nature-Derived Anticancer Agents”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0028390819303363 “Reversal of oxycodone conditioned place preference by oxytocin: Promoting global DNA methylation in the hippocampus” (not freely available)

https://www.futuremedicine.com/doi/10.2217/epi-2019-0102 “Different epigenetic clocks reflect distinct pathophysiological features of multiple sclerosis”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6834159/ “The Beige Adipocyte as a Therapy for Metabolic Diseases”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S8756328219304077 “Bone adaptation: safety factors and load predictability in shaping skeletal form” (not freely available)

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41380-019-0549-3 “Successful treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder reverses DNA methylation marks” (not freely available)

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0166223619301821 “Editing the Epigenome to Tackle Brain Disorders” (not freely available)

Using oxytocin receptor gene methylation to pursue an agenda

A pair of 2019 Virginia studies involved human mother/infant subjects:

“We show that OXTRm [oxytocin receptor gene DNA methylation] in infancy and its change is predicted by maternal engagement and reflective of behavioral temperament.”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6795517 “Epigenetic dynamics in infancy and the impact of maternal engagement”

“Infants with higher OXTRm show enhanced responses to anger and fear and attenuated responses to happiness in right inferior frontal cortex, a region implicated in emotion processing through action-perception coupling.

Infant fNIRS [functional near-infrared spectroscopy] is limited to measuring responses from cerebral cortex..it is unknown whether OXTR is expressed in the cerebral cortex during prenatal and early postnatal human brain development.”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S187892931830207X “Epigenetic modification of the oxytocin receptor gene is associated with emotion processing in the infant brain”


Both studies had weak disclosures of limitations on their findings’ relevance and significance. The largest non-disclosed contrary finding was from the 2015 Early-life epigenetic regulation of the oxytocin receptor gene:

These results suggest that:

  • Blood Oxtr DNA methylation may reflect early experience of maternal care, and
  • Oxtr methylation across tissues is highly concordant for specific CpGs, but
  • Inferences across tissues are not supported for individual variation in Oxtr methylation.

This rat study found that blood OXTR methylation of 25 CpG sites couldn’t accurately predict the same 25 CpG sites’ OXTR methylation in each subject’s hippocampus, hypothalamus, and striatum (which includes the nucleus accumbens) brain areas. Without significant effects in these limbic system structures, there couldn’t be any associated behavioral effects.

But CpG site associations and correlations were deemed good in the two current studies because they cited:

“Recent work in prairie voles has found that both brain- and blood-derived OXTRm levels at these sites are negatively associated with gene expression in the brain and highly correlated with each other.”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306453018306103 “Early nurture epigenetically tunes the oxytocin receptor”

The 2018 prairie vole study – which included several of the same researchers as the two current studies – found four nucleus accumbens CpG sites that had high correlations to humans. Discarding one of these CpG sites allowed their statistics package to make a four-decimal place finding:

“The methylation state of the blood was also associated with the level of transcription in the brain at three of the four CpG sites..whole blood was capable of explaining 94.92% of the variance in Oxtr DNA methylation and 18.20% of the variance in Oxtr expression.”

Few limitations on the prairie vole study findings were disclosed. Like the two current studies, there wasn’t a limitation section that placed research findings into suitable contexts. So readers didn’t know researcher viewpoints on items such as:

  • What additional information showed that 3 of the 30+ million human CpGs accurately predicted specific brain OXTR methylation and expression from saliva OXTR methylation?
  • What additional information demonstrated how “measuring responses from cerebral cortex” although “it is unknown whether OXTR is expressed in the cerebral cortex” provided detailed and dependable estimates of limbic system CpG site OXTR methylation and expression?
  • Was the above 25-CpG study evidence considered?

Further contrast these three studies with a typical, four-point, 285-word limitation section of a study like Prenatal stress heightened adult chronic pain. The word “limit” appeared 6 times in that pain study, 3 times in the current fNIRS study, and 0 times in the current maternal engagement and cited prairie vole studies.

Frank interpretations of one’s own study findings to acknowledge limitations is one way researchers can address items upfront that will be questioned anyway. Such analyses also indicate a goal to advance science.

Prenatal stress heightened adult chronic pain

This 2019 McGill rodent study found:

Prenatal stress exacerbates pain after injury. Analysis of mRNA expression of genes related to epigenetic regulation and stress responses in the frontal cortex and hippocampus, brain structures implicated in chronic pain, showed distinct sex and region-specific patterns of dysregulation.

In general, mRNA expression was most frequently altered in the male hippocampus and effects of prenatal stress were more prevalent than effects of nerve injury. Recent studies investigating chronic pain-related pathology in the hippocampus in humans and in rodent models demonstrate functional abnormalities in the hippocampus, changes in associated behavior, and decreases in adult hippocampal neurogenesis.

The change in expression of epigenetic- and stress-related genes is not a consequence of nerve injury but rather precedes nerve injury, consistent with the hypothesis that it might play a causal role in modulating the phenotypic response to nerve injury. These findings demonstrate the impact of prenatal stress on behavioral sensitivity to a painful injury.

Decreased frontal mRNA expression of BDNF and BDNF IV in male offspring following neuropathic pain or prenatal stress respectively. Relative mRNA expression of other stress-related genes (GR17, FKBP5) and epigenetic-related genes (DNMTs, TETs, HDACs, MBDs, MeCP2) in male offspring.

A drastic decrease in expression of HDAC1 was observed in all groups compared to sham-control animals. CCI: chronic constriction injury.”


The study’s design was similar to the PRS (prenatal restraint stress) model, except that the PRS procedure covered gestational days 11 to 21 (birth):

“Prenatal stress was induced on Embryonic days 13 to 17 by restraining the pregnant dams in transparent cylinder with 5 mm water, under bright light exposure, 3 times per day for 45 min.”

None of the French, Italian, and Swiss PRS studies were cited.

The limitation section included:

  1. “Although our study shows significant changes in expression of epigenetic enzymes, it didn’t examine the impact of these changes on genes that are epigenetically regulated by this machinery or their involvement in intensifying pain responses.
  2. The current study is limited by the focus on changes in gene expression which do not necessarily correlate with changes in protein expression.
  3. Another limitation of this study is the inability to distinguish the direct effects of stress in utero vs. changes in the dam’s maternal behavior due to stress during pregnancy; cross-fostering studies are needed to address this issue.
  4. Functional experiments that involve up and down regulation of epigenetic enzymes in specific brain regions are required to establish a causal role for these processes in chronic pain.”

What do you think about possible human applicability of this study’s “effects of prenatal stress were more prevalent than effects of nerve injury” finding?

Are there any professional frameworks that instruct trainees to recognize that if a person’s mother was stressed while pregnant, their prenatal experiences could cause more prevalent biological and behavioral effects than a recent injury?

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166432819315219 “Prenatal maternal stress is associated with increased sensitivity to neuropathic pain and sex-specific changes in supraspinal mRNA expression of epigenetic- and stress-related genes in adulthood” (not freely available)

An epigenetic clock review by committee

This 2019 worldwide review of epigenetic clocks was a semi-anonymous mishmash of opinions, facts, hypotheses, unwarranted extrapolations, and beliefs. The diversity of viewpoints among the 21 coauthors wasn’t evident.

1. Citations of the coauthors’ works seemed excessive, and they apologized for omissions. However:

  • Challenge 5 was titled “Single-cell analysis of aging changes and disease” and
  • Table 1 “Major biological and analytic issues with epigenetic DNA methylation clocks” had single-cell analysis as the Proposed solution to five Significant issues.

Yet studies such as High-Resolution Single-Cell DNA Methylation Measurements Reveal Epigenetically Distinct Hematopoietic Stem Cell Subpopulations were unmentioned.

2. Some coauthors semi-anonymously expressed faith that using current flawed methodologies in the future – only more thoroughly, with newer equipment, etc. – would yield better results. If the 21 coauthors were asked their viewpoints of Proposed solutions to the top three Significant issues of epigenetic clocks, what would they emphasize when quoted?

3. Techniques were praised:

“Given the precision with which DNA methylation clock age can be estimated and evolving measures of biological, phenotype-, and disease-related age (e.g., PhenoAge, GrimAge)..”

Exactly why these techniques have at times produced inexplicable results wasn’t examined, though. Two examples:

  • In Reversal of aging and immunosenescent trends, the Levine PhenoAge methodology estimated that the 51-65 year old subjects’ biological ages at the beginning of the study averaged 17.5 years less than their chronological age. Comparing that to the Horvath average biological age of 3.95 years less raised the question: exactly why did PhenoAge show such a large difference?
  • The paper mentioned the GrimAge methodology findings about “smoking-related changes.” But it didn’t explain why the GrimAge methylation findings most closely associated with smoking history also accurately predicted future disease risk with non-smokers.

Eluding explanations for these types of findings didn’t help build confidence in the methodologies.

4. A more readable approach to review by committee could have coauthors – in at least one section – answer discussion questions, as Reversing epigenetic T cell exhaustion did with 18 experts.

https://genomebiology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13059-019-1824-y “DNA methylation aging clocks: challenges and recommendations”

A review of fetal adverse events

This 2019 Australian review subject was fetal adversities:

“Adversity during the perinatal period is a significant risk factor for the development of neurodevelopmental disorders long after the causative event. Despite stemming from a variety of causes, perinatal compromise appears to have similar effects on the developing brain, thereby resulting in behavioural disorders of a similar nature.

These behavioural disorders occur in a sex‐dependent manner, with males affected more by externalizing behaviours such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and females by internalizing behaviours such as anxiety. The term ‘perinatal compromise’ serves as an umbrella term for intrauterine growth restriction, maternal immune activation, prenatal stress, early life stress, premature birth, placental dysfunction, and perinatal hypoxia.

The above conditions are associated with imbalanced excitatory-inhibitory pathways resulting from reduced GABAergic signalling. Methylation of the GAD1/GAD67 gene, which encodes the key glutamate‐to‐GABA synthesizing enzyme Glutamate Decarboxylase 1, resulting in increased levels of glutamate is one epigenetic mechanism that may account for a tendency towards excitation in disorders such as ADHD.

The posterior cerebellum’s role in higher executive functioning is becoming well established due to its connections with the prefrontal cortex, association cortices, and limbic system. It is now suggested that disruptions to cerebellar development, which can occur due to late gestation compromises such as preterm birth, can have a major impact on the region of the brain to which it projects.

Activation of the maternal hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis and placental protection. Psychological stress is perceived by the maternal HPA axis, which stimulates cortisol release from the maternal adrenal gland.

High levels of maternal cortisol are normally prevented from reaching the fetus by the 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase 2 (HSD11B2) enzyme, which converts cortisol to the much less active cortisone. Under conditions of high maternal stress, this protective mechanism can be overwhelmed, with the gene encoding the enzyme becoming methylated, which reduces its expression allowing cortisol to cross the placenta and reach the fetus.”


The reviewers extrapolated many animal study findings to humans, although most of their own work was with guinea pigs. The “suggest” and “may” qualifiers were used often – 22 and 37 times, respectively. More frequent use of the “appears,” “hypothesize,” “propose,” and “possible” terms was justified.

As a result, many reviewed items such as the above graphic and caption should be viewed as hypothetical for humans rather than reflecting solid evidence from quality human studies.

The reviewers focused on the prenatal (before birth) period more than the perinatal (last trimester of pregnancy to one month after birth) period. There were fewer mentions of birth and early infancy adversities.

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jne.12814 “Perinatal compromise contributes to programming of GABAergic and Glutamatergic systems leading to long-term effects on offspring behaviour” (not freely available)

A GWAS meta-analysis of two epigenetic clocks

This 2019 UK human study conducted a meta-analysis of genome-wide association studies of two epigenetic clocks using 13,493 European-ancestry individuals aged between ten and 98 years:

“Horvath-EAA, described in previous publications as ‘intrinsic’ epigenetic age acceleration (IEAA), can be interpreted as a measure of cell-intrinsic ageing that exhibits preservation across multiple tissues, appears unrelated to lifestyle factors, and probably indicates a fundamental cell ageing process that is largely conserved across cell types.

In contrast, Hannum-EAA, referred to in previous studies as ‘extrinsic’ epigenetic age acceleration (EEAA), can be considered a biomarker of immune system ageing, explicitly incorporating aspects of immune system decline such as age-related changes in blood cell counts, correlating with lifestyle and health-span related characteristics, and thus yielding a stronger predictor of all-cause mortality.

The meta-analysis of Horvath-EAA identified ten independent associated SNPs [single nucleotide polymorphisms], doubling the number reported to date, and highlighted 21 genes involved in Horvath-based epigenetic ageing. Four of the ten Horvath-EAA-associated SNPs are mQTL [methylation quantitative trait loci] for CpGs used in the Horvath/Hannum epigenetic clocks. A possible interpretation of this is that the functional mechanism by which these SNPs influence the rate of biological ageing is via altering methylation levels.

Father’s age at death, a rough proxy for lifespan, was nominally significantly correlated with both EAA measures, and parents’ age at death was additionally correlated with Hannum-EAA. Aside from these, genetic correlations with age-related traits were surprisingly few: it is possible that this could reflect an overly conservative correction for the multiple tests carried out, or low statistical power, rather than a genuine lack of correlations.

Genetic correlation analysis should be restricted to GWAS with a heritability Z-score of 4 or more, on the grounds of interpretability and power, so the Horvath-based results particularly should be interpreted with caution.”


A non-apologetic way to explain the above graphic is that NONE of these 218 “health and behavioral traits” were any more associated with the studied genetic measurements than would be expected by chance!

Fervent believers in the GWAS methodology’s capability to exactly predict individual phenotypes eventually become victims of the scientific method. These GWAS researchers griped about “overly conservative correction, or low statistical power” and other predictable shortfalls, and ended a long limitations statement with:

“While we have identified a number of SNPs and genes significantly associated with EAA, including genes already known to be related to ageing, the analyses presented here fall short of providing a mechanistic explanation for how these variants and genes act to influence biological age.”

Outside of beliefs, it’s hard to understand why research money keeps pouring into the GWAS dead end. If these researchers and their employing institution and sponsors want to make a difference in human lives, they need to get busy in other areas.

These researchers were employed by the same institution that couldn’t be bothered to scrape together six more weeks of funds to study the transgenerational damaging effects of acetaminophen – an analgesic available to billions of people – in Epigenetics research that was designed to fall one step short of wonderful.

https://journals.plos.org/plosgenetics/article?id=10.1371/journal.pgen.1008104 “A meta-analysis of genome-wide association studies of epigenetic age acceleration”