Transgenerationally inherited epigenetic effects of fetal alcohol exposure

The fourth paper of Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance week was a 2016 German rodent study of transgenerational epigenetic effects of alcohol:

“We investigated 2 generations of offspring born to alcohol-treated mothers. Here, we show that memory impairment and reduced synthesis of acetylcholine occurs in both F1 (exposed to ethanol in utero) and F2 generation (never been exposed to ethanol). Effects in the F2 generation are most likely consequences of transgenerationally transmitted epigenetic modifications in stem cells induced by alcohol.

The results further suggest an epigenetic trait for an anticholinergic endophenotype associated with cognitive dysfunction which might be relevant to our understanding of mental impairment in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders.”

F0 generation mothers modeled human fetal alcohol syndrome. They were exposed to ethanol gradually up to 20%, then mated. The 20% ethanol intake level was maintained until the F1 generation pups were born, then gradually diminished to 0%. After a ten-day wait, an eight-week handling and shaping period started, followed by five weeks of behavioral testing.

The F1 children and F2 grandchildren started an eight-week handling and shaping period after young adulthood, followed by five weeks of behavioral testing. The F1 children were mated after behavioral testing.

The F0 parents showed no significant differences in working memory and reference memory compared with controls. Both the F1 children and F2 grandchildren were significantly impaired in the same tests compared with controls, with the F1 children performing worse than the F2 grandchildren. No sex-dependent differences were noted.

After behavioral impairments due to transgenerationally transmitted epigenetic modifications were established, the F2 grandchildren received treatments to ascertain the contribution of cholinergic dysfunction in their behavioral impairments. It was confirmed, as an acetylcholine esterase inhibitor that crosses the blood-brain barrier almost completely erased working-memory and reference-memory performance deficits.

Items in the Discussion section included:

  • A dozen studies from 2014-2016 were cited for epigenetic mechanisms of transgenerational inheritance stemming from parental alcohol consumption; and
  • Transgenerational inheritance of alcohol-induced neurodevelopmental deficits may involve epigenetic mechanisms that are resistant to developmental clearance.

As argued in Transgenerational effects of early environmental insults on aging and disease and A review of epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of reproductive disease, testing of F3 great-grandchildren born of F2 grandchild females was needed to control for the variable of direct F2 grandchild germ-line exposure. “Transgenerational transmission of an anticholinergic endophenotype with memory dysfunction” (not freely available)


Transgenerational pathological traits induced by prenatal immune activation

The third paper of Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance week was a 2016 Swiss rodent study of immune system epigenetic effects:

“Our study demonstrates for, we believe, the first time that prenatal immune activation can negatively affect brain and behavioral functions in multiple generations. These findings thus highlight a novel pathological aspect of this early-life adversity in shaping disease risk across generations.”

The epigenetic effects noted in the initial round of experiments included:

  • F1 child and F2 grandchild impaired sociability;
  • F1 and F2 abnormal fear expression;
  • F1 but not F2 sensorimotor gating deficiencies; and
  • F2 but not F1 behavioral despair associated with depressive-like behavior.

These transgenerational effects emerged in both male and female offspring. The prenatal immune activation timing corresponded to the middle of the first trimester of human pregnancy.

The effects were found to be mediated by the paternal but not maternal lineage. The researchers didn’t develop a maternal lineage F3 great-grandchild generation.

The next round of experiments done with the paternal lineage noted these epigenetic effects:

  • The F3 great-grandchildren had impaired sociability, abnormal fear expression and behavioral despair; and
  • The F3 great-grandchildren had normal sensorimotor gating.

Since the first round of tests didn’t show sex-dependent effects, the F3 great-grandchildren were male-only to minimize the number of animals.

Samples of only the amygdalar complex were taken to develop findings of transcriptomic effects of prenatal immune activation.

Items in the Discussion section included:

  1. The F2 grandchild and F3 great-grandchild generations’ phenotype of impaired sociability, abnormal fear expression and behavioral despair demonstrated that prenatal immune activation likely altered epigenetic marks in the germ line of the F1 children, which resisted erasure and epigenetic reestablishment during germ cell development.
  2. Abnormal F1 child sensorimotor gating followed by normal F2 grandchild and F3 great-grandchild sensorimotor gating demonstrated that prenatal immune activation may also modify somatic but not germ cells.
  3. Non-significant F1 child behavioral despair followed by F2 grandchild and F3 great-grandchild behavioral despair demonstrated that prenatal immune activation may modify F1 germ cells sufficiently to develop a transgenerational phenotype, but unlike item 1 above, somatic cells were insufficiently modified, and the phenotype skipped the F1 children.
  4. Studies were cited that prenatal immune activation later in the gestational process may produce different effects.

The initial round of experiments wasn’t definitive for the maternal lineage. As argued in Transgenerational effects of early environmental insults on aging and disease and A review of epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of reproductive disease, testing of maternal lineage F3 great-grandchildren was needed to control for the variable of direct F2 grandchild germ-line exposure.

Also, effects that didn’t reach statistical significance in the maternal lineage F1 children and F2 grandchildren may have been different in the F3 great-grandchildren. The researchers indirectly acknowledged this lack by noting that these and other effects of immune challenges in a maternal lineage weren’t excluded by the study. “Transgenerational transmission and modification of pathological traits induced by prenatal immune activation” (not freely available)

The study’s lead researcher authored a freely-available 2017 review that placed this study in context and provided further details from other studies: “Epigenetic and transgenerational mechanisms in infection-mediated neurodevelopmental disorders”

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.


  • 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. “Experience-induced transgenerational (re-)programming of neuronal structure and functions: Impact of stress prior and during pregnancy” (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?” “Neurobiological and Systemic Effects of Chronic Stress”

The persistence of epigenetic marks in Type 1 diabetes

This 2016 California human study found:

“A persistency of DNA methylation over time at key genomic loci associated with diabetic complications. Two sets of DNAs collected at least 16–17 years apart from the same participants are used to show the persistency of DNA-me over time.

Twelve annotated differentially methylated loci were common in both WB [whole blood] and Monos [blood monocytes], including thioredoxin-interacting protein (TXNIP), known to be associated with hyperglycemia and related complications.

The top 38 hyperacetylated promoters in cases included 15 genes associated with the nuclear factor kappa-light-chain-enhancer of activated B cells (NF-κB) inflammatory pathway, which is strongly associated with diabetic complications.”

The researchers built on a series of studies that showed how subjects with early intensive interventions didn’t develop further complications, whereas subjects with later intensive interventions:

“Continued to develop complications, such as nephropathy, retinopathy, and macrovascular diseases, at significantly higher rates.

This persistence of benefit from early application of intensive therapy, called ‘metabolic memory,’ is an enigma.”

I’d say that the researchers needed to also consider a point of Enduring memories? Or continuous toxic stimulation? that:

“The lasting epigenomic effect would not be due to memory, but continuous stimulation by persistent pathogens or persistent components.”

Other studies that involved specific genes of this study include: “Epigenomic profiling reveals an association between persistence of DNA methylation and metabolic memory in the DCCT/EDIC type 1 diabetes cohort”


Using epigenetic outliers to diagnose cancer

This 2016 Chinese/UK human cancer cell study tested five algorithms and found:

“Most of the novel proposed algorithms lack the sensitivity to detect epigenetic field defects at genome-wide significance. In contrast, algorithms which recognise heterogeneous outlier DNA methylation patterns are able to identify many sites in pre-neoplastic lesions, which display progression in invasive cancer.

Many DNA methylation outliers are not technical artefacts, but define epigenetic field defects which are selected for during cancer progression.”

The usual method of epigenetic studies involves:

“Identify genomic sites where the mean level of DNAm [DNA methylation] differs as much as possible between the two phenotypes. As we have seen however, such an approach is seriously underpowered in cancer studies where tissue availability is a major obstacle.

In addition to allelic frequency, we also need to take the magnitude of the alteration into consideration. As shown here, infrequent but bigger changes in DNAm (thus defining outliers) are more likely to define cancer field defects, than more frequent yet smaller DNAm changes.”

A similar point was made in Genetic statistics don’t necessarily predict the effects of an individual’s genes:

“Epigenomic analyses are limited by averaging of population-wide dynamics and do not inform behavior of single cells.”

One of the five tested algorithms was made freely available by the researchers. The limitations on its use were discussed, and included:

“Studies conducted in a surrogate tissue such as blood are scenarios where DNAm outliers are probably not of direct biological relevance to cancer development.” “Stochastic epigenetic outliers can define field defects in cancer”

Using salivary microRNA to diagnose autism

This 2016 New York human study found:

“Measurement of salivary miRNA in this pilot study of subjects with mild ASD [autism spectrum disorder] demonstrated differential expression of 14 miRNAs that are:

  • expressed in the developing brain,
  • impact mRNAs related to brain development, and
  • correlate with neurodevelopmental measures of adaptive behavior.”

Some problems with current diagnostic methods for autism are:

“The first sign of ASD commonly recognized by pediatricians is a deficit in communication and language that does not manifest until 18–24 months of age.

The mean age of diagnosis for children with ASD is 3 years, and approximately half of these are false-positives.

Despite a substantial genetic component, no single gene variant accounts for >1 % of ASD incidence.

Nearly 2000 individual genes have been implicated in ASD, but none are specific to the disorder.”

Study limitations included:

“Aside from the sample size and cross-sectional nature of this pilot study, another limitation is the age of ASD and control subjects it describes (4–14 years) which are not representative of the target population in which ASD biomarkers would ideally be utilized (0–2 years). However, selecting a homogenous group of subjects with mild ASD (as measured by ADOS) that was well-established and diagnosed by a developmental specialist requires subjects with long-standing diagnoses.”

Regarding other later-life consequences of disrupted neurodevelopment, an understanding of these processes is critical for tracing symptoms back to their causes, as noted in Grokking an Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) score.

I wonder how long it will take for researchers in other fields to stop wasting resources and do what this study did: focus on epigenetic biomarkers that have developmental origins. “Salivary miRNA profiles identify children with autism spectrum disorder, correlate with adaptive behavior, and implicate ASD candidate genes involved in neurodevelopment”