Our brains are shaped by our early environments

This 2019 McGill paper reviewed human and animal studies on brain-shaping influences from the fetal period through childhood:

“In neonates, regions of the methylome that are highly variable across individuals are explained by the genotype alone in 25 percent of cases. The best explanation for 75 percent of variably methylated regions is the interaction of genotype with different in utero environments.

A meta-analysis including 45,821 individuals with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and 9,207,363 controls suggests that conditions such as preeclampsia, Apgar score lower than 7 at 5 minutes, breech/transverse presentations, and prolapsed/nuchal cord – all of which involve some sort of poor oxygenation during delivery – are significantly associated with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The dopaminergic system seems to be one of the brain systems most affected by perinatal hypoxia-ischemia.

Exposure to childhood trauma activates the stress response systems and dysregulates serotonin transmission that can adversely impact brain development. Smaller cerebral, cerebellar, prefrontal cortex, and corpus callosum volumes were reported in maltreated young people as well as reduced hippocampal activity.

Environmental enrichment has a series of beneficial effects associated with neuroplasticity mechanisms, increasing hippocampal volume, and enhancing dorsal dentate gyrus-specific differences in gene expression. Environmental enrichment after prenatal stress decreases depressive-like behaviors and fear, and improves cognitive deficits.”

The reviewers presented strong evidence until the Possible Factors for Reversibility section, which ended with the assertion:

“All these positive environmental experiences mentioned in this section could counterbalance the detrimental effects of early life adversities, making individuals resilient to brain alterations and development of later psychopathology.”

The review’s penultimate sentence recognized that research is seldom done on direct treatments of causes:

“The cross-sectional nature of most epigenetic studies and the tissue specificity of the epigenetic changes are still challenges.”

Cross-sectional studies won’t provide definitive data on cause-and-effect relationships.

The question that remains to be examined is: How can humans best address these early-life causes to ameliorate their lifelong effects?

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/dmcn.14182 “Early environmental influences on the development of children’s brain structure and function” (not freely available)


Epigenetic causes of sexual orientation and handedness?

This 2018 Austrian human study subject was various associations of prenatal testosterone levels to fetal development:

“The available evidence suggests, albeit not conclusively, that prenatal testosterone levels may be one cause for the association of sexual orientation with handedness. Associations among women were consistent with predictions of the Geschwind–Galaburda theory (GGT), whereas those among men were consistent with predictions of the callosal hypothesis. However, research on the associations between sexual orientation and handedness appears to be compromised by various methodological and interpretational problems which need to be overcome to arrive at a clearer picture.

The GGT posits that high prenatal testosterone levels cause a delay in the fetal development of the left cerebral hemisphere which results in a right-hemisphere dominance and hence in a tendency for left-handedness. According to the GGT, high prenatal testosterone levels entail not only a masculinization of the female fetus, but also a feminization of the male fetus (contrary to neurohormonal theory). Overall, the male fetus is subjected to higher levels of intrauterine testosterone than the female fetus. The GGT is thus consistent with the higher prevalence of left-handedness among men than among women.

The callosal hypothesis applies to men only and assumes, in line with neurohormonal theory, that low prenatal testosterone levels are associated with later homosexuality. According to the CH, high prenatal testosterone enhances processes of cerebral lateralization through mechanisms of axonal pruning, thereby resulting in stronger left-hemisphere dominance and a smaller corpus callosum. Consistent with this, women have a larger corpus callosum than men.”

The study’s Limitations section included the following:

  1. “Limitations of the current study pertain to the self-report nature of our data. Behavioral data may provide differing results from those obtained here.
  2. Assessment of sexual orientation relied on a single-item measure. Utilization of rating scales (e.g., the Kinsey Sexual Orientation Scale) or of multi-item scales, and assessing different components of sexual orientation, would have allowed for a more fine-grained analysis and for a cross-validation of sexual orientation ratings with sexual attraction.
  3. Albeit both our samples were large, the proportions of bisexual and homosexual individuals were, expectedly, only small, as were effects of lateral preferences. Thus, in analysis we could not differentiate bisexual from homosexual individuals. Bisexual and homosexual individuals may differ with regard to the distribution of lateral preferences.
  4. Some effect tests in this study have been underpowered. Independent replications with even larger samples are still needed.”

The largest unstated limitation was no fetal measurements. When a fetus’ epigenetic responses and adaptations aren’t considered, not only can the two competing hypotheses not be adequately compared, but causes for the studied phenotypic programming and other later-life effects will also be missed.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10508-018-1346-9 “Associations of Bisexuality and Homosexuality with Handedness and Footedness: A Latent Variable Analysis Approach”

Are there epigenetic causes for sexual orientation and gender identity?

This US 2018 review lead author was a gynecologic oncologist in private practice:

“Sexual orientation is biologically conferred in the first trimester of pregnancy. Gender identity is biologically conferred during the middle trimester of pregnancy.

Since the genitals differentiate in the first trimester, and the brain becomes imprinted in the latter half of gestation, it is possible for the fetal brain to be imprinted differently than the genitals. As children mature, this innate imprinting expresses as genital anatomy, gender identity, sexual orientation and other physiologic capabilities and natural preferences along a continuum, between masculine and feminine.

The evidence shows that both orientation and identity are biologic features that co-vary with a very large number of other biologic sexually dimorphic traits.”

1. A fetus’ development is influenced by survival reactions to their environment. Although fetal and placental responses to environmental stressors are relevant to sexual orientation and gender identity, the reviewers didn’t explore the subject.

2. Epigenetic adaptations to the prenatal environment involving microRNA were mentioned in a small subsection. But the reviewers didn’t cite relevant studies involving DNA methylation, chromatin and histone modifications for epigenetic causes of and effects on sexual orientation and gender identity.

3. The reviewers included a half-dozen anecdotal quotations from personal correspondence that promoted their narrative. These came across as appeals to authority rather than evidence for scientific understanding of the subject.

It was insufficient for the review to note “a continuum between masculine and feminine” without also exploring evidence for an individual’s placement on the continuum. The question of possible epigenetic causes for sexual orientation and gender identity remains.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S009082581731510X “Biological origins of sexual orientation and gender identity: Impact on health” (not freely available)

Parental lying thwarted both their children and researchers

This 2017 German human study explored the relationship between birth stress and handedness. The authors summarized previous research which, among other points, estimated epigenetic contributions to handedness as great as 75%.

The research hypothesis itself was worthwhile based on the prior studies cited and elsewhere such as Is what’s true for a population what’s true for an individual?. But the study hit a snag in its reliance on the sixty participants (average age 24) completing, with the assistance of their parents and medical records, a 24-item questionnaire of maternal health problems during pregnancy, substance use during pregnancy, and birth complications.

The subjects didn’t provide accurate information. For example:

  • Only one of the subjects reported maternal alcohol use during pregnancy. An expected number would have been twenty-six!
  • None of the subjects reported maternal mental illness during pregnancy. An expected number would have been at least seven!

The subjects’ parents willingly misled their children about facts of their child’s important earliest development periods. Their lies and omissions were not only unethical to the children, but also, whenever they became recognized, diminished or destroyed the society among family members.

As mentioned on the Welcome page, lies and omissions ruin the standard scientific methodology of surveying parents and caregivers. The absence of evidence greatly increased the difficulty for researchers to determine causes of epigenetic effects still present in the subjects’ lives.

The parental lying was again unethical in that it diminished or destroyed the society between the sources of information – the research subjects – and the users of the information. It adversely affected anyone who valued evidence-based research.

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1357650X.2017.1377726 “DNA methylation in candidate genes for handedness predicts handedness direction” (not freely available)

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 effects of imposing helplessness

This 2016 New York rodent study found:

“By using unbiased and whole-brain imaging techniques, we uncover a number of cortical and subcortical brain structures that have lower activity in the animals showing helplessness than in those showing resilience following the LH [learned helplessness] procedure. We also identified the LC [locus coeruleus] as the sole subcortical area that had enhanced activity in helpless animals compared with resilient ones.

Some of the brain areas identified in this study – such as areas in the mPFC [medial prefrontal cortex], hippocampus, and amygdala – have been previously implicated in clinical depression or depression-like behavior in animal models. We also identified novel brain regions previously not associated with helplessness. For example, the OT [olfactory tubercle], an area involved in odor processing as well as high cognitive functions including reward processing, and the Edinger–Westphal nucleus containing centrally projecting neurons implicated in stress adaptation.

The brains of helpless animals are locked in a highly stereotypic pathological state.”

Concerning the study’s young adult male subjects:

“To achieve a subsequent detection of neuronal activity related to distinct behavioral responses, we used the c-fosGFP transgenic mice expressing c-FosGFP under the control of a c-fos promoter. The expression of the c-fosGFP transgene has been previously validated to faithfully represent endogenous c-fos expression.

Similar to wild-type mice, approximately 22% (32 of 144) of the c-fosGFP mice showed helplessness.”

The final sentence of the Introduction section:

“Our study..supports the view that defining neuronal circuits underlying stress-induced depression-like behavior in animal models can help identify new targets for the treatment of depression.”

Helplessness is both a learned behavior and a cumulative set of experiences during every human’s early life. Therapeutic approaches to detrimental effects of helplessness can be different with humans than with rodents in that we can address causes.

The researchers categorized activity in brain circuits as causal in the Discussion section:

“Future studies aimed at manipulating these identified neural changes are required for determining whether they are causally related to the expression of helplessness or resilience.”

Studying whether or not activity in brain circuits induces helplessness in rodents may not inform us about causes of helplessness in humans. Our experiences are often the ultimate causes of helplessness effects. Many of our experiential “neural changes” are only effects, as demonstrated by this and other studies’ induced phenotypes such as “Learned Helplessness” and “Prenatally Restraint Stressed.”

Weren’t the researchers satisfied that the study confirmed what was known and made new findings? Why attempt to extend animal models that only treat effects to humans, as implied in the Introduction above and in the final sentence of the Discussion section:

“Future studies aimed at elucidating the specific roles of these regions in the pathophysiology of depression as well as serve as neural circuit-based targets for the development of novel therapeutics.”

http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fncir.2016.00003/full “Whole-Brain Mapping of Neuronal Activity in the Learned Helplessness Model of Depression” (Thanks to A Paper a Day Keeps the Scientist Okay)

Where do our beliefs about our children come from? An autism example

A 2015 case study by Ohio physicians highlighted:

“Although only a small minority of patients with autism have a mitochondrial disease, many patients with mitochondrial myopathies have autism spectrum disorder symptoms.

These symptoms may be the presenting symptoms, which presents a diagnostic challenge for clinicians.

The case of a 15-year-old boy with a history of autism spectrum disorder and neurocardiogenic syncope, admitted to the inpatient unit for self-injury, whose young mother, age 35, was discovered to suffer from mitochondrial myopathy, dysautonomia, neurocardiogenic syncope, Ehler-Danlos syndrome, and other uncommon multisystem pathologies likely related to mitochondrial dysfunction.”

I was somewhat taken aback by the Abstract and Introduction statements:

“All autism spectrum disorders are known to be heritable, via genetic and/or epigenetic mechanisms, but specific modes of inheritance are not well characterized.

This form of ASD is known to be heritable, as are all forms of ASD, despite the previous belief to the contrary, though the mechanisms of inheritance, both genetic and epigenetic, are not well characterized.”

The definition of heritable as used was “able to be passed from parent to child before birth.” The reference provided for the statements was a 2014 French review Gene × Environment Interactions in Autism Spectrum Disorders: Role of Epigenetic Mechanisms.

I didn’t see the “known to be heritable” phrase mentioned in the referenced review. However, I also didn’t see anything stated in the review or cited from its 217 references that disproved the phrase.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by “despite the previous belief to the contrary” in the above quotation. I’d guess that the physicians frequently encountered parents who needed such beliefs when faced with their child’s condition.

A relevant hypothesis of Dr. Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy is: a major function that our cerebrums have evolutionarily adapted is to use ideas and beliefs to repress pain and make us more comfortable.

I value this inference as an empathetic method of interpreting people’s behaviors and expressions of thoughts and feelings.

When a “known to be heritable” phrase can unleash pain, it likely won’t be understood in its appropriate context. Among the physicians’ challenges was a barrier that kept the parent’s pain from being felt – the belief.

http://innovationscns.com/autism-in-the-son-of-a-woman-with-mitochondrial-myopathy-and-dysautonomia-a-case-report/ “Autism in the Son of a Woman with Mitochondrial Myopathy and Dysautonomia: A Case Report”