DNA methylation and childhood adversity

This 2017 Georgia human review covered:

“Recent studies, primarily focused on the findings from human studies, to indicate the role of DNA methylation in the associations between childhood adversity and cardiometabolic disease in adulthood. In particular, we focused on DNA methylation modifications in genes regulating the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis as well as the immune system.”

Recommendations in the review’s Epigenetics inheritance and preadaptation theory section included:

“Twin studies offer another promising design to explore the mediation effect of DNA methylation between child adversity and cardiometabolic outcomes..which could rule out heterogeneity due to genetic and familia[l]r environmental confounding.”

As it so happened, the below 2018 study provided some evidence.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167527317352762 “The role of DNA methylation in the association between childhood adversity and cardiometabolic disease” (not freely available) Thanks to lead author Dr. Guang Hao for providing the full study.


This 2018 UK human study:

“Tested the hypothesis that victimization is associated with DNA methylation in the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Study, a nationally representative 1994-1995 birth cohort of 2,232 twins born in England and Wales and assessed at ages 5, 7, 10, 12, and 18 years. Multiple forms of victimization were ascertained in childhood and adolescence (including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; neglect; exposure to intimate-partner violence; bullying; cyber-victimization; and crime).

Hypothesis-driven analyses of six candidate genes in the stress response (

  1. NR3C1 [glucocorticoid receptor],
  2. FKBP5 [a regulator of the stress hormone system],
  3. BDNF [brain-derived neurotrophic factor],
  4. AVP [arginine vasopressin],
  5. CRHR1 [corticotropin-releasing hormone receptor 1],
  6. SLC6A4 [serotonin transporter]

) did not reveal predicted associations with DNA methylation.

Epigenetic epidemiology is not yet well matched to experimental, nonhuman models in uncovering the biological embedding of stress.”

One of the sad findings was that as the types of trauma inflicted by other people on the subjects increased, so did the percentage of subjects who hurt themselves by smoking. Two-thirds of kids who reported three or more of the seven adolescent trauma types also smoked by age 18. Self-harming behaviors other than smoking weren’t considered.

Another somber finding was:

“Childhood sexual victimization is associated with stable DNA methylation differences in whole blood in young adulthood.

These associations were not observed in relation to sexual victimization in adolescence.”

The researchers guided future studies regarding the proxy measurements of peripheral blood DNA methylation:

“The vast majority of subsequent human studies, including the present one, have relied on peripheral blood. This choice is expedient, but also scientifically reasonable given the aim of detecting effects on stress-related physical health systems that include peripheral circulating processes (immune, neuroendocrine).

But whole blood is heterogeneous, and although cell-type composition can be evaluated and controlled, as in the present study, it does raise the question of whether peripheral blood is a problematic surrogate tissue for research on the epigenetics of stress.

Comparisons of methylomic variation across blood and brain suggest that blood-based EWAS may yield limited information relating to underlying pathological processes for disorders where brain is the primary tissue of interest.”


The comment on “epigenetic epidemiology” overstated the study’s findings because the epigenetic analysis, although thorough, was limited to peripheral blood DNA methylation. Other consequential epigenetic effects weren’t investigated, for example, histone modifications and microRNA expression.

One unstated limitation was that the DNA methylation techniques were constrained by a budget. Studies like The primary causes of individual differences in DNA methylation are environmental factors point out restrictions in the study’s approach:

“A main limitation with studies using the Illumina 450 K array is that the platform only covers ~1.5 % of overall genomic CpGs, which are biased towards promoters and strongly underrepresented in distal regulatory elements, i.e., enhancers.

WGBS [whole-genome bisulfite sequencing] offers single-site resolution CpG methylation interrogation at full genomic coverage.

Another advantage of WGBS is its ability to access patterns of non-CpG methylation.”

I’d expect that in the future, researchers with larger budgets would reanalyze the study samples with WGBS and other DNA methylation techniques.

The researchers started and ended the study presenting their view of human “embedding of stress” as a fact rather than a paradigm. Epigenetic effects of early life stress exposure compared and contrasted this with another substantiated view.

This was also a missed opportunity to advance science regarding intergenerational and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. Wouldn’t it have been informative to provide the parents with the same questionnaires their twins answered at age 18, and to analyze the parents’ blood samples?

https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.ajp.2017.17060693 “Analysis of DNA Methylation in Young People: Limited Evidence for an Association Between Victimization Stress and Epigenetic Variation in Blood” (not freely available) Thanks to coauthor Dr. Helen Fisher for providing the full study.

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Make consequential measurements in epigenetic studies

The subject of this 2017 Spanish review was human placental epigenetic changes:

“39 papers assessing human placental epigenetic signatures in association with either

  • (i) psychosocial stress,
  • (ii) maternal psychopathology,
  • (iii) maternal smoking during pregnancy, and
  • (iv) exposure to environmental pollutants,

were identified.

Their findings revealed placental tissue as a unique source of epigenetic variability that does not correlate with epigenetic patterns observed in maternal or newborn blood.

Each study’s confounders were summarized by a column in Table 1. Some of the reviewers’ comments included:

“33 out of 39 papers reviewed (85%) reported significant associations between either placental DNA methylation or placental miRNA expression and exposure to any of the risk factors assessed. However, the methodological heterogeneity present throughout the studies reviewed does not allow meta-analytic exploration of reported findings.

Heterogeneity regarding the origin of biological tissues analyzed confounds the replicability and validity of reported findings and their potential synthesis.”


Sponsors and researchers really have to take their work seriously if the developmental origins of health and disease hypothesis can advance to a well-evidenced theory. Study designers should:

  1. Sample consequential dimensions. “There were no studies examining histone modifications.” Why were there no human studies in this important category of epigenetic changes in the placenta, the “barrier protecting the fetus”?
  2. Correct methodological deficiencies in advance. Eliminate insufficiencies like “Once collected, processing and storage of placental samples also differed across studies and was not reported in all of them.”
  3. Stop using convenient but non-etiologic proxy assays such as global methylation. How can a study advance the DOHaD hypothesis if everyone knows ahead of time that its outcome will be yet another finding that epigenetic changes “are associated with” non-causal factors?
  4. Forget about non-biological measurements like educational attainment per Does a societal mandate cause DNA methylation?.

Every human alive today has observable lasting epigenetic effects caused by environmental factors during the earliest parts of our lives. Isn’t this sufficient rationale to expect serious efforts by research sponsors and designers?

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0892036217301769 “The impact of prenatal insults on the human placental epigenome: A systematic review” (click the Download PDF link to read the paper)

How to cure the ultimate causes of migraines?

Most of the spam I get on this blog comes in as ersatz comments on The hypothalamus couples with the brainstem to cause migraines. I don’t know what it is about the post that attracts internet bots.

The unwanted attention is too bad because the post represents a good personal illustration of “changes in the neural response to painful stimuli.” Last year I experienced three three-day migraines in one month as did the study’s subject. This led to me cycling through a half-dozen medications in an effort to address the migraine causes.

None of the medications proved to be effective at treating the causes. I found one that interrupted the progress of migraines – sumatriptan, a serotonin receptor agonist. I’ve used it when symptoms start, and the medication has kept me from having a full-blown migraine episode in the past year.

1. It may be argued that migraine headache tendencies are genetically inherited. Supporting personal evidence is that both my mother and younger sister have migraine problems. My father, older sister, and younger brother didn’t have migraine problems. Familial genetic inheritance usually isn’t the whole story of diseases, though.

2. Migraine headaches may be an example of diseases that are results of how humans have evolved. From Genetic imprinting, sleep, and parent-offspring conflict:

“..evolutionary theory predicts: that which evolves is not necessarily that which is healthy.

Why should pregnancy not be more efficient and more robust than other physiological systems, rather than less? Crucial checks, balances and feedback controls are lacking in the shared physiology of the maternal–fetal unit.

Both migraine causes and effects may be traced back to natural lacks of feedback loops. These lacks demonstrate that such physiological feedback wasn’t evolutionarily necessary in order for humans to survive and reproduce.

3. Examples of other processes occurring during prenatal development that also lack feedback loops, and their subsequent diseases, are:

A. Hypoxic conditions per Lack of oxygen’s epigenetic effects are causes of the fetus later developing:

  • “age-related macular degeneration
  • cancer progression
  • chronic kidney disease
  • cardiomyopathies
  • adipose tissue fibrosis
  • inflammation
  • detrimental effects which are linked to epigenetic changes.”

B. Stressing pregnant dams per Treating prenatal stress-related disorders with an oxytocin receptor agonist caused fetuses to develop a:

  • “defect in glutamate release,
  • anxiety- and depressive-like behavior,

and abnormalities:

  • in social behavior,
  • in the HPA response to stress, and
  • in the expression of stress-related genes in the hippocampus and amygdala.”

1. What would be a treatment that could cure genetic causes for migraines?

I don’t know of any gene therapies.

2. What treatments could cure migraines caused by an evolved lack of feedback mechanisms?

We humans are who we have become, unless and until we can change original causes. Can we deal with “changes in the neural response to painful stimuli” without developing hopes for therapies or technologies per Differing approaches to a life wasted on beliefs?

3. What treatments could cure prenatal epigenetic causes for migraines?

The only effective solution I know of that’s been studied in humans is to prevent adverse conditions like hypoxia from taking place during pregnancy. The critical periods of our physical development are over once we’re adults, and we can’t unbake a cake.

Maybe science will offer other possibilities. Maybe it will be necessary for scientists to do more than their funding sponsors expect?

Differing approaches to a life wasted on beliefs

Let’s start by observing that people structure their lives around beliefs. As time goes on, what actions would a person have taken to ward off non-confirming evidence?

One response may be that they would engage in ever-increasing efforts to develop new beliefs that justified how they spent their precious life’s time so far.

Such was my take on the embedded beliefs in https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5684598/pdf/PSYCHIATRY2017-5491812.pdf “Epigenetic and Neural Circuitry Landscape of Psychotherapeutic Interventions”:

“Animal models have shown the benefits of continued environmental enrichment (EE) on psychopathological phenotypes, which carries exciting translational value.

This paper posits that psychotherapy serves as a positive environmental input (something akin to EE).”

The author conveyed his belief that wonderful interventions were going to happen in the future, although, when scrutinized, most human studies have demonstrated null effects of psychotherapy interventions on causes. Without sound evidence that treatments affect causes, this belief seemed driven by something else.

The author saw the findings of research like A problematic study of oxytocin receptor gene methylation, childhood abuse, and psychiatric symptoms as supporting external interventions to tamp down symptoms of patients’ presenting problems. Did any of the paper’s 300+ citations concern treatments where patients instead therapeutically addressed their problems’ root causes?


For an analogous religious example, a person’s belief caused him to spend years of his life trying to convince men to act so that they could get their own planet after death, and trying to convince women to latch onto men who had this belief. A new and apparently newsworthy belief developed from his underlying causes:

“The founder and CEO of neuroscience company Kernel wants “to expand the bounds of human intelligence”. He is planning to do this with neuroprosthetics; brain augmentations that can improve mental function and treat disorders. Put simply, Kernel hopes to place a chip in your brain.

He was raised as a Mormon in Utah and it was while carrying out two years of missionary work in Ecuador that he was struck by what he describes as an “overwhelming desire to improve the lives of others.”

He suffered from chronic depression from the ages of 24 to 34, and has seen his father and stepfather face huge mental health struggles.”

https://www.theguardian.com/small-business-network/2017/dec/14/humans-20-meet-the-entrepreneur-who-wants-to-put-a-chip-in-your-brain “Humans 2.0: meet the entrepreneur who wants to put a chip in your brain”

The article stated that the subject had given up Mormonism. There was nothing to suggest, though, that he had therapeutically addressed any underlying causes for his misdirected thoughts, feelings, and behavior. So he developed other beliefs instead.


What can people do to keep their lives from being wasted on beliefs? As mentioned in What was not, is not, and will never be:

“The problem is that spending our time and efforts on these ideas, beliefs, and behaviors won’t ameliorate their motivating causes. Our efforts only push us further away from our truths, with real consequences: a wasted life.

The goal of the therapeutic approach advocated by Dr. Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy is to remove the force of the presenting problems’ motivating causes. Success in reaching this goal is realized when patients become better able to live their own lives.

Epigenetic effects of microRNA on fetal heart development

This 2017 Australian review’s subject was epigenetic impacts involving microRNA in adverse intrauterine environments, and how these affected fetal heart tissue development:

“We describe how an adverse intrauterine environment can influence the expression of miRNAs (a sub-set of non-coding RNAs) and how these changes may impact heart development. Potential consequences of altered miRNA expression in the fetal heart include; Hypoxia inducible factor (HIF) activation, dysregulation of angiogenesis, mitochondrial abnormalities and altered glucose and fatty acid transport/metabolism.

This feedback network between miRNAs and other epigenetic pathways forms an epigenetics–miRNA regulatory circuit that organizes the whole gene expression profile. The human heart encodes over 700 miRNAs.”


A 2016 review Lack of oxygen’s epigenetic effects also provided a details about hypoxia. Those reviewers importantly pointed out the natural lack of a feedback mechanism to the HIF-1α signaling source, and how this evolutionary lack contributed to diseases.

http://www.mdpi.com/1422-0067/18/12/2628/htm “Adverse Intrauterine Environment and Cardiac miRNA Expression”

Do you have your family’s detailed medical histories?

Imagine that you were a parent who puzzled over the mystery of your pre-teen daughter’s hyperactive behavior. Without detailed family medical histories, would anyone recognize this as a preprogammed phenotype? Could anyone trace the daughter’s behavior back to her maternal great-grandmother being treated with glucocorticoids near the end of the second trimester of carrying her grandfather?

Such was a finding of a 2017 Canadian guinea pig study that was undertaken to better inform physicians of the transgenerationally inherited epigenetic effects of glucocorticoid treatments commonly prescribed during human pregnancies:

“This study presents the first evidence that prenatal treatment with sGC [synthetic glucocorticoid] results in transgenerational paternal transmission of hyperactivity and altered hypothalamic gene expression through three generations of young offspring. Female offspring appear to be more sensitive than male offspring to the programming effects of sGC, which suggests an interaction between sGC and sex hormones or sex-linked genes. Paternal transmission to F3 strongly implicates epigenetic mechanisms in the process of transmission, and small noncoding RNAs likely play a major role.”


Some details of the study included:

Veh[icle] was the control group initially treated with saline.

The study was informative and conclusive for the aspects studied. From the Methods section:

“Data from same-sex littermates were meaned to prevent litter bias. Sample sizes (N) correspond to independent litters, and not to the total number of offspring across all litters.

Power analyses based on previous studies determined N ≥ 8 sufficient to account for inter-litter variability and detect effects in the tests performed.”

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-11635-w “Prenatal Glucocorticoid Exposure Modifies Endocrine Function and Behaviour for 3 Generations Following Maternal and Paternal Transmission”

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.

Researchers:

  • 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 caregivers’ 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.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014976341630731X “Experience-induced transgenerational (re-)programming of neuronal structure and functions: Impact of stress prior and during pregnancy” (not freely available)