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)

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Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance mechanisms that lead to prostate disease

This 2019 Washington rodent study found:

“Ancestral exposure to the toxicant vinclozolin induces an epigenetic transgenerational increase in susceptibility to prostate pathology in F3 [male great-grandchildren] generation rats. These results are in agreement with previous studies which found a transgenerational increase in rates of prostatic epithelial atrophy, cystic hyperplasia, and prostatitis in the transgenerational F3 and F4 [male great-great-grandchildren] generations after exposure of F0 [great-great-grandmother] generation pregnant rats to vinclozolin. These effects were accompanied by transgenerational changes in mRNA expression in F3 generation ventral prostate epithelial cells.

A number of previous transgenerational studies have shown no ventral prostate histopathology or disease detected. Therefore, observations suggest ancestral exposure specificity in the ability to induce the transgenerational inheritance of prostate disease.

There was also no increase in prostate histopathology in the directly exposed F1 [male children] or F2 [male grandchildren] generation vinclozolin lineage rats compared to controls.

prostate pathology

The mechanism by which epigenetic transgenerational inheritance affects prostate epithelium involves control of gene expression by DNA methylation and lncRNAs. It will be necessary to determine the exact gene targets of these epigenetic modifications to determine further mechanisms.

Future studies need to investigate if similar mechanisms are at work in human males who have adult-onset BPH or prostate cancer. Ancestral exposures to toxicants and epigenetic transgenerational inheritance may contribute to the development of prostate disease in men today.”


The study’s above bolded sentence added to the evidence that epigenetic effects may skip generations. A study by the same group, Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of ovarian disease, found in females:

There was no increase in ovarian disease in direct fetal exposed F1 or germline exposed F2 generation vinclozolin or DDT lineage rats compared to controls.

A disturbance in the paradigm of child abuse referenced other studies that found generation-skipping effects.

Serious researchers are closer to discovering evidence for precise mechanisms of epigenetic transgenerational inheritance. It’s well past time that other researchers performing studies like Burying human transgenerational epigenetic evidence take their work seriously enough to truly investigate human evidence for epigenetic transgenerational inheritance.

What are more important funding priorities than such human studies?

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-38741-1 “Environmental Toxicant Induced Epigenetic Transgenerational Inheritance of Prostate Pathology and Stromal-Epithelial Cell Epigenome and Transcriptome Alterations: Ancestral Origins of Prostate Disease”

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”

Burying human transgenerational epigenetic evidence

The poor substitutes for evidence in this 2018 US study guaranteed that human transgenerational epigenetically inherited effects wouldn’t be found in the generations that followed after prenatal diethylstilbestrol (DES) exposure:

“A synthetic, nonsteroidal estrogen, DES was administered to pregnant women under the mistaken belief it would reduce pregnancy complications and losses. From the late 1930s through the early 1970s, DES was given to nearly two million pregnant women in the US alone.

Use of DES in pregnancy was discontinued after a seminal report showed a strong association with vaginal clear cell adenocarcinoma in prenatally exposed women. A recent analysis of the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) DES Combined Cohort Follow-up Study showed elevated relative risks of twelve adverse health outcomes.

We do not have sufficient data concerning the indication for DES in the grandmother to determine whether adverse pregnancy outcomes in the third generation might resemble those of their grandmothers. Fourth generation effects of prenatal exposures in humans have not been reported.”


This study had many elements in common with its wretched cited reference [25] “Transgenerational effects of prenatal exposure to the 1944–45 Dutch famine” which is freely available at https://obgyn.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1471-0528.12136.

That study’s Methods section showed:

  1. Its non-statistical data was almost all unverified self-reports by a self-selected sample of the F2 grandchildren, average age 37.
  2. No detailed physical measurements or samples were taken of the F2 grandchildren, or of their F1 parents, or of their F0 grandparents, all of which are required as baselines for any transgenerational epigenetic inheritance findings.
  3. No detailed physical measurements or samples were taken of their F3 children, which is the generation that may provide transgenerational evidence if the previous generations also have detailed physical baselines.

That study’s researchers drew enough participants (360) such that their statistics package allowed them to impute and assume into existence a LOT of data. But the scientific method constrained them to make factual statements of what the evidence actually showed. They admitted:

“In conclusion, we did not find a transgenerational effect of prenatal famine exposure on the health of grandchildren in this study.”

The current study similarly used the faulty methods 1-3 above to produce results such as:

“We do not have sufficient data concerning the indication for DES in the [F0] grandmother to determine whether adverse pregnancy outcomes in the [F2] third generation might resemble those of their grandmothers. [F3] Fourth generation effects of prenatal exposures in humans have not been reported.”

What could be expected from a study design that didn’t include F3 subjects, which is the only generation that didn’t have direct DES exposure? A study design that permitted NON-evidence like educational level?

Human studies of possible intergenerational and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance are urgently needed. There will be abundant evidence to discover if researchers will take their fields seriously.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0890623818304684 “Reproductive and Hormone-Related Outcomes in Women whose Mothers were Exposed in utero to Diethylstilbestrol (DES): A Report from the US National Cancer Institute DES Third Generation Study” (not freely available)

Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of ovarian disease

This 2018 Washington rodent study investigated ovarian disease in F3 great-granddaughters caused by their F0 great-grandmothers’ exposures to DDT or vinclozolin while pregnant:

“Two of the most prevalent ovarian diseases affecting women’s fertility and health are Primary Ovarian Insufficiency (POI) and Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). POI is characterized by a marked reduction in the primordial follicle pool of oocytes and the induction of menopause prior to age 40. POI currently affects approximately 1% of female population. While genetic causes can be ascribed to a minority of patients, around 90% of POI cases are considered idiopathic, with no apparent genetic link nor known cause.

PCOS is a multi-faceted disease that affects 6-18% of women. It is characterized by infrequent ovulation or anovulation, high androgen levels in the blood, and the presence of multiple persistent ovarian cysts.

For both PCOS and POI other underlying causes such as epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of disease susceptibility have seldom been considered. Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance is defined as “the germline transmission of epigenetic information and phenotypic change across generations in the absence of any continued direct environmental exposure or genetic manipulation.” Epigenetic factors include:

    • DNA methylation,
    • Histone modifications,
    • Expression of noncoding RNA,
    • RNA methylation, and
    • Alterations in chromatin structure.

The majority of transgenerational studies have examined sperm transmission of epigenetic changes due to limitations in oocyte numbers for efficient analysis.

There was no increase in ovarian disease in direct fetal exposed F1 [grandmothers] or germline exposed F2 [mothers] generation vinclozolin or DDT lineage rats compared to controls.

F3 generation ovarian disease

The transgenerational molecular mechanism is distinct and involves the germline (sperm or egg) having an altered epigenome that following fertilization may modify the embryonic stem cells epigenome and transcriptome. This subsequently impacts the epigenetics and transcriptome of all somatic cell types derived from these stem cells.

Therefore, all somatic cells in the transgenerational [F3] animal have altered epigenomes and transcriptomes and those sensitive to this alteration will be susceptible to develop disease. The F3 generation can have disease while the F1 and F2 generations do not, due to this difference in the molecular mechanisms involved.

The epimutations and gene expression differences observed are present in granulosa cells in the late pubertal female rats at 22-24 days of age, which is long before any visible signs of ovarian disease are detectable. This indicates that the underlying factors that can contribute to adult-onset diseases like PCOS and POI appear to be present early in life.

Ancestral exposure to toxicants is a risk factor that must be considered in the molecular etiology of ovarian disease.”


1. The study highlighted a great opportunity for researchers of any disease that frequently has an “idiopathic” diagnosis. It said a lot about research priorities that “around 90% of POI cases are considered idiopathic, with no apparent genetic link nor known cause.”

It isn’t sufficiently explanatory for physicians to continue using categorization terminology from thousands of years ago. Science has progressed enough with measured evidence to discard the “idiopathic” category and express probabilistic understanding of causes.

2. One of this study’s coauthors made a point worth repeating in The imperative of human transgenerational studies: What’s keeping researchers from making a significant difference in their fields with human epigenetic transgenerational inheritance studies?

3. Parts of the study’s Discussion section weren’t supported by its evidence. The study didn’t demonstrate:

  • That “all somatic cells in the transgenerational animal have altered epigenomes and transcriptomes”; and
  • The precise “molecular mechanisms involved” that exactly explain why “the F3 generation can have disease while the F1 and F2 generations do not.”

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15592294.2018.1521223 “Environmental Toxicant Induced Epigenetic Transgenerational Inheritance of Ovarian Pathology and Granulosa Cell Epigenome and Transcriptome Alterations: Ancestral Origins of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and Primary Ovarian Insuf[f]iency” (not freely available)

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”

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 any 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)