A mid-year selection of epigenetic topics

Here are the most popular of the 65 posts I’ve made so far in 2018, starting from the earliest:

The pain societies instill into children

DNA methylation and childhood adversity

Epigenetic mechanisms of muscle memory

Sex-specific impacts of childhood trauma

Sleep and adult brain neurogenesis

This dietary supplement is better for depression symptoms than placebo

The epigenetic clock theory of aging

A flying human tethered to a monkey

Immune memory in the brain

The lack of oxygen’s epigenetic effects on a fetus

Advertisements

Resiliency in stress responses

This 2018 US Veterans Administration review subject was resiliency and stress responses:

Neurobiological and behavioral responses to stress are highly variable. Exposure to a similar stressor can lead to heterogeneous outcomes — manifesting psychopathology in one individual, but having minimal effect, or even enhancing resilience, in another.

We highlight aspects of stress response modulation related to early life development and epigenetics, selected neurobiological and neurochemical systems, and a number of emotional, cognitive, psychosocial, and behavioral factors important in resilience.”

The review cited studies I’ve previously curated:


There were two things I didn’t understand about this review. The first was why the paper isn’t freely available. It’s completely paid for by the US taxpayer, and no copyright is claimed. I recommend contacting the authors for a copy.

The second was why the VA hasn’t participated in either animal or human follow-on studies to the 2015 Northwestern University GABAergic mechanisms regulated by miR-33 encode state-dependent fear. That study’s relevance to PTSD, this review’s subject, and the VA’s mission is too important to ignore. For example:

“Fear-inducing memories can be state dependent, meaning that they can best be retrieved if the brain states at encoding and retrieval are similar.

“It’s difficult for therapists to help these patients,” Radulovic said, “because the patients themselves can’t remember their traumatic experiences that are the root cause of their symptoms.”

The findings imply that in response to traumatic stress, some individuals, instead of activating the glutamate system to store memories, activate the extra-synaptic GABA system and form inaccessible traumatic memories.”

I curated the research in A study that provided evidence for basic principles of Primal Therapy. These researchers have published several papers since then. Here are the abstracts from three of them:

Experimental Methods for Functional Studies of microRNAs in Animal Models of Psychiatric Disorders

“Pharmacological treatments for psychiatric illnesses are often unsuccessful. This is largely due to the poor understanding of the molecular mechanisms underlying these disorders. We are particularly interested in elucidating the mechanism of affective disorders rooted in traumatic experiences.

To date, the research of mental disorders in general has focused on the causal role of individual genes and proteins, an approach that is inconsistent with the proposed polygenetic nature of these disorders. We recently took an alternative direction, by establishing the role of miRNAs in the coding of stress-related, fear-provoking memories.

Here we describe in detail our work on the role of miR-33 in state-dependent learning, a process implicated in dissociative amnesia, wherein memories formed in a certain brain state can best be retrieved if the brain is in the same state. We present the specific experimental approaches we apply to study the role of miRNAs in this model and demonstrate that miR-33 regulates the susceptibility to state-dependent learning induced by inhibitory neurotransmission.”

Neurobiological mechanisms of state-dependent learning

“State-dependent learning (SDL) is a phenomenon relating to information storage and retrieval restricted to discrete states. While extensively studied using psychopharmacological approaches, SDL has not been subjected to rigorous neuroscientific study.

Here we present an overview of approaches historically used to induce SDL, and highlight some of the known neurobiological mechanisms, in particular those related to inhibitory neurotransmission and its regulation by microRNAs (miR).

We also propose novel cellular and circuit mechanisms as contributing factors. Lastly, we discuss the implications of advancing our knowledge on SDL, both for most fundamental processes of learning and memory as well as for development and maintenance of psychopathology.”

Neurobiological correlates of state-dependent context fear

“Retrieval of fear memories can be state-dependent, meaning that they are best retrieved if the brain states at encoding and retrieval are similar. Such states can be induced by activating extrasynaptic γ-aminobutyric acid type A receptors (GABAAR) with the broad α-subunit activator gaboxadol. However, the circuit mechanisms and specific subunits underlying gaboxadol’s effects are not well understood.

Here we show that gaboxadol induces profound changes of local and network oscillatory activity, indicative of discoordinated hippocampal-cortical activity, that were accompanied by robust and long-lasting state-dependent conditioned fear. Episodic memories typically are hippocampus-dependent for a limited period after learning, but become cortex-dependent with the passage of time.

In contrast, state-dependent memories continued to rely on hippocampal GABAergic mechanisms for memory retrieval. Pharmacological approaches with α- subunit-specific agonists targeting the hippocampus implicated the prototypic extrasynaptic subunits (α4) as the mediator of state-dependent conditioned fear.

Together, our findings suggest that continued dependence on hippocampal rather than cortical mechanisms could be an important feature of state-dependent memories that contributes to their conditional retrieval.”


Here’s an independent 2017 Netherlands/UC San Diego review that should bring these researchers’ efforts to the VA’s attention:

MicroRNAs in Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that can develop following exposure to or witnessing of a (potentially) threatening event. A critical issue is to pinpoint the (neuro)biological mechanisms underlying the susceptibility to stress-related disorder such as PTSD, which develops in the minority of ~15% of individuals exposed to trauma.

Over the last few years, a first wave of epigenetic studies has been performed in an attempt to identify the molecular underpinnings of the long-lasting behavioral and mental effects of trauma exposure. The potential roles of non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) such as microRNAs (miRNAs) in moderating or mediating the impact of severe stress and trauma are increasingly gaining attention. To date, most studies focusing on the roles of miRNAs in PTSD have, however, been completed in animals, using cross-sectional study designs and focusing almost exclusively on subjects with susceptible phenotypes.

Therefore, there is a strong need for new research comprising translational and cross-species approaches that use longitudinal designs for studying trajectories of change contrasting susceptible and resilient subjects. The present review offers a comprehensive overview of available studies of miRNAs in PTSD and discusses the current challenges, pitfalls, and future perspectives of this field.”

Here’s a 2017 Netherlands human study that similarly merits the US Veterans Administration’s attention:

Circulating miRNA associated with posttraumatic stress disorder in a cohort of military combat veterans

“Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects many returning combat veterans, but underlying biological mechanisms remain unclear. In order to compare circulating micro RNA (miRNA) of combat veterans with and without PTSD, peripheral blood from 24 subjects was collected following deployment, and isolated miRNA was sequenced.

PTSD was associated with 8 differentially expressed miRNA. Pathway analysis shows that PTSD is related to the axon guidance and Wnt signaling pathways, which work together to support neuronal development through regulation of growth cones. PTSD is associated with miRNAs that regulate biological functions including neuronal activities, suggesting that they play a role in PTSD symptomatology.”


See the below comments for reasons why I downgraded this review’s rating.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11920-018-0887-x “Stress Response Modulation Underlying the Psychobiology of Resilience” (not freely available)

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.”


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 subject wasn’t explored.

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

The authors included a half-dozen anecdotal quotations from personal correspondence that promoted their narrative. These came across as appeals to authority rather than methods to create 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, including possible epigenetic causes for sexual orientation and gender identity.

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

The pain societies instill into children

The human subjects of this 2017 Swiss study had previously been intentionally traumatized by Swiss society:

“Swiss former indentured child laborers (Verdingkinder) were removed as children from their families by the authorities due to different reasons (poverty, being born out of wedlock) and were placed to live and work on farms. This was a practice applied until the 1950s and many of the Verdingkinder were subjected to childhood trauma and neglect during the indentured labor.

DNA methylation modifications indicated experiment-wide significant associations with the following complex posttraumatic symptom domains: dissociation, tension reduction behavior and dysfunctional sexual behavior.”


Imagine being taken away from your family during early childhood for no other reason than your parents weren’t married.

Consider just a few of the painful feelings such a child had to deal with then and ever since:

  • I’m unloved.
  • Alone.
  • No one can help me.

Imagine some of the ways a child had to adapt during their formative years because of this undeserved punishment:

  • How fulfilling it would be to believe that they were loved, even by someone they couldn’t see, touch, or hear.
  • How fulfilling it would be to get attention from someone, anyone.
  • How a child became conditioned to do things by themself without asking for help.

The study described a minute set of measurements of the subjects’ traumatic experiences and their consequential symptoms. The researchers tried to group this tiny sample of the subjects’ symptoms into a new invented category.

https://bmcresnotes.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13104-017-3082-y “A pilot investigation on DNA methylation modifications associated with complex posttraumatic symptoms in elderly traumatized in childhood”


Another example was provided in Is IQ an adequate measure of the quality of a young man’s life?:

“During this time period [between 1955 and 1990], because private adoptions were prohibited by Swedish law, children were taken into institutional care by the municipalities shortly after birth and adopted at a median age of 6 mo, with very few children adopted after 12 mo of age.”

Swedish society deemed local institutional care the initial destination for disenfranchised infants, regardless of whether suitable families were willing and able to adopt the infants. What happened to infants who weren’t adopted by age 1?

Did Swedish society really need any further research to know that an adoptive family’s care would be better for a child than living in an institution?


It’s hard to recognize when our own thoughts, feelings, and behavior provide evidence of childhood pain that’s still with us.

Let’s be honest, and not develop hopes and beliefs that the societies we live in will resolve adverse effects of childhood trauma its members caused. Other people may guide us, but each of us has to individually get our life back:

“What is the point of life if we cannot feel and love others? Without feeling, life becomes empty and sterile. It, above all, loses its meaning.

Our early life effectively suppressed feeling. We need to get our life back.”

Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, North and South America: every society has its horror stories. People who have reached some degree of honesty about their early lives and concomitant empathy for others can document these terrible circumstances and events. Have traumatic effects on children from societal policies ceased?

On Primal Therapy with Drs. Art and France Janov

Experiential feeling therapy addressing the pain of the lack of love.

A limited study of parental transmission of anxiety/stress-reactive traits

BehavioralTraitsThis 2016 New York rodent study found:

“Parental behavioural traits can be transmitted by non-genetic mechanisms to the offspring.

We show that four anxiety/stress-reactive traits are transmitted via independent iterative-somatic and gametic epigenetic mechanisms across multiple generations.

As the individual traits/pathways each have their own generation-dependent penetrance and gender specificity, the resulting cumulative phenotype is pleiotropic. In the context of genetic diseases, it is typically assumed that this phenomenon arises from individual differences in vulnerability to the various effects of the causative gene. However, the work presented here reveals that pleiotropy can be produced by the variable distribution and segregated transmission of behavioural traits.”


A primary focus was how anxiety was transmitted from parents to offspring:

“The iterative propagation of the male-specific anxiety-like behaviour is most compatible with a model in which proinflammatory state is propagated from H [serotonin1A receptor heterozygote] F0 to F1 [children] females and in which the proinflammatory state is acquired by F1 males from their H mothers, and then by F2 [grandchildren] males from their F1 mothers.

We propose that increased levels of gestational MIP-1β [macrophage inflammatory protein 1β] in H and F1 mothers, together with additional proinflammatory cytokines and bioactive proteins, are required to produce immune system activation in their newborn offspring, which in turn promotes the development of the anxiety-like phenotype in males.

In particular, increase in the number of monocytes and their transmigration to the brain parenchyma in F1 and F2 males could be central to the development of anxiety.”


The researchers studied transmission of behavioral traits and epigenetic changes. Due to my quick take on the study title – “Behavioural traits propagate across generations..” – I had expectations of this study that weren’t born out. What could the researchers have done versus what they did?

The study design removed prenatal and postnatal parental behavioral transmission of behavioral traits and epigenetic changes as each generation’s embryos were implanted into foster wild-type (WT) mothers.

The study design substituted the foster mothers’ prenatal and postnatal parental environments for the biological parents’ environments. So we didn’t find out, for example, to what extents the overly stress-reactive F1 female children’s prenatal environments and postnatal behaviors induced behaviors and/or epigenetic changes in their children, and whether the F2 grandchildren’s parental behaviors subsequently induced behaviors and/or epigenetic changes in the F3 great-grandchildren.


How did the study meet the overall goal of rodent studies: to help humans?

    1. Only a minority of humans experienced an early-life environment that included primary caregivers other than our biological parents.
    2. Very, very few of us experienced a prenatal environment other than our biological mothers.
    3. The study’s thorough removal of parental behavior was an outstanding methodology to confirm by falsifiability that parental behavior is an intergenerational and transgenerational inheritance mechanism for other phenotypes.
    4. Maybe the researchers filled in some gaps in previous rodent studies, such as determining what is or isn’t a “true transgenerational mechanism.”

As an example of a rodent study that more closely approximated human conditions, the behavior of a mother whose DNA was epigenetically changed by stress induced the same epigenetic changes to her child’s DNA when her child was stressed per One way that mothers cause fear and emotional trauma in their infants:

“Our results provide clues to understanding transmission of specific fears across generations and its dependence upon maternal induction of pups’ stress response paired with the cue to induce amygdala-dependent learning plasticity.”


How did parental behavioral transmission of behavioral traits and epigenetic changes become a subject not worth investigating? These traits and effects can be seen everyday in real-life human interactions, and in every human’s physiology.

But when investigating human correlates with behavioral epigenetic changes of rodents in the laboratory, parental behavioral transmission of behavioral traits is often treated the way this study treated it: as a confounder.

I doubt that people who have reached some degree of honesty about their early lives and concomitant empathy for others would agree with this prioritization. The papers of Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance week show the spectrum of opportunities to advance science that were intentionally missed.

http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2016/160513/ncomms11492/full/ncomms11492.html “Behavioural traits propagate across generations via segregated iterative-somatic and gametic epigenetic mechanisms”

Observing pain in others had long-lasting brain effects

This 2016 Israeli human study used whole-head magnetoencephalography (MEG) to study pain perception in military veterans:

Our findings demonstrate alterations in pain perception following extreme pain exposure, chart the sequence from automatic to evaluative pain processing, and emphasize the importance of considering past experiences in studying the neural response to others’ states.

Differences in brain activation to ‘pain’ and ‘no pain’ in the PCC [posterior cingulate cortex] emerged only among controls. This suggests that prior exposure to extreme pain alters the typical brain response to pain by blurring the distinction between painful and otherwise identical but nonpainful stimuli, and that this blurring of the ‘pain effect’ stems from increased responses to ‘no pain’ rather than from attenuated response to pain.”


Limitations included:

  • “The pain-exposed participants showed posttraumatic symptoms, which may also be related to the observed alterations in the brain response to pain.
  • We did not include pain threshold measurements. However, the participants’ sensitivity to experienced pain may have had an effect on the processing of observed pain.
  • The regions of interest for the examination of pain processing in the pain-exposed group were defined on the basis of the results identified in the control group.
  • We did not detect pain-related activations in additional regions typically associated with pain perception, such as the anterior insula and ACC. This may be related to differences between the MEG and fMRI neuroimaging approaches.”

The subjects self-administered oxytocin or placebo per the study’s design. However:

“We chose to focus on the placebo condition and to test group differences at baseline only, in light of the recent criticism on underpowered oxytocin administration studies, and thus all following analyses are reported for the placebo condition.”


A few questions:

  1. If observing others’ pain caused “increased responses to ‘no pain’,” wouldn’t the same effect or more be expected from experiencing one’s own pain?
  2. If there’s evidence for item 1, then why aren’t “increased responses to ‘no pain'” of affected people overtly evident in everyday life?
  3. If item 2 is often observed, then what are the neurobiological consequences for affected people’s suppression of “increased responses to ‘no pain’?”
  4. Along with the effects of item 3, what may be behavioral, emotional, and other evidence of this suppressed pain effect?
  5. What would it take for affected people to regain a normal processing of others’ “‘pain’ and ‘no pain’?”

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/299546838_Prior_exposure_to_extreme_pain_alters_neural_response_to_pain_in_others “Prior exposure to extreme pain alters neural response to pain in others” Thanks to one of the authors, Ruth Feldman, for providing the full study