Developmental disorders and the epigenetic clock

This 2019 UK/Canada/Germany human study investigated thirteen developmental disorders to identify genes that changed aspects of the epigenetic clock:

“Sotos syndrome accelerates epigenetic aging [+7.64 years]. Sotos syndrome is caused by loss-of-function mutations in the NSD1 gene, which encodes a histone H3 lysine 36 (H3K36) methyltransferase.

This leads to a phenotype which can include:

  • Prenatal and postnatal overgrowth,
  • Facial gestalt,
  • Advanced bone age,
  • Developmental delay,
  • Higher cancer predisposition, and, in some cases,
  • Heart defects.

Many of these characteristics could be interpreted as aging-like, identifying Sotos syndrome as a potential human model of accelerated physiological aging.

This research will shed some light on the different processes that erode the human epigenetic landscape during aging and provide a new hypothesis about the mechanisms behind the epigenetic aging clock.”

“Proposed model that highlights the role of H3K36 methylation maintenance on epigenetic aging:

  • The H3K36me2/3 mark allows recruiting de novo DNA methyltransferases DNMT3A (in green) and DNMT3B (not shown).
  • DNA methylation valleys (DMVs) are conserved genomic regions that are normally found hypomethylated.
  • During aging, the H3K36 methylation machinery could become less efficient at maintaining the H3K36me2/3 landscape.
  • This would lead to a relocation of de novo DNA methyltransferases from their original genomic reservoirs (which would become hypomethylated) to other non-specific regions such as DMVs (which would become hypermethylated and potentially lose their normal boundaries),
  • With functional consequences for the tissues.”

The researchers improved methodologies of several techniques:

  1. “Previous attempts to account for technical variation have used the first 5 principal components estimated directly from the DNA methylation data. However, this approach potentially removes meaningful biological variation. For the first time, we have shown that it is possible to use the control probes from the 450K array to readily correct for batch effects in the context of the epigenetic clock, which reduces the error associated with the predictions and decreases the likelihood of reporting a false positive.
  2. We have confirmed the suspicion that Horvath’s model underestimates epigenetic age for older ages and assessed the impact of this bias in the screen for epigenetic age acceleration.
  3. Because of the way that the Horvath epigenetic clock was trained, it is likely that its constituent 353 CpG sites are a low-dimensional representation of the different genome-wide processes that are eroding the epigenome with age. Our analysis has shown that these 353 CpG sites are characterized by a higher Shannon entropy when compared with the rest of the genome, which is dramatically decreased in the case of Sotos patients.” “Screening for genes that accelerate the epigenetic aging clock in humans reveals a role for the H3K36 methyltransferase NSD1”


Perinatal stress and sex differences in circadian activity

This 2019 French/Italian rodent study used the PRS model to investigate its effects on circadian activity:

“The aim of this study was to explore the influence of PRS on the circadian oscillations of gene expression in the SCN [suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus] and on circadian locomotor behavior, in a sex-dependent manner.

Research on transcriptional rhythms has shown that more than half of all genes in the human and rodent genome follow a circadian pattern. We focused on genes belonging to four functional classes, namely the circadian clock, HPA axis stress response regulation, signaling and glucose metabolism in male and female adult PRS rats.

Our findings provide evidence for a specific profile of dysmasculinization induced by PRS at the behavioral and molecular level, thus advocating the necessity to include sex as a biological variable to study the set-up of circadian system in animal models.”

“There was a clear-cut effect of sex on the effect of PRS on the levels of activity:

  • During the period of lower activity (light phase), both CONT and PRS females were more active than males. During the light phase, PRS increased activity in males, which reached levels of CONT females.
  • More interestingly, during the period of activity (dark phase), male PRS rats were more active than male CONT rats. In contrast, female PRS rats were less active than CONT females.
  • During the dark phase, CONT female rats were less active than CONT male rats.

The study presented evidence for sex differences in circadian activity of first generation offspring that was caused by stress experienced by the pregnant mother:

“Exposure to gestational stress and altered maternal behavior programs a life-long disruption in the reactive adaptation such as:

  •  A hyperactive response to stress and
  • A defective feedback of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis together with
  • Long-lasting modifications in stress/anti-stress gene expression balance in the hippocampus.”

It would advance science if these researchers carried out experiments to two more generations to investigate possible transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of effects caused by PRS. What intergenerational and transgenerational effects would they possibly find by taking a few more months and extending research efforts to F2 and F3 generations? Wouldn’t these findings likely help humans?

One aspect of the study was troubling. One of the marginally-involved coauthors is funded by the person described in How one person’s paradigms regarding stress and epigenetics impedes relevant research. Although no part of the current study was sponsored by that person, there were three gratuitous citations of their work.

All three citations were reviews. Unlike study researchers, reviewers aren’t bound to demonstrate evidence from tested hypotheses. Reviewers are free to:

  • Express their beliefs as facts;
  • Over- and under- emphasize study limitations; and, most importantly,
  • Disregard and misrepresent evidence as they see fit.

Comparisons of reviews with Cochrane meta-analyses of the same subjects consistently show the extent of reviewers’ biases. Reviewers also aren’t obligated to make post-publication corrections for their errors and distortions.

As such, reviews can’t be cited for reliable evidence. Higher-quality studies that were more relevant and recent than 1993 could have elucidated points.

Sucking up to the boss and endorsing their paradigm was predictable. Since that coauthor couldn’t constrain themself to funder citations only in funder studies, the other coauthors could have intervened and edited out unnecessary citations. “Perinatal Stress Programs Sex Differences in the Behavioral and Molecular Chronobiological Profile of Rats Maintained Under a 12-h Light-Dark Cycle”

Caloric restriction’s epigenetic effects

This 2019 US review subject was caloric restriction (CR) without malnutrition:

“Cellular adaptation that occurs in response to dietary patterns can be explained by alterations in epigenetic mechanisms such as DNA methylation, histone modifications, and microRNA. Epigenetic reprogramming of the underlying chronic low-grade inflammation by CR can lead to immuno-metabolic adaptations that enhance quality of life, extend lifespan, and delay chronic disease onset.

Short- and long-term CRs produce significant changes in different tissues and across species, in some animal models even with sex-specific effects. Early CR onset may cause a different and even an opposite effect on physiological outcomes in animal models such as body weight.”


Charts usually don’t have two different values plotted on the same axis. There wasn’t evidence that equated survival with methylation drift per the above graphic. Methylation drift should point in the opposite direction of survival, if anything.

No mention was made of the epigenetic clock method of measuring age acceleration, although recent diet studies have used it. The sole citation of an age acceleration study was from 2001, which was unacceptable for a review published in 2019.

The review provided many cellular-level details about the subject. However, organism-level areas weren’t sufficiently evidenced:

1. Arguments for an effect usually include explanations for no effect as well as opposite effects. The reviewers didn’t provide direct evidence for why, if caloric restriction extended lifespan, caloric overabundance produced shorter lifespans.

2. Caloric restriction evidence was presented as if only it was responsible for organism-level effects. Other mechanisms may have been involved.

An example of such a mechanism was demonstrated in a 2007 rodent study Reduced Oxidant Stress and Extended Lifespan in Mice Exposed to a Low Glycotoxin Diet which compared two 40%-calorie-restricted diets.

The calories and composition of both diets were identical. However, advanced glycation end product (AGE) levels were doubled in standard chow because heating temperatures were “sufficiently high to inadvertently cause standard mouse chow to be rich in oxidant AGEs.”

The study found that a diet with lower chow heating temperatures increased lifespan and health span irrespective of caloric restriction!

  • The low-AGE calorie-restricted diet group lived an average of 15% longer (>20 human equivalent years) than the standard calorie-restricted diet group. 40% of the low-AGE calorie-restricted diet group were still alive when the last standard calorie-restricted diet group member died.
  • The standard calorie-restricted diet group also had significantly more: 1) oxidative stress damage; 2) glucose and insulin metabolism problems; and 3) kidney, spleen, and liver injuries. “Epigenetic Regulation of Metabolism and Inflammation by Calorie Restriction” (not freely available)

A drug that countered effects of a traumatizing mother

This 2019 US rodent study concerned transmitting poor maternal care to the next generation:

“The quality of parental care received during development profoundly influences an individual’s phenotype, including that of maternal behavior. Infant experiences with a caregiver have lifelong behavioral consequences.

Maternal behavior is a complex behavior requiring the recruitment of multiple brain regions including the nucleus accumbens, bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, ventral tegmental area, prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and medial preoptic area. Dysregulation within this circuitry can lead to altered or impaired maternal responsiveness.

We administered zebularine, a drug known to alter DNA methylation, to dams exposed during infancy to the scarcity-adversity model of low nesting resources, and then characterized the quality of their care towards their offspring.

  1. We replicate that dams with a history of maltreatment mistreat their own offspring.
  2. We show that maltreated-dams treated with zebularine exhibit lower levels of adverse care toward their offspring.
  3. We show that administration of zebularine in control dams (history of nurturing care) enhances levels of adverse care.
  4. We show altered methylation and gene expression in maltreated dams normalized by zebularine.

These findings lend support to the hypothesis that epigenetic alterations resulting from maltreatment causally relate to behavioral outcomes.”

“Maternal behavior is an intergenerational behavior. It is important to establish the neurobiological underpinnings of aberrant maternal behavior and explore treatments that can improve maternal behavior to prevent the perpetuation of poor maternal care across generations.”

The study authors demonstrated intergenerational epigenetic effects, and missed an opportunity to also investigate transgenerational epigenetically inherited effects. They cited reference 60 for the first part of the above quotation, but that reviewer misused the transgenerational term by applying it to grand-offspring instead of the great-grand-offspring.

There were resources available to replicate the study authors’ previous findings, which didn’t show anything new. Why not use such resources to uncover evidence even more applicable to humans by extending experiments to great-grand-offspring that have no potential germline exposure to the initial damaging cause?

Could a study design similar to A limited study of parental transmission of anxiety/stress-reactive traits have been integrated? That study’s thorough removal of parental behavior would be an outstanding methodology to confirm by falsifiability whether parental behavior is both an intergenerational and a transgenerational epigenetic inheritance mechanism.

Rodent great-grand-offspring can be studied in < 9 months. It takes > 50 years for human studies to reach the transgenerational generation. Why not attempt to “prevent the perpetuation of poor maternal care across generations?”

Isn’t it a plausible hypothesis that humans “with a history of maltreatment mistreat their own offspring?” Isn’t it worth the extra effort to extend animal research to investigate this unfortunate chain? “Pharmacological manipulation of DNA methylation normalizes maternal behavior, DNA methylation, and gene expression in dams with a history of maltreatment”

Linking adult neurogenesis to Alzheimer’s disease

This 2019 Spanish human study compared DNA methylation, chromatin and histone modifications in the hippocampus of deceased Alzheimer’s disease patients with controls:

“A significant percentage of the differentially methylated genes were related to neural development and neurogenesis. It was astounding that other biological, cellular, and molecular processes generally associated with neurodegeneration such as apoptosis, autophagy, inflammation, oxidative stress, and mitochondrial or lysosomal dysfunction were not overrepresented.

The results of the present study point to neurogenesis-related genes as targets of epigenetic changes in the hippocampus affected by AD. These methylation changes might be built throughout life due to external and internal cues and would represent an example of epigenetic interaction between environmental and genetic factors in developing AD.

As an alternative explanation, these epigenetic marks might also represent the trace of DNA methylation alterations induced during early developmental stages of the hippocampus, which would remain as a fingerprint in the larger proportion of hippocampal neurons that are not exchanged. This second hypothesis would link AD to early life stages, in concordance with recent studies that revealed abnormal p-tau deposits (pre-tangles) in brains of young individuals under 30, suggesting AD pathology would start earlier in life than it was previously thought. The influence of the genetic risk for AD has also been postulated to begin in early life, and other AD risk factors may be influenced by in utero environment.”

The study cited references to adult neurogenesis:

“Though strongly related to brain development, neurogenesis is also maintained in the adult human brain, mainly in two distinct areas, i.e., the subventricular zone and the subgranular zone of the dentate gyrus in the hippocampus. There is substantial neurogenesis throughout life in the human hippocampus as it is estimated that up to one third of human hippocampal neurons are subject to constant turnover.

Adult neurogenesis is linked to hippocampal-dependent learning and memory tasks and is reduced during aging. Recent evidence suggests that adult neurogenesis is altered in the neurodegenerative process of AD, but it is still controversial with some authors reporting increased neurogenesis, whereas others show reduced neurogenesis. In the human hippocampus, a sharp drop in adult neurogenesis has been observed in subjects with AD.”

One of the study’s limitations was its control group:

“There was a significant difference in age between controls [12, ages 50.7 ± 21.5] and AD patients [26, ages 81.2 ± 12.1], being the latter group older than the former group. Although we adjusted for age in the statistical differential methylation analysis, the accuracy of this correction may be limited as there is little overlap in the age ranges of both groups.” “DNA methylation signature of human hippocampus in Alzheimer’s disease is linked to neurogenesis”

OCD and neural plasticity

This 2019 New York rodent study investigated multiple avenues to uncover mechanisms of obsessive-compulsive disorder:

“Psychophysical models of OCD propose that anxiety (amygdala) and habits (dorsolateral striatum) may be causally linked. Numerous genetic and environmental factors may reduce striatum sensitivity and lead to maladaptive overcompensation, potentially accounting for a significant proportion of cases of pathological OCD-like behaviors.

Our results indicate that both the development and reversal of OCD-like behaviors involve neuroplasticity resulting in circuitry changes in BLA-DLS and possibly elsewhere.”

The researchers explored two genetic models of OCD, showed why these insufficiently explained observed phenomena, then followed up with epigenetic investigations. They demonstrated how and the degree to which histone modifications and DNA methylation regulated both the development and reversal of OCD symptoms.

The researchers also carelessly cited thirteen papers outside the specific areas of the study to support one statement in the lead paragraph:

“Novel studies propose that modulations in gene expression influenced by environmental factors, are connected to mental health disorders.”

Only one of the thirteen citations was more recent than 2011, and none of them were high-quality studies. “Amelioration of obsessive-compulsive disorder in three mouse models treated with one epigenetic drug: unraveling the underlying mechanism”

What drives cellular aging?

This 2019 US/UK human cell study by the founder of the epigenetic clock method investigated epigenetic aging:

“It is widely assumed that extension of lifespan is a result of retardation of ageing. While there is no counter-evidence to challenge this highly intuitive association, supporting empirical evidence to confirm it is not easy to acquire.

The scarcity of empirical evidence is due in part to the lack of a good measure of age that is not based on time. In this regard, the relatively recent development of epigenetic clocks is of great interest.

At the cellular level more is known, but from the perspective of what epigenetic ageing is not, rather than what it is. While we still do not know what cellular feature is associated with epigenetic ageing, we can now remove:

  • somatic cell differentiation

from the list of possibilities and place it with

  • cellular senescence,
  • proliferation and
  • telomere length maintenance,

which represent cellular features that are all not linked to epigenetic ageing.”

The study used several agents, including rapamycin, to investigate the hypotheses. Rapamycin isn’t a panacea, but:

“The ability of rapamycin to suppress the progression of epigenetic ageing is very encouraging for many reasons not least because it provides a valuable point-of-entry into molecular pathways that are potentially associated with it. Evidently, the target of rapamycin, the mTOR complex is of particular interest.

The convergence of the GWAS observation with the experimental system described here is a testament of the strength of the skin & blood clock in uncovering biological features that are consistent between the human level and cellular level. It lends weight to the emerging view that the mTOR pathway may be the underlying mechanism that supports epigenetic ageing.”

The limitation section ended with:

“It is important to note that it is inadvisable (actively discouraged) to directly extrapolate the studies here, especially in terms of the magnitude of age suppression, to potential effects of rapamycin on humans.” “Rapamycin retards epigenetic ageing of keratinocytes independently of its effects on replicative senescence, proliferation and differentiation”