One example of how experience changes the brain

This 2017 California rodent study found:

“Neural representations within the mouse hypothalamus, that underlie innate social behaviours, are shaped by social experience.

In sexually and socially experienced adult males, divergent and characteristic neural ensembles represented male versus female conspecifics [members of the same species]. However, in inexperienced adult males, male and female intruders activated overlapping neuronal populations.

Sex-specific neuronal ensembles gradually separated as the mice acquired social and sexual experience. In mice permitted to investigate but not to mount or attack conspecifics, ensemble divergence did not occur. However, 30 minutes of sexual experience with a female was sufficient to promote the separation of male and female ensembles.

These observations uncover an unexpected social experience-dependent component to the formation of hypothalamic neural assemblies controlling innate social behaviours. More generally, they reveal plasticity and dynamic coding in an evolutionarily ancient deep subcortical structure that is traditionally viewed as a ‘hard-wired’ system.”

Hat tip to Neuroskeptic for both alerting me to the study and simplifying its overly-dense graphics.

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v550/n7676/full/nature23885.html “Social behaviour shapes hypothalamic neural ensemble representations of conspecific sex” (not freely available)

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Transgenerationally inherited epigenetic effects of fetal alcohol exposure

The fourth paper of Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance week was a 2016 German rodent study of transgenerational epigenetic effects of alcohol:

“We investigated 2 generations of offspring born to alcohol-treated mothers. Here, we show that memory impairment and reduced synthesis of acetylcholine occurs in both F1 (exposed to ethanol in utero) and F2 generation (never been exposed to ethanol). Effects in the F2 generation are most likely consequences of transgenerationally transmitted epigenetic modifications in stem cells induced by alcohol.

The results further suggest an epigenetic trait for an anticholinergic endophenotype associated with cognitive dysfunction which might be relevant to our understanding of mental impairment in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders.”

F0 generation mothers modeled human fetal alcohol syndrome. They were exposed to ethanol gradually up to 20%, then mated. The 20% ethanol intake level was maintained until the F1 generation pups were born, then gradually diminished to 0%. After a ten-day wait, an eight-week handling and shaping period started, followed by five weeks of behavioral testing.

The F1 children and F2 grandchildren started an eight-week handling and shaping period after young adulthood, followed by five weeks of behavioral testing. The F1 children were mated after behavioral testing.

The F0 parents showed no significant differences in working memory and reference memory compared with controls. Both the F1 children and F2 grandchildren were significantly impaired in the same tests compared with controls, with the F1 children performing worse than the F2 grandchildren. No sex-dependent differences were noted.

After behavioral impairments due to transgenerationally transmitted epigenetic modifications were established, the F2 grandchildren received treatments to ascertain the contribution of cholinergic dysfunction in their behavioral impairments. It was confirmed, as an acetylcholine esterase inhibitor that crosses the blood-brain barrier almost completely erased working-memory and reference-memory performance deficits.

Items in the Discussion section included:

  • A dozen studies from 2014-2016 were cited for epigenetic mechanisms of transgenerational inheritance stemming from parental alcohol consumption; and
  • Transgenerational inheritance of alcohol-induced neurodevelopmental deficits may involve epigenetic mechanisms that are resistant to developmental clearance.

As argued in Transgenerational effects of early environmental insults on aging and disease and A review of epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of reproductive disease, testing of F3 great-grandchildren born of F2 grandchild females was needed to control for the variable of direct F2 grandchild germ-line exposure.

http://www.neurobiologyofaging.org/article/S0197-4580(16)30303-7/pdf “Transgenerational transmission of an anticholinergic endophenotype with memory dysfunction” (not freely available)

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 caregiver’s 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)

Transgenerational effects of early environmental insults on aging and disease

The first paper of Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance week was a 2017 Canadian/Netherlands review that’s organized as follows:

“First, we address mechanisms of developmental and transgenerational programming of disease and inheritance. Second, we discuss experimental and clinical findings linking early environmental determinants to adverse aging trajectories in association with possible parental contributions and sex-specific effects. Third, we outline the main mechanisms of age-related functional decline and suggest potential interventions to reverse negative effects of transgenerational programming.”

A transgenerational phenotype was defined as an epigenetic modification that was maintained at least either to the F2 grandchildren in the paternal lineage or to the F3 great-grandchildren in the maternal lineage.

The reviewers noted that the mechanisms of transgenerational programming are complex and multivariate.  The severity, timing, and type of exposure, lineage of transmission, germ cell exposure, and gender of an organism were the main factors that may determine the consequences. The mechanisms reviewed were:

  1. Parental exposure to an adverse environment;
  2. Altered maternal behavior and care of the offspring; and
  3. Experience-dependent modifications of the epigenome.

There was a long list of diseases and impaired functionalities that were consequences of ancestral experiences and exposures. Most of the studies were animal, but a few were human, such as those done on effects of extended power outages during the Quebec ice storm of January 1998.


One intervention that was effective in reversing a transgenerational phenotype induced by deficient rodent maternal care was to place pups with a caring foster female soon after birth. It’s probably unacceptable in human societies to preemptively recognize all poor-care human mothers and remove the infant to caring foster mothers, but researchers could probably find enough instances to develop studies of the effectiveness of the placements in reversing a transgenerational phenotype.

The review didn’t have suggestions for reversing human transgenerational phenotypes, just  “..potential interventions to reverse negative effects of transgenerational programming.” The interventions suggested for humans – exercise, enriched lifestyle, cognitive training, dietary regimens, and expressive art and writing therapies – only reduced the impact of transgenerational epigenetic effects.

The tricky wording of “..reverse negative effects of transgenerational programming” showed that research paradigms weren’t aimed at resolving causes. The review is insufficient for the same reasons mentioned in How one person’s paradigms regarding stress and epigenetics impedes relevant research, prompting my same comment:

“Aren’t people interested in human treatments of originating causes so that their various symptoms don’t keep bubbling up? Why wouldn’t research paradigms be aligned accordingly?”

When reversals of human transgenerational phenotypes aren’t researched, the problems compound as they’re transmitted to the next generations.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014976341630714X “Transgenerational effects of early environmental insults on aging and disease incidence” (not freely available)

Does living near a forest keep your amygdala healthier?

A thought-provoking post from A Paper a Day Keeps the Scientist Okay entitled “Living Near a Forest Keeps Your Amygdala Healthier” referenced a 2017 German human study which found:

“..a relationship between place of residence and brain health: those city dwellers living close to a forest were more likely to show indications of a physiologically healthy amygdala structure and were therefore presumably better able to cope with stress.”

The researchers accomplished the imperative of meeting the study’s stated objective:

“We set out to identify and characterize the geographical elements of a city that are associated with these brain structures following a suggestion by Kennedy and Adolph that studies should begin to derive recommendations for urban planning and architecture.

The results of our study may suggest that forests in and around the cities are a valuable resource that should be promoted. However future longitudinal studies are needed to investigate the causal directionality of the effect in order to disentangle whether more forest in ones habitat facilitates brain structural integrity or potentially those people with better brain structural integrity choose to live closer to forests. Moreover we need to investigate whether living close to the forest is associated with an absence of risk factors such as noise, air pollution or stress and thereby has beneficial effects or whether the forest itself constitutes a salutary factor that promotes well-being.”


A major limitation of the study’s methodology that wasn’t noted by the researchers was the intentional non-use of an available data source. Referring to Do we need to study the brain to understand the mind? posted earlier this week:

“..self-report is still the gold standard for assessing emotional experience and the contents of thought..isn’t it easier just to ask?”

The researchers put the forest before the trees, and designed a study that didn’t ask the subjects important questions such as why they lived where they lived. The researchers inferred sketchy fMRI-geography associations because they didn’t solicit relevant primary information via individual self-reports.


I imagined myself as one of the study’s subjects. I don’t live in Berlin, and I’m not part of the selected cohort, but I otherwise generally meet the study’s subject parameters.

Something in my past causes me to actively select housing that isn’t in a noisy environment. If I were asked why I lived where I lived, my answer would have included:

  • A deciding factor in why I sold my second house was the traffic noise in wintertime;
  • A deciding factor in why I bought my fourth house was its location in the center of the housing development, away from street noise; and
  • A deciding factor in why I live where I now live is the house’s orientation away from both direct and reflective traffic noise sources.

Processing my hypothetical fMRI data with my self-reported historical housing choices may or may not have found:

“..geographical features in the proximal participants’ habitat are associated with brain integrity..”

Using the better-quality information of self-reports, though, it’s unlikely that an association this study would have found to be significant – the chance fact that I live within one kilometer of a forest – would have been deemed significant.

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-12046-7 “In search of features that constitute an “enriched environment” in humans: Associations between geographical properties and brain structure”

Do we need to study the brain to understand the mind?

A coauthor of the studies referenced in:

offered an opinion piece in A Paper a Day Keeps the Scientist Okay entitled “Do We Need To Study The Brain To Understand The Mind?”:

“The emerging consensus appears to be that implementation is important. Interestingly, the inverse question is also being asked by neurobiologists—do we need consider the mind to understand the brain?—and answered largely and increasingly in the affirmative.

Is pain different from negative emotions such as sadness and anger, or are they variants on a common theme?..pain appears to be distinct from negative emotion, but commonalities suggest ways in which they may share underlying processes such as heightened attention.

One of the biggest pitfalls is the temptation to observe brain activity and make inferences about the psychological state—for example, to infer episodic memory retrieval from hippocampal activity, fear from amygdala activity, or visual processing from activity in the ‘visual cortex.’ These inferences ignore the scope of processes which may activate each of these areas and involve a fallacy in reasoning: “if memory then hippocampus” is not the same thing as “if hippocampus then memory.”

The fact that few brain areas, including the ‘visual cortex,’ are dedicated to one process means that self-report is still the gold standard for assessing emotional experience and the contents of thought. This is a serious challenge for those who would like, for example, to assess your brand preferences or your political affiliation from a brain scan. (And isn’t it easier just to ask?)”

Epigenetic effects of early life stress exposure

This 2017 Netherlands review subject was the lasting epigenetic effects of early-life stress:

“Exposure to stress during critical periods in development can have severe long-term consequences..One of the key stress response systems mediating these long-term effects of stress is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis..early life stress (ELS) exposure has been reported to have numerous consequences on HPA-axis function in adulthood.

ELS is able to “imprint” or “program” an organism’s neuroendocrine, neural and behavioral responses to stress..research focuses along two complementary lines.

Firstly, ELS during critical stages in brain maturation may disrupt specific developmental processes (by altered neurotransmitter exposure, gene transcription, or neuronal differentiation), leading to aberrant neural circuit function throughout life..

Secondly, ELS may induce modifications of the epigenome which lastingly affect brain function..These epigenetic modifications are inducible, stable, and yet reversible, constituting an important emerging mechanism by which transient environmental stimuli can induce persistent changes in gene expression and ultimately behavior.”

In early life, the lower brain and limbic system brain structures are more developed and dominant, whereas the cerebrum and other brain structures are less developed (use the above rodent graphic as a rough guide). Stress and pain generally have a greater impact on the fetus than the infant, and on the infant than the adult.


The reviewers cited 50+ studies from years 2000-2015 in the “Early Life Stress Effects in a “Matching” Stressful Adult Environment” section to argue for the match/mismatch theory:

“Encountering ELS prepares an organism for similar (“matching”) adversities during adulthood, while a mismatching environment results in an increased susceptibility to psychopathology, indicating that ELS can exert either beneficial or disadvantageous effects depending on the environmental context.

Initial evidence for HPA-axis hypo-reactivity is observed for early social deprivation, potentially reflecting the abnormal HPA-axis function as observed in post-traumatic stress disorder.

Interestingly, experiencing additional (chronic) stress in adulthood seems to normalize these alterations in HPA-axis function, supporting the match/mismatch theory.”

Evidence for this theory was contrasted with the allostatic load theory presented in, for example, How one person’s paradigms regarding stress and epigenetics impedes relevant research.


The review mainly cited evidence from rodent studies that mismatched reactions in adulthood may be consequences of early-life events. These events:

“..imprint or program an organism’s neuroendocrine, neural and behavioral responses..leading to aberrant neural circuit function throughout life..which lastingly affect brain function..”

Taking this research to a personal level:

  • Have you had feelings that you were unsafe, although your environment was objectively safe?
  • Have you felt uneasy when people are nice to you?
  • Have you felt anxious when someone pays attention to you, even after you’ve acted to gain their attention?

I assert that mismatched human feelings are one form of mismatched reactions. As such, they may be interpreted as consequences of early-life experiences, and indicators of personal truths.

If researchers can let go of their biases and Advance science by including emotion in research, they may find that human subjects’ feelings produce better evidence for what actually happened during the subjects’ early lives than do standard scientific methods of:

Incorporating this evidence may bring researchers closer to backwardly predicting the major insults to an individual that knocked their development processes out of normally robust pathways and/or induced “persistent changes in gene expression and ultimately behavior.”

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fncel.2017.00087/full “Modulation of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis by Early Life Stress Exposure”


I discovered this review as a result of it being cited in http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1084952117302884 “Long-term effects of early environment on the brain: Lesson from rodent models” (not freely available)