Epigenetics account for two-thirds of Alzheimer’s disease

The genetics percentage from a 2017 summary of Alzheimer’s disease research caught my eye:

“Although numerous single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) have now been robustly associated with AD via genome-wide association studies and subsequent meta-analyses, collectively these common SNPs are believed to only account for 33% of attributable risk and the mechanism behind their action remains largely unknown.”

This citation aligned with other studies’ findings per Using twins to estimate the extent of epigenetic effects that on cellular levels, our experiences account for two-thirds of who we are.


The promise of this category of epigenetics research?

“One of the most exciting aspects of identifying disease-associated epigenomic dysfunction is that these mechanisms are potentially reversible.”

Let’s make research on reversing epigenetic changes a priority for funding, and get studies underway here in 2017!

https://www.epigenomicsnet.com/users/27784-katie-lunnon/posts/14634-robust-evidence-for-dna-methylomic-variation-in-alzheimer-s-disease “Robust evidence for DNA methylomic variation in Alzheimer’s disease” (Registration required)

The hypothalamus couples with the brainstem to cause migraines

This 2016 German human study with one subject found:

“The hypothalamus to be the primary generator of migraine attacks which, due to specific interactions with specific areas in the higher and lower brainstem, could alter the activity levels of the key regions of migraine pathophysiology.”

The subject underwent daily fMRI scans, and procedures to evoke brain activity. She didn’t take any medications, and suffered three migraine attacks during the 31-day experimental period.

Neuroskeptic commented:

“The dorsal pons has previously been found to be hyperactive during migraine. It’s been dubbed the brain’s ‘migraine generator.’ Schulte and May’s data suggest that this is not entirely true – rather, it looks like the hypothalamus may be the true generator of migraine, while the brainstem could be a downstream mediator of the disorder.

A hypothalamic origin of migraines would help to explain some of the symptoms of the disorder, such as changes in appetite, that often accompany the headaches.”


The above graphic looks like the result of feedback mechanisms that either didn’t exist or inadequately handled the triggering event. Other examples of the hypothalamus lacking feedback or being involved in a deviated feedback loop include:

There are many unanswered questions with a one-person study, of course. Addressing the cause of this painful condition would find out when, where, and how a person’s hypothalamus became modified to express migraine tendencies.

I’d guess that migraine tendencies may appear as early as the first trimester of pregnancy, given that a highly functional hypothalamus is needed for survival and development in our earliest lives. Gaining as much familial and historical information as possible from the person would be necessary steps in therapies that address migraine causes.

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/2016/05/22/pinpointing-origins-of-migraine/ “Pinpointing the Origins of Migraine in the Brain”

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 [first generation] females and in which the proinflammatory state is acquired by F1 males from their H mothers, and then by F2 [second generation] 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.”


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. My criticisms below relate to my expectations of what the researchers could have done versus what they did.

The researchers studied parental transmission of behavioral traits and epigenetic changes. Their 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’ parental environments. So we didn’t find out, for example:

  • What effects the anxious F1 males’ behaviors may have had on their offsprings’ behaviors and epigenetic changes
  • Whether the anxious, hypoactive, overly stress-reactive, hypothermic F2 males’ behaviors affected their offsprings’ behaviors and epigenetic changes
  • To what extents the overly stress-reactive F1 mothers’ prenatal environments and postnatal behaviors induced behaviors and/or epigenetic changes in their children, and whether the F2 children’s parental behaviors subsequently induced behaviors and/or epigenetic changes in the F3 generation.

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 few of us experienced a prenatal environment other than our biological mothers.
  3. 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 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.

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

Why drugs aren’t ultimately therapeutic

This 2016 Oregon review’s concept was the inadequacy of drug-based therapies, explored with the specific subject of epilepsy:

“Currently used antiepileptic drugs:

  • [aren’t] effective in over 30% of patients
  • [don’t] affect the comorbidities of epilepsy
  • [don’t] prevent the development and progression of epilepsy (epileptogenesis).

Prevention of epilepsy and its progression [requires] novel conceptual advances.”

The overall concept that current drug-based therapies poorly address evolutionary biological realities was illustrated by a pyramid, with the comment that:

“If the basis of the pyramid depicted in Figure 1 is overlooked, it becomes obvious that a traditional pharmacological top-down treatment approach has limitations.”

Why drug ultimately aren't therapeutic


I would have liked the reviewer to further address the “therapeutic reconstruction of the epigenome” point he made in the Abstract:

“New findings based on biochemical manipulation of the DNA methylome suggest that:

  1. Epigenetic mechanisms play a functional role in epileptogenesis; and
  2. Therapeutic reconstruction of the epigenome is an effective antiepileptogenic therapy.”

As it was, the reviewer lapsed into the prevalent belief that the causes of and cures for human diseases will always be found on the molecular level – for example, the base of the above pyramid – and never in human experiences. This preconception leads to discounting human elements – notably absent in the above pyramid – that generate epigenetic changes.

A consequence of ignoring experiential causes of diseases is that the potential of experiential therapies to effect “therapeutic reconstruction of the epigenome” isn’t investigated.

http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnmol.2016.00026/full “The Biochemistry and Epigenetics of Epilepsy: Focus on Adenosine and Glycine”

Using salivary microRNA to diagnose autism

This 2016 New York human study found:

“Measurement of salivary miRNA in this pilot study of subjects with mild ASD [autism spectrum disorder] demonstrated differential expression of 14 miRNAs that are:

  • expressed in the developing brain,
  • impact mRNAs related to brain development, and
  • correlate with neurodevelopmental measures of adaptive behavior.”

Some problems with current diagnostic methods for autism are:

“The first sign of ASD commonly recognized by pediatricians is a deficit in communication and language that does not manifest until 18–24 months of age.

The mean age of diagnosis for children with ASD is 3 years, and approximately half of these are false-positives.

Despite a substantial genetic component, no single gene variant accounts for >1 % of ASD incidence.

Nearly 2000 individual genes have been implicated in ASD, but none are specific to the disorder.”

Study limitations included:

“Aside from the sample size and cross-sectional nature of this pilot study, another limitation is the age of ASD and control subjects it describes (4–14 years) which are not representative of the target population in which ASD biomarkers would ideally be utilized (0–2 years). However, selecting a homogenous group of subjects with mild ASD (as measured by ADOS) that was well-established and diagnosed by a developmental specialist requires subjects with long-standing diagnoses.”


Regarding other later-life consequences of disrupted neurodevelopment, an understanding of these processes is critical for tracing symptoms back to their causes, as noted in Grokking an Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) score.

I wonder how long it will take for researchers in other fields to stop wasting resources and do what this study did: focus on epigenetic biomarkers that have developmental origins.

http://bmcpediatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12887-016-0586-x “Salivary miRNA profiles identify children with autism spectrum disorder, correlate with adaptive behavior, and implicate ASD candidate genes involved in neurodevelopment”

Contending with epigenetic consequences of violence to women

This 2016 UK review subject was the interplay of genomic imprinting and intergenerational epigenetic information transfer:

“A range of evolutionary adaptations associated with placentation transfers disproportionate control of this process to the matriline, a period unique in mammalian development in that there are three matrilineal genomes interacting in the same organism at the same time (maternal, foetal, and postmeiotic oocytes).

Genomic imprinting is absent in egg laying mammals and only around 6 imprinted genes have been detected in a range of marsupial species; this is in contrast to eutherian mammals where around 150 imprinted genes have been described.

The interactions between the maternal and developing foetal hypothalamus and placenta can provide a template by which a mother can transmit potentially adaptive information concerning potential future environmental conditions to the developing brain.

In circumstances either where the early environment provides inaccurate cues to the environmental conditions prevailing when adult due to rapid environmental change or when disruptions to normal neural development occur, the mismatch between the environmental predictions made during early development and subsequent reality may mean that an organism may have a poorly adapted phenotype to its adult environment. An appreciation of these underlying evolutionary salient processes may provide a novel perspective on the casual [causal] mechanisms of a range of health problems.

The concept of a brain that is not pathological in the classical sense but it is simply mismatched to its environment has been most extensively studied in the context of ancestral and early developmental nutrition. However, this concept can be extended to provide insights into the development of a range of alternative neural phenotypes.”

The review’s final sentence was:

“Examination of the adaptive potential of a range of neural and cognitive deficits in the context of evolutionary derived foetocentric brain and placental development, epigenetics and environmental adaptation may provide novel insights into the development and potential treatment of a range of health, neurological, and cognitive disorders.”

One of the reviewers was cited in Epigenetic DNA methylation and demethylation with the developing fetus, which the review cited along with Epigenetic changes in the developing brain change behavior.


Researchers who avoid hypotheses that can’t be proven wrong could certainly test the subject matter of this review if they investigated their subjects’ histories.

For example, let’s say a patient/subject had symptoms where the “150 imprinted genes” were implicated. What are the chances a clinician or researcher would be informed by this review’s material and investigate the mother’s and grandmother’s histories?

For clinicians or researchers who view histories as irrelevant busywork: how many tens of millions of people alive today have mothers who were fetuses when their grandmothers were adversely affected by violence? Wouldn’t it be appropriate to assess possible historical contributions of:

“The mismatch between the environmental predictions made during early development and subsequent reality”

to the patient’s/subject’s current symptoms?

http://www.hindawi.com/journals/np/2016/6827135/ “Placental, Matrilineal, and Epigenetic Mechanisms Promoting Environmentally Adaptive Development of the Mammalian Brain”

A one-sided review of stress

The subject of this 2016 Italian/New York review was the stress response:

“The stress response, involving the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis and the consequent release of corticosteroid hormones, is indeed aimed at promoting metabolic, functional, and behavioral adaptations. However, behavioral stress is also associated with fast and long-lasting neurochemical, structural, and behavioral changes, leading to long-term remodeling of glutamate transmission, and increased susceptibility to neuropsychiatric disorders. Of note, early-life events, both in utero and during the early postnatal life, trigger reprogramming of the stress response, which is often associated with loss of stress resilience and ensuing neurobehavioral (mal)adaptations.”


A key point in the review was the intentional dismissal of the role of GABA in favor of the role of glutamate:

“The changes in neuronal excitability and synaptic plasticity induced by stress are the result of an imbalance of excitatory (glutamatergic) and inhibitory (GABAergic) transmission, leading to long-lasting (mal)adaptive functional modifications. Although both glutamate and GABA transmission are critically associated with stress-induced alteration of neuronal excitability, the present review will focus on the modulation of glutamate release and transmission induced by stress and glucocorticoids.”

No particular reason was given for this bias. I inferred from the review’s final sentence that the review’s sponsors and funding prompted this decision:

“In-depth studies of changes in glutamate transmission and dendrite remodeling induced by stress in early and late life will help to elucidate the biological underpinnings of the (mal)adaptive strategies the brain adopts to cope with environmental challenges in one’s life.”

The bias led to ignoring evidence for areas the reviewers posed as needing further research. An example of relevant research the reviewers failed to consider was the 2015 Northwestern University study I curated in A study that provided evidence for basic principles of Primal Therapy that found:

“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.”

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4812483/ “Stress Response and Perinatal Reprogramming: Unraveling (Mal)adaptive Strategies”