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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An hour of the epigenetic clock

This 2018 presentation by the founder of the epigenetic clock method described the state of the art up through July 2018. The webinar was given on the release day of The epigenetic clock now includes skin study.


Segments before the half-hour mark provide an introduction to the method and several details about the concurrently-released study. The Q&A section starts a little before the hour mark.

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”

Fear of feeling?

Here’s a 2018 article from two researchers involved in the Dunedin (New Zealand) Longitudinal Study. They coauthored many studies, including People had the same personalities at age 26 that they had at age 3.

The paper’s grand hypothesis was:

“A single dimension is able to measure a person’s liability to mental disorder, comorbidity among disorders, persistence of disorders over time, and severity of symptoms.”

The coauthors partially based this on:

“Repeated diagnostic interviews carried out over 25 years, when the research participants were 11, 13, 15, 18, 21, 26, 32, and 38 years old, and include information about seven diagnostic groups: anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, substance dependence, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.”


https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.ajp.2018.17121383 “All for One and One for All: Mental Disorders in One Dimension” (not freely available)


More about the coauthors:

Two psychologists followed 1000 New Zealanders for decades. Here’s what they found about how childhood shapes later life

“Dunedin and other studies show that most people have at least one episode of mental illness during their lifetime.”


What compels people to manufacture “universal truths” instead of feeling and understanding historical, factual, personal truths? Are we afraid of our feelings?

What if the grand hypothesis worth proving was: For one’s life to have meaning, each individual has to regain their feelings?

Adverse epigenetic effects of prenatal and perinatal anesthesia

This 2018 Chinese animal review subject was prenatal and perinatal anesthesia’s adverse epigenetic effects on a fetus/neonate:

“Accumulating evidence from rodent and primate studies has demonstrated that in utero or neonatal exposure to commonly used inhaled and intravenous general anesthetics is associated with neural degeneration and subsequent neurocognitive impairments, manifested in learning and memory disabilities.

So far, conflicting data exist about the effect of anesthetic agents on neurodevelopment in humans and no definite conclusion has been given yet.”

The inhibitors in the above graphic counter anesthesia’s effects on the fetus/neonate, summarized as:

“Epigenetic targeting of DNA methyltransferases and/or histone deacetylases may have some therapeutic value.”


Are there any physicians who take into consideration possible epigenetic alterations of a newborn’s chromatin structure and gene expression when they administer anesthesia to a human mother during childbirth?

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6079265/ “Epigenetic Alterations in Anesthesia-Induced Neurotoxicity in the Developing Brain”

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)

Hidden hypotheses of epigenetic studies

This 2018 UK review discussed three pre-existing conditions of epigenetic genome-wide association studies:

“Genome-wide technology has facilitated epigenome-wide association studies (EWAS), permitting ‘hypothesis-free’ examinations in relation to adversity and/or mental health problems. Results of EWAS are in fact conditional on several a priori hypotheses:

  1. EWAS coverage is sufficient for complex psychiatric problems;
  2. Peripheral tissue is meaningful for mental health problems; and
  3. The assumption that biology can be informative to the phenotype.

1. CpG sites were chosen as potentially biologically informative based on consultation with a consortium of DNA methylation experts. Selection was, in part, based on data from a number of phenotypes (some medical in nature such as cancer), and thus is not specifically targeted to brain-based, stress-related complex mental health phenotypes.

2. The assumption is often that distinct peripheral tissues are interchangeable and equally suited for biomarker detection, when in fact it is highly probable that peripheral tissues themselves correspond differently to environmental adversity and/or disease state.

3. Analyses result in general statements such as ‘neurodevelopment’ or the ‘immune system’ being involved in the aetiology of a given phenotype. Whether these broad categories play indeed a substantial role in the aetiology of the mental health problem is often hard to determine given the post hoc nature of the interpretation.”


The reviewers mentioned in item #2 the statistical flaw of assuming that measured entities are interchangeable with one another. They didn’t mention that the problem also affected item #1 methodologies of averaging CpG methylation measurements in fixed genomic bins or over defined genomic regions, as discussed in:

The reviewers offered suggestions for reducing the impacts of these three hypotheses. But will doing more of the same, only better, advance science?

Was it too much to ask of researchers whose paychecks and reputations depended on a framework’s paradigm – such as the “biomarker” mentioned a dozen and a half times – to admit the uselessness of gathering data when the framework in which the data operated wasn’t viable? They already knew or should have known this.

Changing an individual’s future behavior even before they’re born provided one example of what the GWAS/EWAS framework missed:

“When phenotypic variation results from alleles that modify phenotypic variance rather than the mean, this link between genotype and phenotype will not be detected.”

DNA methylation and childhood adversity concluded that:

“Blood-based EWAS may yield limited information relating to underlying pathological processes for disorders where brain is the primary tissue of interest.”

The truth about complex traits and GWAS added another example of how this framework and many of its paradigms haven’t produced effective explanations of “the aetiology of the mental health problem”

“The most investigated candidate gene hypotheses of schizophrenia are not well supported by genome-wide association studies, and it is likely that this will be the case for other complex traits as well.”

Researchers need to reevaluate their framework if they want to make a difference in their fields. Recasting GWAS as EWAS won’t make it more effective.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352250X18300940 “Hidden hypotheses in ‘hypothesis-free’ genome-wide epigenetic associations”