Epigenetics and addiction

Dr. Moshe Szyf of McGill University explains current rodent epigenetic research into addiction in this October 2016 interview.

“What happens during the time when there’s no drug [cocaine] exposure, there’s just the memory of the original drug exposure? And we found huge epigenetics changes during this time, the time of abstinence.

It actually suggests that abstinence cannot cure addiction. It might even aggravate it.

We found out that timing is very important. Pairing the drug [a DNA methylation inhibitor] administration with the cue was critical with reversing the epigenetic effects and the behavioral effects.

Epigenetic treatment should theoretically reprogram the animal to forget or erase the epigenetic consequences of the initial exposure. And therefore the animal should be protected from addiction for a long time if indeed we found what we thought we did with epigenetic reprogramming.”

https://www.epigenomicsnet.com/users/3002-georgia-patey/videos/13003-video2

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 [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”

Does childhood trauma influence offspring’s birth characteristics?

This 2016 Swedish human study investigated the effects of one specific childhood trauma, parental death:

“Parental (G1) death during (G2) childhood predicts prematurity and lower birthweight in the offspring generation (G3). This response is dependent on G2 gender, G2 age at exposure and G3 parity, but not on G3 gender.

Offspring of women who lost their parent at the age of 0-2 or at the age of 13-17 had an increased risk for prematurity.

Offspring of men who lost a parent at ages 8-12 had an increased risk of prematurity.

For women exposed to a parent’s death at age 0-2, there was no significant deficit in their offspring’s birthweight in any parity class. For women exposed at later ages we observed a deficit in birthweight.

Among children whose fathers experienced parental loss..experiencing parental death at ages 8-12 in particular, or at ages 13-17, but not at ages 0-2 or 3-7, did predict having lighter offspring.”


The study design was unable to produce causal evidence for the putative intergenerational effects. An example of the limitations was:

“We had no information about behaviours and biological markers or genes.”

Its findings were best summarized as:

“Our study fails to refute the hypothesis that a male-line epigenetic mechanism exists which may be triggered by trauma during boys’ slow growth period.”

Still, the study had a firmer foundation than did A problematic study of oxytocin receptor gene methylation, childhood abuse, and psychiatric symptoms, which speciously produced politically-correct results from childhood trauma surveys of adults.

http://ije.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2016/05/03/ije.dyw048.full “Does childhood trauma influence offspring’s birth characteristics?”

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”

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.”


The reviewers’ intentional dismissal of the role of GABA in favor of the role of glutamate was a key point:

“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”

The current paradigm of child abuse limits pre-childhood causal research

As an adult, what would be your primary concern if you suspected that your early life had something to do with current problems? Would you be interested in effective treatments of causes of your symptoms?

Such information wasn’t available in this 2016 Miami review of the effects of child abuse. The review laid out the current paradigm mentioned in Grokking an Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) score, one that limits research into pre-childhood causes for later-life symptoms.


The review’s goal was to describe:

“How numerous clinical and basic studies have contributed to establish the now widely accepted idea that adverse early life experiences can elicit profound effects on the development and function of the nervous system.”

The hidden assumption of almost all of the cited references was that these distant causes can no longer be addressed. Aren’t such assumptions testable here in 2016?

As an example, the Discussion section posed the top nine “most pressing unanswered questions related to the neurobiological effects of early life trauma.” In line with the current paradigm, the reviewer assigned “Are the biological consequences of ELS [early life stress] reversible?” into the sixth position.

If the current paradigm encouraged research into treatment of causes, there would probably already be plenty of evidence to demonstrate that directly reducing the source of the damage would also reverse the damaging effects. There would have been enough studies done so that the generalized question of reversibility wouldn’t be asked.

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?


The review also demonstrated how the current paradigm of child abuse misrepresents items like telomere length and oxytocin. Researchers on the bandwagon tend to forget about the principle Einstein expressed as:

“No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”

That single experiment for telomere length arrived in 2016 with Using an epigenetic clock to distinguish cellular aging from senescence. The seven references the review cited for telomere length that had “is associated with” or “is linked to” child abuse findings should now be viewed in a different light.

The same light shone on oxytocin with Testing the null hypothesis of oxytocin’s effects in humans and Oxytocin research null findings come out of the file drawer. See their references, and decide for yourself whether or not:

“Claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.”

http://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273%2816%2900020-9 “Paradise Lost: The Neurobiological and Clinical Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect”