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 was 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/under emphasize study limitations; and
  • Disregard and misrepresent evidence as they see fit.

Fair or not, 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 a 1993 review could have elucidated items 26 years later in 2019.

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, it was the other coauthors’ responsibilities to edit out unnecessary citations.

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnmol.2019.00089/full “Perinatal Stress Programs Sex Differences in the Behavioral and Molecular Chronobiological Profile of Rats Maintained Under a 12-h Light-Dark Cycle”

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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?

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-46539-4 “Pharmacological manipulation of DNA methylation normalizes maternal behavior, DNA methylation, and gene expression in dams with a history of maltreatment”

Infant DNA methylation and caregiving

This 2019 US human study attempted to replicate findings of animal studies that associated caregiver behavior with infant DNA methylation of the glucocorticoid receptor gene:

“Greater levels of maternal responsiveness and appropriate touch were related to less DNA methylation of specific regions in NR3c1 exon 1F, but only for females. There was no association with maternal responsiveness and appropriate touch or DNA methylation of NR3c1 exon 1F on prestress cortisol or cortisol reactivity. Our results are discussed in relation to programming models that implicate maternal care as an important factor in programing infant stress reactivity.”


The study had many undisclosed and a few disclosed limitations, one of which was:

“Our free-play session, while consistent with the length of free-play sessions in other studies, was short (5 min). It is unclear whether a longer length of time would have yielded significant different maternal responsiveness and appropriate touch data.”

The final sentence showed the study’s purpose was other than discovering factual evidence:

“Following replication of this work, it could ultimately be used in conjunction with early intervention, or home-visiting programs, to measure the strength of the intervention effect at the epigenetic level.”

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/imhj.21789 “DNA methylation of NR3c1 in infancy: Associations between maternal caregiving and infant sex” (not freely available)

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.”

https://www.aging-us.com/article/101976/text “Rapamycin retards epigenetic ageing of keratinocytes independently of its effects on replicative senescence, proliferation and differentiation”

Another important transgenerational epigenetic inheritance study

This 2019 Washington State University rodent study from Dr. Michael Skinner’s lab found:

“A cascade of epigenetic alterations initiated in the PGCs [primordial germ cells] appears to be required to alter the epigenetic programming during spermatogenesis to modify the sperm epigenome involved in the transgenerational epigenetic inheritance phenomenon.

Following fertilization there is a DNA methylation erasure to generate the stem cells in the early embryo, which then remethylate in a cell type-specific manner. The DNA methylation erasure is thought to, in part, reset deleterious epigenetics in the germline. However, imprinted gene DNA methylation sites and induced transgenerational epimutations appear to be protected from this DNA methylation erasure.

A germline with an altered epigenome has the capacity to alter the early embryo’s stem cell’s epigenome and transcriptome that can subsequently impact the epigenomes and transcriptomes of all derived somatic cells. Therefore, an altered sperm epigenome has the capacity to transmit phenotypes transgenerationally. Experiments have demonstrated that epigenetic inheritance can also be transmitted through the female germline.

Previously, the agricultural fungicide vinclozolin was found to promote the transgenerational inheritance of sperm differential DNA methylation regions (DMRs) termed epimutations that help mediate this epigenetic inheritance. The current study was designed to investigate the developmental origins of the transgenerational DMRs during gametogenesis.

The current study with vinclozolin-induced transgenerational inheritance demonstrates that sperm DMRs also originate during both spermatogenesis and earlier stages of germline development, but at distinct developmental stages. This is a genome-wide analysis of epigenetic programming during gametogenesis for transgenerational sperm epimutations.”


The study’s main hypotheses were:

Following fertilization, the hypothesis is that the transgenerational epimutations modify early embryonic transcriptomes and epigenomes to re-establish the cascade for the next generation.

As the individual develops, all somatic cells have altered epigenomes and transcriptomes to promote disease susceptibility later in life.

Researchers: adopt these hypotheses, and don’t limit your study designs to the F1 children as did:

Don’t stop at the F2 grandchildren like:

Continue studies on to F3 descendants who had no direct exposure to the altering stimulus. Keep in the forefront of your research proposals that there are probably more than 10,000,000 F3 great-grandchildren of DES-exposed women just in the US.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/15592294.2019.1614417?needAccess=true “Transgenerational sperm DNA methylation epimutation developmental origins following ancestral vinclozolin exposure”

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 yet 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)

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.