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)

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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 graphic as a rough guide). Stress and pain generally have a greater impact on the fetus, then the infant, and then 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 cites 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)

A study of perinatal malnutrition where the paradigm excluded epigenetic inheritance

This 2017 New York/Swedish rodent study subject was the epigenetic effects on the F1 children of maternal low protein diet during pregnancy and lactation:

“Male, but not female, offspring of LPD [low protein diet] mothers consistently displayed anxiety- and depression-like behaviors under acute stress.

Our proposed pathway connecting early malnutrition, sex-independent regulatory changes in Egr1 [an Early growth response gene], and sex-specific epigenetic reprogramming of its effector gene, Npy1r [neuropeptide Y receptor Y1 gene], represents the first molecular evidence of how early life risk factors may generate sex-specific epigenetic effects relevant for mental disorders.”


The study was purposely incomplete regarding transgenerational epigenetic effects that may be transmitted from the F1 children to their F2 grandchildren and F3 great-grandchildren. Similar to How one person’s paradigms regarding stress and epigenetics impedes relevant research, the paradigm continued by one of this study’s coauthors restricted inquiry into epigenetic inheritance.

How can the other coauthors respond when a controller of funding publishes the paper referenced in What is epigenetic inheritance? and otherwise makes his narrow views regarding epigenetic inheritance well-known? If the controller’s restricted views won’t allow the funding scope to extend testing to study F2 grandchildren and F3 great-grandchildren, the experiments end, and our understanding of epigenetic inheritance isn’t advanced.

This purposely incomplete study showed that the coauthor only gave lip service to advancing science when he made statements like:

“Further work is needed to understand whether and to what extent true epigenetic inheritance of stress vulnerability adds to the well-established and powerful influence of genetics and environmental exposures.”

The papers of Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance week show the spectrum of opportunities to advance science that were intentionally missed.

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-10803-2 “Perinatal Malnutrition Leads to Sexually Dimorphic Behavioral Responses with Associated Epigenetic Changes in the Mouse Brain”

Prisoners of our childhoods

Same old shit – another failed relationship.

Coincident with the start of our relationship, I was struck by a phrase by Dr. Janov, posted in Beyond Belief: What we do instead of getting well:

“It doesn’t matter about the facts we know..if we cannot maintain a relationship with someone else.”

I kept that thought in the forefront.

Both of us are prisoners of our childhoods. I’ve tried to see and feel the walls and bars for what they are.

J hadn’t tried to process the reality of her childhood and life. For example, on her birthday, June 19, I asked her how she celebrated her birthdays when she was growing up. She provided a few details, then mentioned that her parents had skipped some of her birthdays. Although I had no immediate reaction, she quickly said that she had a happy childhood.

I was at fault, too, of course. I again asked a woman to marry me who hadn’t ever told me she loved me, except in jest.

I asked J to marry me around the six-month point of our relationship. I felt wonderful, in love with her that August morning after she slept with me at my house. I made an impromptu plan: in the middle of a four-mile walk, I asked her to marry me while kneeling before her as she sat on a bench outside a jewelry store. But she wouldn’t go in to choose a ring. She said she’d think about it.

A month later, after several dates, sleepovers at her house, and a four-day trip to Montreal, I again brought up marriage while we rested on her large couch in her nice sun room. The thing I felt would be wonderful brought about the end.

I tried to understand why she couldn’t accept me for the person who I intentionally showed her I am. She abstracted everything that she said. I tried to get her to identify why, after all the times we cared for each other, after all our shared experiences, she didn’t want me around anymore.

Didn’t happen. She didn’t tell me things that made sense as answers to my questions.

One thing she said without abstraction was that I was weak for showing my feelings. She told me I was clingy.

Another thing she communicated at the end shocked me. She somehow thought that I was going to dump her. I said that the thought never even crossed my mind.

I didn’t recognize it as projection at the time. Prompted by her underlying feelings, she attributed to me the actions and thoughts that only she herself had.


One thing I’ve felt after the end was that the need underlying my only stated relationship goal – to live with a woman I love who also loves me – is again ruining my life. My latest efforts towards that goal were rife with unconscious symbolic act outs of an unsatisfied need from my early life.

That unrelenting need is for a woman’s love, but it’s deviated in that somehow she’s always one who doesn’t accept me as I am, and doesn’t love me. My cell is what Dr. Janov calls the imprint that I – as an infant, boy, teenager, young man, middle-aged man, old man – retreat to after my futile attempts to change the past.

I’ve tried to put myself in J’s place. How horrible must it have been for her to be steadily intimate with a man and not feel that his touches, kisses, words, affection, expressed love? That he couldn’t really love me, and I therefore couldn’t love him? That he was actually after something else: sex, property, etc., because it was impossible that he loved me?

“Standing next to me in this lonely crowd
Is a man who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him shout so loud
Crying out that he was framed
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released”

Parental lying thwarted both their children and researchers

This 2017 German human study explored the relationship between birth stress and handedness. The authors summarized previous research which, among other points, estimated epigenetic contributions to handedness as great as 75%.

The study hit a snag in its reliance on the sixty participants (average age 24) completing, with the assistance of their parents and medical records, a 24-item questionnaire of maternal health problems during pregnancy, substance use during pregnancy, and birth complications. The subjects didn’t provide accurate information. For example:

  • Only one of the subjects reported maternal alcohol use during pregnancy. An expected number would have been 26.
  • None of the subjects reported maternal mental illness during pregnancy. An expected number would have been at least 7.

The subjects’ parents willingly misled their children about facts of their child’s important earliest development periods. This is unethical to the children in that once it is recognized, it diminishes or destroys the society among family members. This study’s example is also of general interest to anyone who values not being lied to, like me.

As I mentioned on the Welcome page, lies and omissions ruin the standard scientific methodology of surveying parents and caregivers. The absence of evidence greatly increased the difficulty for researchers in determining causes of epigenetic effects still present in the subjects’ lives.

The parental lying is again unethical in that it diminished or destroyed the society between the sources of information – the research subjects – and the users of the information. It adversely affected anyone who values evidence-based research. The research hypothesis itself was worthwhile based on the prior studies cited and elsewhere such as Is what’s true for a population what’s true for an individual?.

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1357650X.2017.1377726 “DNA methylation in candidate genes for handedness predicts handedness direction” (not freely available)

How one person’s paradigms regarding stress and epigenetics impedes relevant research

This 2017 review laid out the tired, old, restrictive guidelines by which current US research on the epigenetic effects of stress is funded. The reviewer rehashed paradigms circumscribed by his authoritative position in guiding funding, and called for more government funding to support and extend his reach.

The reviewer won’t change his beliefs regarding individual differences and allostatic load since he helped to start those memes. US researchers with study ideas to develop evidence beyond such memes may have difficulties finding funding.

Here’s one example of the reviewer’s restrictive views taken from the Conclusion section:

Adverse experiences and environments cause problems over the life course in which there is no such thing as “reversibility” (i.e., “rolling the clock back”) but rather a change in trajectory [10] in keeping with the original definition of epigenetics [132] as the emergence of characteristics not previously evident or even predictable from an earlier developmental stage. By the same token, we mean “redirection” instead of “reversibility”—in that changes in the social and physical environment on both a societal and a personal level can alter a negative trajectory in a more positive direction.”

What would happen if US researchers proposed tests of his “there is no such thing as reversibility” axiom? To secure funding, his sphere of influence would probably steer the prospective studies’ experiments toward altering “a negative trajectory in a more positive direction” instead. An example of his influence may be found in the press release of Familiar stress opens up an epigenetic window of neural plasticity where the lead researcher stated a goal of:

“..not to ‘roll back the clock’ but rather to change the trajectory of such brain plasticity toward more positive directions.”

I found nothing in citation [10] (of which the reviewer is a coauthor) where the rodent study researchers even attempted to directly reverse the epigenetic changes! The researchers under his guidance simply asserted:

“..a history of stress exposure can permanently alter gene expression patterns in the hippocampus and the behavioral response to a novel stressor”

without making any therapeutic efforts to test the permanence assumption! Never mind that researchers outside the reviewer’s sphere of influence have done exactly that. In any event, citation [10] didn’t support an “there is no such thing as reversibility” axiom.

The reviewer also implied that humans respond just like lab rats and can be treated as such. Notice that the above graphic conflated rodent and human behaviors. Further examples of this inappropriate merger of behaviors are in the Conclusion section.


What may be a more promising research approach to human treatments of the epigenetic effects of stress now that it’s 2017? I pointed out in The current paradigm of child abuse limits pre-childhood causal research:

“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?”

http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2470547017692328 “Neurobiological and Systemic Effects of Chronic Stress”

Epigenetic stress effects in preterm infants

This 2017 Italian review selected 9 human studies on the epigenetic effects of:

“..one of the major adverse events in human development. Preterm infants are hospitalized in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where they are exposed to life-saving yet pain-inducing procedures and to protective care.”

Highlights of the referenced studies included:

  • “..early exposure to adverse events during the third trimester of pregnancy is capable to alter the epigenetic status of imprinted and placenta-related genes which have relevant implications for fetal development and preterm infants’ HPA [hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal] stress reactivity during infancy.”
  • “..there was an association between DNAm [DNA methylation] and white matter tract tissue integrity and shape inferred from dMRI [diffusion MRI], suggesting that epigenetic variation may contribute to the cerebral phenotype of preterm birth.”

Limitations of the referenced studies included:

  • “A multiple sampling design that includes parental samples, placental tissue, cord blood and extends across the life-course would be required to investigate the relative contributions of in utero and postnatal exposures to changes in DNAm, and the extent to which preterm birth leaves a legacy on the methylome.”
  • Saliva, blood, and other tissues’ DNA methylation may not produce valid links to brain tissue DNA methylation of the same gene, which may hamper conclusive inferences about behavior, etc.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763417302117 “Preterm Behavioral Epigenetics: A systematic review” (not freely available)

http://www.nature.com/tp/journal/v6/n1/full/tp2015210a.html “Epigenomic profiling of preterm infants reveals DNA methylation differences at sites associated with neural function” (one of the studies selected, quoted above)