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)


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”

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”

Reversing epigenetic changes with CRISPR/Cas9

This 2018 Chinese review highlighted areas in which CRISPR/Cas9 technology has, is, and could be applied to rewrite epigenetic changes:

“CRISPR/Cas9-mediated epigenome editing holds a great promise for epigenetic studies and therapeutics.

It could be used to selectively modify epigenetic marks at a given locus to explore mechanisms of how targeted epigenetic alterations would affect transcription regulation and cause subsequent phenotype changes. For example, inducing histone methylation or acetylation at the Fosb locus in the mice brain reward region, nucleus accumbens, could affect relevant transcription network and thus control behavioral responses evoked by drug and stress.

Epigenome editing has the potential for epigenetic treatment, especially for the disorders with abnormal gene imprinting or epigenetic marks. Targeted epigenetic silencing or reactivation of the mutant allele could be a potential therapeutic approach for diseases such as Rett syndrome and Huntington’s disease.

Noncoding RNA plays important roles in gene imprinting and chromatin remodeling. CRISPR/Cas9 has been shown to be potential for manipulating noncoding RNA expression, including microRNA, long noncoding RNA, and miRNA families and clusters.

In vivo overexpression of the Yamanaka factors have proven to be able to fully or partially help somatic cells to regain pluripotency in situ. These rejuvenated cells would subsequently differentiate again to replace the lost cell types.”

The last paragraph was described in The epigenetic clock theory of aging as a promising technique:

“To date, the most effective in vitro intervention against epigenetic ageing is achieved through expression of Yamanaka factors, which convert somatic cells into pluripotent stem cells, thereby completely resetting the epigenetic clock.”

The reviewers cited three references for in vivo studies of this technique. Overall, I didn’t see that any of the review’s references were in vivo human studies.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6079388/ “Novel Epigenetic Techniques Provided by the CRISPR/Cas9 System”

The role of recall neurons in traumatic memories

This 2018 Swiss rodent study found:

“Our data show that:

  • A subset of memory recall–induced neurons in the DG [dentate gyrus] becomes reactivated after memory attenuation,
  • The degree of fear reduction positively correlates with this reactivation, and
  • The continued activity of memory recall–induced neurons is critical for remote fear memory attenuation.

Although other brain areas such as the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala are likely to be implicated in remote fear memories and remain to be investigated, these results suggest that fear attenuation at least partially occurs in memory recall–induced ensembles through updating or unlearning of the original memory trace of fear.

These data thereby provide the first evidence at an engram-specific level that fear attenuation may not be driven only by extinction learning, that is, by an inhibitory memory trace different from the original fear trace.

Rather, our findings indicate that during remote fear memory attenuation both mechanisms likely coexist, albeit with the importance of the continued activity of memory recall–induced neurons experimentally documented herein. Such activity may not only represent the capacity for a valence change in DG engram cells but also be a prerequisite for memory reconsolidation, namely, an opportunity for learning inside the original memory trace.

As such, this activity likely constitutes a physiological correlate sine qua non for effective exposure therapies against traumatic memories in humans: the engagement, rather than the suppression, of the original trauma.”

The researchers also provided examples of human trauma:

“We dedicate this work to O.K.’s father, Mohamed Salah El-Dien, and J.G.’s mother, Wilma, who both sadly passed away during its completion.”

So, how can this study help humans? The study had disclosed and undisclosed limitations:

1. Humans aren’t lab rats. We can ourselves individually change our responses to experiential causes of ongoing adverse effects. Standard methodologies can only apply external treatments.

2. It’s a bridge too far to go from neural activity in transgenic mice to expressing unfounded opinions on:

“A physiological correlate sine qua non for effective exposure therapies against traumatic memories in humans.”

Human exposure therapies have many drawbacks, in addition to being applied externally to the patient on someone else’s schedule. A few others were discussed in The role of DNMT3a in fear memories:

  • “Inability to generalize its efficacy over time,
  • Potential return of adverse memory in the new/novel contexts,
  • Context-dependent nature of extinction which is widely viewed as the biological basis of exposure therapy.”

3. Rodent neural activity also doesn’t elevate recall to become an important goal of effective human therapies. Clearly, what the rodents experienced should be translated into human reliving/re-experiencing, not recall. Terminology used in animal studies preferentially has the same meaning with humans, since the purpose of animal studies is to help humans.

4. The researchers acknowledged that:

“Other brain areas such as the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala are likely to be implicated in remote fear memories and remain to be investigated.”

A study that provided evidence for basic principles of Primal Therapy determined another brain area:

“The findings imply that 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.”

The study I curated yesterday, Organ epigenetic memory, demonstrated organ memory storage. It’s hard to completely rule out that other body areas may also store traumatic memories.

The wide range of epigenetic memory storage vehicles is one reason why effective human therapies need to address the whole person, the whole body, and each individual’s entire history.

http://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6394/1239 “Reactivation of recall-induced neurons contributes to remote fear memory attenuation” (not freely available)

Here’s one of the researchers’ outline:

This post has somehow become a target for spammers, and I’ve disabled comments. Readers can comment on other posts and indicate that they want their comment to apply here, and I’ll re-enable comments.

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)

Going off the rails with the biomarker paradigm

This 2018 US government rodent study used extreme dosages to achieve its directed goals of demonizing nicotine and extolling the biomarker paradigm:

“This study examined whether adolescent nicotine exposure alters adult hippocampus-dependent learning, involving persistent changes in hippocampal DNA methylation and if choline, a dietary methyl donor, would reverse and mitigate these alterations.

Mice were chronically treated with nicotine (12.6mg/kg/day) starting at post-natal day 23 (pre-adolescent), p38 (late adolescent), or p54 (adult) for 12 days followed by a 30-day period during which they consumed either standard chow or chow supplemented with choline (9g/kg).

Our gene expression analyses support this model and point to two particular genes involved in chromatin remodeling, Smarca2 and Bahcc1. Both Smarca2 and Bahcc1 showed a similar inverse correlation pattern between promoter methylation and gene expression.

Our findings support a role for epigenetic modification of hippocampal chromatin remodeling genes in long-term learning deficits induced by adolescent nicotine and their amelioration by dietary choline supplementation.”

Let’s use the average weight of a US adult male – published by the US Centers for Disease Control as 88.8 kg – to compare the study’s dosages with human equivalents:

  1. Nicotine at “12.6mg/kg/day” x 88.8 kg = 1119 mg. The estimated lower limit of a lethal dose of nicotine has been reported as between 500 and 1000 mg!
  2. Choline at “9g/kg” x 88.8 kg = 799 g. The US National Institutes of Health published the Tolerable Upper Intake Levels for Choline as 3.5 g!!

Neither of these dosages are even remotely connected to human realities:

  1. The human-equivalent dosage of nicotine used in this study would probably kill an adult human before the end of 12 days.
  2. What effects would an adult human suffer from exceeding the choline “Tolerable Upper Intake Level” BY 228 TIMES for 30 days?

Isn’t the main purpose of animal studies to help humans? What’s the justification for performing animal studies simply to promote an agenda?

A funding source of this study was National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Identification of Biomarkers for Nicotine Addiction award (T-DA-1002 MG). Has the biomarker paradigm been institutionalized to the point where research proposals that don’t have biomarkers as goals aren’t funded?

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S107474271830193X “Choline ameliorates adult learning deficits and reverses epigenetic modification of chromatin remodeling factors related to adolescent nicotine exposure” (not freely available)