Using oxytocin receptor gene methylation to pursue an agenda

A pair of 2019 Virginia studies involved human mother/infant subjects:

“We show that OXTRm [oxytocin receptor gene DNA methylation] in infancy and its change is predicted by maternal engagement and reflective of behavioral temperament.”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6795517 “Epigenetic dynamics in infancy and the impact of maternal engagement”

“Infants with higher OXTRm show enhanced responses to anger and fear and attenuated responses to happiness in right inferior frontal cortex, a region implicated in emotion processing through action-perception coupling.

Infant fNIRS [functional near-infrared spectroscopy] is limited to measuring responses from cerebral cortex..it is unknown whether OXTR is expressed in the cerebral cortex during prenatal and early postnatal human brain development.”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S187892931830207X “Epigenetic modification of the oxytocin receptor gene is associated with emotion processing in the infant brain”


Both studies had weak disclosures of limitations on their findings’ relevance and significance. The largest non-disclosed contrary finding was from the 2015 Early-life epigenetic regulation of the oxytocin receptor gene:

These results suggest that:

  • Blood Oxtr DNA methylation may reflect early experience of maternal care, and
  • Oxtr methylation across tissues is highly concordant for specific CpGs, but
  • Inferences across tissues are not supported for individual variation in Oxtr methylation.

This rat study found that blood OXTR methylation of 25 CpG sites couldn’t accurately predict the same 25 CpG sites’ OXTR methylation in each subject’s hippocampus, hypothalamus, and striatum (which includes the nucleus accumbens) brain areas. Without significant effects in these limbic system structures, there couldn’t be any associated behavioral effects.

But CpG site associations and correlations were deemed good in the two current studies because they cited:

“Recent work in prairie voles has found that both brain- and blood-derived OXTRm levels at these sites are negatively associated with gene expression in the brain and highly correlated with each other.”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306453018306103 “Early nurture epigenetically tunes the oxytocin receptor”

The 2018 prairie vole study – which included several of the same researchers as the two current studies – found four nucleus accumbens CpG sites that had high correlations to humans. Discarding one of these CpG sites allowed their statistics package to make a four-decimal place finding:

“The methylation state of the blood was also associated with the level of transcription in the brain at three of the four CpG sites..whole blood was capable of explaining 94.92% of the variance in Oxtr DNA methylation and 18.20% of the variance in Oxtr expression.”

Few limitations on the prairie vole study findings were disclosed. Like the two current studies, there wasn’t a limitation section that placed research findings into suitable contexts. So readers didn’t know researcher viewpoints on items such as:

  • What additional information showed that 3 of the 30+ million human CpGs accurately predicted specific brain OXTR methylation and expression from saliva OXTR methylation?
  • What additional information demonstrated how “measuring responses from cerebral cortex” although “it is unknown whether OXTR is expressed in the cerebral cortex” provided detailed and dependable estimates of limbic system CpG site OXTR methylation and expression?
  • Was the above 25-CpG study evidence considered?

Further contrast these three studies with a typical, four-point, 285-word limitation section of a study like Prenatal stress heightened adult chronic pain. The word “limit” appeared 6 times in that pain study, 3 times in the current fNIRS study, and 0 times in the current maternal engagement and cited prairie vole studies.

Frank interpretations of one’s own study findings to acknowledge limitations is one way researchers can address items upfront that will be questioned anyway. Such analyses also indicate a goal to advance science.

Prenatal stress heightened adult chronic pain

This 2019 McGill rodent study found:

Prenatal stress exacerbates pain after injury. Analysis of mRNA expression of genes related to epigenetic regulation and stress responses in the frontal cortex and hippocampus, brain structures implicated in chronic pain, showed distinct sex and region-specific patterns of dysregulation.

In general, mRNA expression was most frequently altered in the male hippocampus and effects of prenatal stress were more prevalent than effects of nerve injury. Recent studies investigating chronic pain-related pathology in the hippocampus in humans and in rodent models demonstrate functional abnormalities in the hippocampus, changes in associated behavior, and decreases in adult hippocampal neurogenesis.

The change in expression of epigenetic- and stress-related genes is not a consequence of nerve injury but rather precedes nerve injury, consistent with the hypothesis that it might play a causal role in modulating the phenotypic response to nerve injury. These findings demonstrate the impact of prenatal stress on behavioral sensitivity to a painful injury.

Decreased frontal mRNA expression of BDNF and BDNF IV in male offspring following neuropathic pain or prenatal stress respectively. Relative mRNA expression of other stress-related genes (GR17, FKBP5) and epigenetic-related genes (DNMTs, TETs, HDACs, MBDs, MeCP2) in male offspring.

A drastic decrease in expression of HDAC1 was observed in all groups compared to sham-control animals. CCI: chronic constriction injury.”


The study’s design was similar to the PRS (prenatal restraint stress) model, except that the PRS procedure covered gestational days 11 to 21 (birth):

“Prenatal stress was induced on Embryonic days 13 to 17 by restraining the pregnant dams in transparent cylinder with 5 mm water, under bright light exposure, 3 times per day for 45 min.”

None of the French, Italian, and Swiss PRS studies were cited.

The limitation section included:

  1. “Although our study shows significant changes in expression of epigenetic enzymes, it didn’t examine the impact of these changes on genes that are epigenetically regulated by this machinery or their involvement in intensifying pain responses.
  2. The current study is limited by the focus on changes in gene expression which do not necessarily correlate with changes in protein expression.
  3. Another limitation of this study is the inability to distinguish the direct effects of stress in utero vs. changes in the dam’s maternal behavior due to stress during pregnancy; cross-fostering studies are needed to address this issue.
  4. Functional experiments that involve up and down regulation of epigenetic enzymes in specific brain regions are required to establish a causal role for these processes in chronic pain.”

What do you think about possible human applicability of this study’s “effects of prenatal stress were more prevalent than effects of nerve injury” finding?

Are there any professional frameworks that instruct trainees to recognize that if a person’s mother was stressed while pregnant, their prenatal experiences could cause more prevalent biological and behavioral effects than a recent injury?

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166432819315219 “Prenatal maternal stress is associated with increased sensitivity to neuropathic pain and sex-specific changes in supraspinal mRNA expression of epigenetic- and stress-related genes in adulthood” (not freely available)

An epigenetic clock review by committee

This 2019 worldwide review of epigenetic clocks was a semi-anonymous mishmash of opinions, facts, hypotheses, unwarranted extrapolations, and beliefs. The diversity of viewpoints among the 21 coauthors wasn’t evident.

1. Citations of the coauthors’ works seemed excessive, and they apologized for omissions. However:

  • Challenge 5 was titled “Single-cell analysis of aging changes and disease” and
  • Table 1 “Major biological and analytic issues with epigenetic DNA methylation clocks” had single-cell analysis as the Proposed solution to five of the Significant issues.

Yet studies such as High-Resolution Single-Cell DNA Methylation Measurements Reveal Epigenetically Distinct Hematopoietic Stem Cell Subpopulations were unmentioned.

2. Some coauthors semi-anonymously expressed faith that using current flawed methodologies in the future – only more thoroughly, with newer equipment, etc. – would yield better results. If the 21 coauthors were asked their viewpoints of Proposed solutions to the top three Significant issues of epigenetic clocks, what would they emphasize when quoted?

3. Techniques were praised:

“Given the precision with which DNA methylation clock age can be estimated and evolving measures of biological, phenotype-, and disease-related age (e.g., PhenoAge, GrimAge)..”

Exactly why these techniques have at times produced inexplicable results wasn’t examined, though. Two examples:

  • In Reversal of aging and immunosenescent trends, the Levine PhenoAge methodology estimated that the 51-65 year old subjects’ biological ages at the beginning of the study averaged 17.5 years less than their chronological age. Comparing that to the Horvath average biological age of 3.95 years less raised the question: exactly why did PhenoAge show such a large difference?
  • The paper mentioned the GrimAge methodology findings about “smoking-related changes.” But it didn’t explain why the GrimAge methylation findings most closely associated with smoking history also accurately predicted future disease risk with non-smokers.

Eluding explanations for these types of findings didn’t help build confidence in the methodologies.

4. A more readable approach to review by committee could have coauthors – in at least one section – answer discussion questions, as Reversing epigenetic T cell exhaustion did with 18 experts.

https://genomebiology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13059-019-1824-y “DNA methylation aging clocks: challenges and recommendations”

A review of fetal adverse events

This 2019 Australian review subject was fetal adversities:

“Adversity during the perinatal period is a significant risk factor for the development of neurodevelopmental disorders long after the causative event. Despite stemming from a variety of causes, perinatal compromise appears to have similar effects on the developing brain, thereby resulting in behavioural disorders of a similar nature.

These behavioural disorders occur in a sex‐dependent manner, with males affected more by externalizing behaviours such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and females by internalizing behaviours such as anxiety. The term ‘perinatal compromise’ serves as an umbrella term for intrauterine growth restriction, maternal immune activation, prenatal stress, early life stress, premature birth, placental dysfunction, and perinatal hypoxia.

The above conditions are associated with imbalanced excitatory-inhibitory pathways resulting from reduced GABAergic signalling. Methylation of the GAD1/GAD67 gene, which encodes the key glutamate‐to‐GABA synthesizing enzyme Glutamate Decarboxylase 1, resulting in increased levels of glutamate is one epigenetic mechanism that may account for a tendency towards excitation in disorders such as ADHD.

The posterior cerebellum’s role in higher executive functioning is becoming well established due to its connections with the prefrontal cortex, association cortices, and limbic system. It is now suggested that disruptions to cerebellar development, which can occur due to late gestation compromises such as preterm birth, can have a major impact on the region of the brain to which it projects.

Activation of the maternal hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis and placental protection. Psychological stress is perceived by the maternal HPA axis, which stimulates cortisol release from the maternal adrenal gland.

High levels of maternal cortisol are normally prevented from reaching the fetus by the 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase 2 (HSD11B2) enzyme, which converts cortisol to the much less active cortisone. Under conditions of high maternal stress, this protective mechanism can be overwhelmed, with the gene encoding the enzyme becoming methylated, which reduces its expression allowing cortisol to cross the placenta and reach the fetus.”


The reviewers extrapolated many animal study findings to humans, although most of their own work was with guinea pigs. The “suggest” and “may” qualifiers were used often – 22 and 37 times, respectively. More frequent use of the “appears,” “hypothesize,” “propose,” and “possible” terms was justified.

As a result, many reviewed items such as the above graphic and caption should be viewed as hypothetical for humans rather than reflecting solid evidence from quality human studies.

The reviewers focused on the prenatal (before birth) period more than the perinatal (last trimester of pregnancy to one month after birth) period. There were fewer mentions of birth and early infancy adversities.

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jne.12814 “Perinatal compromise contributes to programming of GABAergic and Glutamatergic systems leading to long-term effects on offspring behaviour” (not freely available)

Organismal aging and cellular senescence

I’ll curate this 2019 German review through its figures:

“With the discovery of beneficial aspects of cellular senescence and evidence of senescence being not limited to replicative cellular states, a redefinition of our comprehension of aging and senescence appears scientifically overdue.

Figure 1. Current determinants and relevant open questions, marking the processes of aging and senescence as discussed in the text. Aspects represented in green are considered as broadly accepted or scientifically consolidated. Novel aspects that are yet unproven, or are under debate, are highlighted in red.

SASP = senescence-associated secretory phenotype. AASP = putative aging-associated secretory phenotype as suggested in the text.

Figure 2. Theories on the causality and purpose of aging. Graphically summarized are four contrasting concepts crystallized from current evidence addressing the inductive driving force of aging. Apart from a stochastic deleteriome, there are arguments for a pseudo-programmed, programmed or at least partially programmed nature of aging.

Figure 3. Comparative representation of the aging and senescence processes highlighting different levels of interaction and putative sites of interventions.

(1) As discussed in the text, causative mechanisms of aging are still not well understood, however, multiple factors including genetic, epigenetic and stress-related effects seem to have an orchestrated role in the progression of aging. Senescence on the other hand, is seen as a programmed response to different kinds of stressors, which proceed in defined stages. Whether, in analogy, aging also follows a defined program or sequential stages is not known.

(2) Senescence involves autocrine and paracrine factors, which are responsible for a ‘seno-infection’ or bystander effect in neighboring cells. There is currently no direct evidence for a similar factor composition propagating the aging process via a kind of ‘gero-infection’.

(3) Accumulation of senescent cells has been described as a hallmark of aging; however, whether they are a causative factor or a consequence of tissue and organismal aging is still unknown. As discussed in the text, it appears possible that aging and senescence mutually influence each other through positive feedback at this level, leading to accelerated tissue damage and aging.

(4,5) Clearance of senescent or aging cells might constitute putative targets for interventional approaches aimed to reduce or reverse the impact of aging and improve cell and tissue homeostasis by inducing a ‘rejuvenation’ process.

Figure 4. Pathological and beneficial functions of aging and senescence, according to current knowledge. In red are represented pathological consequences and in green beneficial functions of aging and senescence.

The impact of aging has mainly been described at the organismal level, since a complete cellular functional profile has not yet been established. Accordingly, whether beneficial consequences of the aging process exist at the cellular level is unclear.”


The reviewers’ position on Figure 2 was:

“In our view, recent evidence that senescence is based on an unterminated developmental growth program and the finding that the concept of post-mitotic senescence requires the activation of expansion, or ‘growth’ factors as a second hit, favor the assumption that aging underlies a grating of genetic determination similarly to what is summarized above under the pseudo-programmed causative approach.”

Their position on Figure 4’s beneficial effects of aging began with the sentence:

“If we assume that aging already starts before birth, it can be considered simply a developmental stage, required to complete the evolutionary program associated with species-intrinsic biological functions such as reproduction, survival, and selection.”

Cited studies included:

https://www.mdpi.com/2073-4409/8/11/1446 “Dissecting Aging and Senescence-Current Concepts and Open Lessons”

Do genes or maternal environments shape fetal brains?

This 2019 Singapore human study used Diffusion Tensor Imaging on 5-to-17-day old infants to find:

“Our findings showed evidence for region-specific effects of genotype and GxE on individual differences in human fetal development of the hippocampus and amygdala. Gene x Environment models outcompeted models containing genotype or environment only, to best explain the majority of measures but some, especially of the amygdaloid microstructure, were best explained by genotype only.

Models including DNA methylation measured in the neonate umbilical cords outcompeted the Gene and Gene x Environment models for the majority of amygdaloid measures and minority of hippocampal measures. The fact that methylation models outcompeted gene x environment models in many instances is compatible with the idea that DNA methylation is a product of GxE.

A genome-wide association study of SNP [single nucleotide polymorphism] interactions with the prenatal environments (GxE) yielded genome wide significance for 13 gene x environment models. The majority (10) explained hippocampal measures in interaction with prenatal maternal mental health and SES [socioeconomic status]. The three genome-wide significant models predicting amygdaloid measures, explained right amygdala volume in interaction with maternal depression.

The transcription factor CUX1 was implicated in the genotypic variation interaction with prenatal maternal health to shape the amygdala. It was also a central node in the subnetworks formed by genes mapping to the CpGs in neonatal umbilical cord DNA methylation data associating with both amygdala and hippocampus structure and substructure.

Our results implicated the glucocorticoid receptor (NR3C1) in population variance of neonatal amygdala structure and microstructure.

Estrogen in the hippocampus affects learning, memory, neurogenesis, synapse density and plasticity. In the brain testosterone is commonly aromatized to estradiol and thus the estrogen receptor mediates not only the effects of estrogen, but also that of testosterone.”

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gbb.12576 “Neonatal amygdalae and hippocampi are influenced by genotype and prenatal environment, and reflected in the neonatal DNA methylome” (not freely available)

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 the cited 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 would 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 great-grand-offspring 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”