Can researchers make a difference in their fields?

The purpose and finding of this 2017 UK meta-analysis of human epigenetics and cognitive abilities was:

“A meta-analysis of the relationship between blood-based DNA methylation and cognitive function.

We identified [two] methylation sites that are linked to an aspect of executive function and global cognitive ability. The latter finding relied on a relatively crude cognitive test..which is commonly used to identify individuals at risk of dementia.

One of the two CpG sites identified was under modest genetic control..there are relatively modest methylation signatures for cognitive function.”

The review’s stated limitations included:

“It is, of course, possible that a reliable blood-based epigenetic marker of cognitive function may be several degrees of separation away from the biological processes that drive cognitive skills.

There are additional limitations of this study:

  • A varying number of participants with cognitive data available for each test;
  • Heterogeneity in relation to the ethnicity and geographical location of the participants across cohorts; and
  • Relating a blood-based methylation signature to a brain-based outcome.

A 6-year window [between ages 70 and 76] is possibly too narrow to observe substantial changes in the CpG levels.”

All of these limitations were known before the meta-analysis was planned and performed. Other “possible” limitations already known by the 47 coauthors include those from Genetic statistics don’t necessarily predict the effects of an individual’s genes.

The paper referenced studies to justify the efforts, such as one (cited twice) coauthored by the lead author of A problematic study of DNA methylation in frontal cortex development and schizophrenia:

“Epigenome-wide studies of other brain-related outcomes, such as schizophrenia, have identified putative blood-based methylation signatures.”


Was this weak-sauce meta-analysis done just to plump up 47 CVs? Why can’t researchers investigate conditions that could make a difference in their fields?

Was this meta-analysis done mainly because the funding was available? I’ve heard that the primary reason there are papers like the doubly-cited one above is that the US NIMH funds few other types of research outside of their biomarker dogma.

The opportunity costs of this genre of research are staggering. Were there no more productive topics that these 47 scientists could have investigated?

Here are a few more-promising research areas where epigenetic effects can be observed in human behavior and physiology:

I hope that the researchers value their professions enough to make a difference with these or other areas of their expertise. And that sponsors won’t thwart researchers’ desires for difference-making science by putting them into endless funding queues.

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41380-017-0008-y “Meta-analysis of epigenome-wide association studies of cognitive abilities”

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Epigenetic study methodologies improved in 2017

Let’s start out 2018 paying more attention to advancements in science that provide sound empirical data and methodology. Let’s ignore and de-emphasize studies and reviews that aren’t much more than beliefs couched in models and memes, whatever their presumed authority.

Let sponsors direct researchers to focus on ultimate causes of diseases. Let’s put research of treatments affecting causes ahead of those that only address symptoms.

Here are two areas of epigenetic research that improved in 2017.


Improved methodologies enabled DNA methylation studies of adenine, one of the four bases of DNA, to advance, such as this 2017 Wisconsin/Minnesota study N6-methyladenine is an epigenetic marker of mammalian early life stress:

“6 mA is present in the mammalian brain, is altered within the Htr2a gene promoter by early life stress and biological sex, and increased 6 mA is associated with gene repression. These data suggest that methylation of adenosine within mammalian DNA may be used as an additional epigenetic biomarker for investigating the development of stress-induced neuropathology.”

Most DNA methylation research is performed on the cytosine and guanine bases.


Other examples of improved methodologies were discussed in this 2017 Japanese study Genome-wide identification of inter-individually variable DNA methylation sites improves the efficacy of epigenetic association studies:

“A strategy focusing on CpG sites with high DNA methylation level variability may attain an improved efficacy..estimated to be 3.7-fold higher than that of the most frequently used strategy.

With ~90% coverage of human CpGs, whole-genome bisulfite sequencing (WGBS) provides the highest coverage among the currently available DNAm [DNA methylation] profiling technologies. However, because of its high cost, it is presently infeasible to apply WGBS to large-scale EWASs [epigenome-wide association studies], which require DNAm profiling of hundreds or thousands of subjects. Therefore, microarrays and targeted bisulfite sequencing are currently practicable for large-scale EWASs and thus, effective strategies to select target regions are essentially needed to improve the efficacy of epigenetic association studies.

DNAm levels measured with microarrays are invariable for most CpG sites in the study populations. As invariable DNAm signatures cannot be associated with exposures, intermediate phenotypes, or diseases, current designs of probe sets are inefficient for blood-based EWASs.”

Differing approaches to a life wasted on beliefs

Let’s start by observing that people structure their lives around beliefs. As time goes on, what actions would a person have taken to ward off non-confirming evidence?

One response may be that they would engage in ever-increasing efforts to develop new beliefs that justified how they spent their precious life’s time so far.

Such was my take on the embedded beliefs in https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5684598/pdf/PSYCHIATRY2017-5491812.pdf “Epigenetic and Neural Circuitry Landscape of Psychotherapeutic Interventions”:

“Animal models have shown the benefits of continued environmental enrichment (EE) on psychopathological phenotypes, which carries exciting translational value.

This paper posits that psychotherapy serves as a positive environmental input (something akin to EE).”

The author conveyed his belief that wonderful interventions were going to happen in the future, although, when scrutinized, most human studies have demonstrated null effects of psychotherapy interventions on causes. Without sound evidence that treatments affect causes, this belief seemed driven by something else.

The author saw the findings of research like A problematic study of oxytocin receptor gene methylation, childhood abuse, and psychiatric symptoms as supporting external interventions to tamp down symptoms of patients’ presenting problems. Did any of the paper’s 300+ citations concern treatments where patients instead therapeutically addressed their problems’ root causes?


For an analogous religious example, a person’s belief caused him to spend years of his life trying to convince men to act so that they could get their own planet after death, and trying to convince women to latch onto men who had this belief. A new and apparently newsworthy belief developed from his underlying causes:

“The founder and CEO of neuroscience company Kernel wants “to expand the bounds of human intelligence”. He is planning to do this with neuroprosthetics; brain augmentations that can improve mental function and treat disorders. Put simply, Kernel hopes to place a chip in your brain.

He was raised as a Mormon in Utah and it was while carrying out two years of missionary work in Ecuador that he was struck by what he describes as an “overwhelming desire to improve the lives of others.”

He suffered from chronic depression from the ages of 24 to 34, and has seen his father and stepfather face huge mental health struggles.”

https://www.theguardian.com/small-business-network/2017/dec/14/humans-20-meet-the-entrepreneur-who-wants-to-put-a-chip-in-your-brain “Humans 2.0: meet the entrepreneur who wants to put a chip in your brain”

The article stated that the subject had given up Mormonism. There was nothing to suggest, though, that he had therapeutically addressed any underlying causes for his misdirected thoughts, feelings, and behavior. So he developed other beliefs instead.


What can people do to keep their lives from being wasted on beliefs? As mentioned in What was not, is not, and will never be:

“The problem is that spending our time and efforts on these ideas, beliefs, and behaviors won’t ameliorate their motivating causes. Our efforts only push us further away from our truths, with real consequences: a wasted life.

The goal of the therapeutic approach advocated by Dr. Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy is to remove the force of the presenting problems’ motivating causes. Success in reaching this goal is realized when patients become better able to live their own lives.

Do you have your family’s detailed medical histories?

Imagine that you were a parent who puzzled over the mystery of your pre-teen daughter’s hyperactive behavior. Without detailed family medical histories, would anyone recognize this as a preprogammed phenotype? Could anyone trace the daughter’s behavior back to her maternal great-grandmother being treated with glucocorticoids near the end of the second trimester of carrying her grandfather?

Such was a finding of a 2017 Canadian guinea pig study that was undertaken to better inform physicians of the transgenerationally inherited epigenetic effects of glucocorticoid treatments commonly prescribed during human pregnancies:

“This study presents the first evidence that prenatal treatment with sGC [synthetic glucocorticoid] results in transgenerational paternal transmission of hyperactivity and altered hypothalamic gene expression through three generations of young offspring. Female offspring appear to be more sensitive than male offspring to the programming effects of sGC, which suggests an interaction between sGC and sex hormones or sex-linked genes. Paternal transmission to F3 strongly implicates epigenetic mechanisms in the process of transmission, and small noncoding RNAs likely play a major role.”


Some details of the study included:

Veh[icle] was the control group initially treated with saline.

The study was informative and conclusive for the aspects studied. From the Methods section:

“Data from same-sex littermates were meaned to prevent litter bias. Sample sizes (N) correspond to independent litters, and not to the total number of offspring across all litters.

Power analyses based on previous studies determined N ≥ 8 sufficient to account for inter-litter variability and detect effects in the tests performed.”

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-11635-w “Prenatal Glucocorticoid Exposure Modifies Endocrine Function and Behaviour for 3 Generations Following Maternal and Paternal Transmission”

Transgenerationally inherited epigenetic effects of fetal alcohol exposure

The fourth paper of Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance week was a 2016 German rodent study of transgenerational epigenetic effects of alcohol:

“We investigated 2 generations of offspring born to alcohol-treated mothers. Here, we show that memory impairment and reduced synthesis of acetylcholine occurs in both F1 (exposed to ethanol in utero) and F2 generation (never been exposed to ethanol). Effects in the F2 generation are most likely consequences of transgenerationally transmitted epigenetic modifications in stem cells induced by alcohol.

The results further suggest an epigenetic trait for an anticholinergic endophenotype associated with cognitive dysfunction which might be relevant to our understanding of mental impairment in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders.”

F0 generation mothers modeled human fetal alcohol syndrome. They were exposed to ethanol gradually up to 20%, then mated. The 20% ethanol intake level was maintained until the F1 generation pups were born, then gradually diminished to 0%. After a ten-day wait, an eight-week handling and shaping period started, followed by five weeks of behavioral testing.

The F1 children and F2 grandchildren started an eight-week handling and shaping period after young adulthood, followed by five weeks of behavioral testing. The F1 children were mated after behavioral testing.

The F0 parents showed no significant differences in working memory and reference memory compared with controls. Both the F1 children and F2 grandchildren were significantly impaired in the same tests compared with controls, with the F1 children performing worse than the F2 grandchildren. No sex-dependent differences were noted.

After behavioral impairments due to transgenerationally transmitted epigenetic modifications were established, the F2 grandchildren received treatments to ascertain the contribution of cholinergic dysfunction in their behavioral impairments. It was confirmed, as an acetylcholine esterase inhibitor that crosses the blood-brain barrier almost completely erased working-memory and reference-memory performance deficits.

Items in the Discussion section included:

  • A dozen studies from 2014-2016 were cited for epigenetic mechanisms of transgenerational inheritance stemming from parental alcohol consumption; and
  • Transgenerational inheritance of alcohol-induced neurodevelopmental deficits may involve epigenetic mechanisms that are resistant to developmental clearance.

As argued in Transgenerational effects of early environmental insults on aging and disease and A review of epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of reproductive disease, testing of F3 great-grandchildren born of F2 grandchild females was needed to control for the variable of direct F2 grandchild germ-line exposure.

http://www.neurobiologyofaging.org/article/S0197-4580(16)30303-7/pdf “Transgenerational transmission of an anticholinergic endophenotype with memory dysfunction” (not freely available)

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 caregivers’ 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)

Transgenerational effects of early environmental insults on aging and disease

The first paper of Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance week was a 2017 Canadian/Netherlands review that’s organized as follows:

“First, we address mechanisms of developmental and transgenerational programming of disease and inheritance. Second, we discuss experimental and clinical findings linking early environmental determinants to adverse aging trajectories in association with possible parental contributions and sex-specific effects. Third, we outline the main mechanisms of age-related functional decline and suggest potential interventions to reverse negative effects of transgenerational programming.”

A transgenerational phenotype was defined as an epigenetic modification that was maintained at least either to the F2 grandchildren in the paternal lineage or to the F3 great-grandchildren in the maternal lineage.

The reviewers noted that the mechanisms of transgenerational programming are complex and multivariate.  The severity, timing, and type of exposure, lineage of transmission, germ cell exposure, and gender of an organism were the main factors that may determine the consequences. The mechanisms reviewed were:

  1. Parental exposure to an adverse environment;
  2. Altered maternal behavior and care of the offspring; and
  3. Experience-dependent modifications of the epigenome.

There was a long list of diseases and impaired functionalities that were consequences of ancestral experiences and exposures. Most of the studies were animal, but a few were human, such as those done on effects of extended power outages during the Quebec ice storm of January 1998.


One intervention that was effective in reversing a transgenerational phenotype induced by deficient rodent maternal care was to place pups with a caring foster female soon after birth. It’s probably unacceptable in human societies to preemptively recognize all poor-care human mothers and remove the infant to caring foster mothers, but researchers could probably find enough instances to develop studies of the effectiveness of the placements in reversing a transgenerational phenotype.

The review didn’t have suggestions for reversing human transgenerational phenotypes, just  “..potential interventions to reverse negative effects of transgenerational programming.” The interventions suggested for humans – exercise, enriched lifestyle, cognitive training, dietary regimens, and expressive art and writing therapies – only reduced the impact of transgenerational epigenetic effects.

The tricky wording of “..reverse negative effects of transgenerational programming” showed that research paradigms weren’t aimed at resolving causes. The review is insufficient for the same reasons mentioned in How one person’s paradigms regarding stress and epigenetics impedes relevant research, prompting my same comment:

“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?”

When reversals of human transgenerational phenotypes aren’t researched, the problems compound as they’re transmitted to the next generations.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014976341630714X “Transgenerational effects of early environmental insults on aging and disease incidence” (not freely available)