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.”


1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.”

4. The paper would have been better had the researchers stayed on topic with their stated intention and critically reviewed only studies with solid evidence of “Developmental origins of the human hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.” Let other reviews cover older humans, animals, and questionable evidence.

5. 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)

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How do memories transfer?

This 2018 Chinese study electronically modeled the brain’s circuits to evaluate memory transfer mechanisms:

“During non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep, thalamo-cortical spindles and hippocampal sharp wave-ripples have been implicated in declarative memory consolidation. Evidence suggests that long-term memory consolidation is coordinated by the generation of:

  • Hierarchically nested hippocampal ripples (100-250 Hz),
  • Thalamo-cortical spindles (7-15 Hz), and
  • Cortical slow oscillations (<1 Hz)

enabling memory transfer from the hippocampus to the cortex.

Consolidation has also been demonstrated in other brain tasks, such as:

  • In the acquisition of motor skills, where there is a shift from activity in prefrontal cortex to premotor, posterior parietal, and cerebellar structures; and
  • In the transfer of conscious to unconscious tasks, where activity in initial unskilled tasks and activity in skilled performance are located in different regions, the so-called ‘scaffolding-storage’ framework.

By separating a neural circuit into a feedforward chain of gating populations and a second chain coupled to the gating chain (graded chain), graded information (i.e. information encoded in firing rate amplitudes) may be faithfully propagated and processed as it flows through the circuit. The neural populations in the gating chain generate pulses, which push populations in the graded chain above threshold, thus allowing information to flow in the graded chain.

In this paper, we will describe how a set of previously learned synapses may in turn be copied to another module with a pulse-gated transmission paradigm that operates internally to the circuit and is independent of the learning process.”


The study had neither been peer-reviewed, nor were the mechanisms tested in living beings.

https://www.biorxiv.org/content/early/2018/07/27/351114 “A Mechanism for Synaptic Copy between Neural Circuits”

Epigenetic effects of breast cancer treatments

This 2018 UC San Diego review subject was the interplay between breast cancer treatments and their effects on aging:

“Although current breast cancer treatments are largely successful in producing cancer remission and extending lifespan, there is concern that these treatments may have long lasting detrimental effects on cancer survivors, in part, through their impact on non-tumor cells. It is unclear whether breast cancer and/or its treatments are associated with an accelerated aging phenotype.

In this review, we have highlighted five of nine previously described cellular hallmarks of aging that have been described in the context of cytotoxic breast cancer treatments:

  1. Telomere attrition;
  2. Mitochondrial dysfunction;
  3. Genomic instability;
  4. Epigenetic alterations; and
  5. Cellular senescence.”


The review was full of caveats weakening the above graphic’s associations:

  1. “Telomere attrition – Blood TL [telomere length] was not associated with chemotherapy in three out of four studies;
  2. Mitochondrial dysfunction – How cancer therapies affect cellular energetics as they relate to rate of aging is unclear;
  3. Genomic instability – Potentially contributing to accelerated aging;
  4. Epigenetic alterations – Although some of the key regulators of these processes have begun to be identified, including DNA and histone methylases and demethylases, histone acetylases and de-acetylases and chromatin remodelers, how they regulate the changes in aging through alteration of global transcriptional programs, remains to be elucidated; and
  5. Cellular senescence – Dysregulated pathways can be targeted by cytotoxic chemotherapies, resulting in preferential cell death of tumor cells, but how these treatments also affect normal cells with intact pathways is unclear.”

To their credit, these reviewers at least presented some of the contrary evidence, and didn’t continue on with a directed narrative as other reviewers are prone to do.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1879406818301176 “Breast cancer treatment and its effects on aging” (not freely available)


The originator of the epigenetic clock methodology was a coauthor of the review. Only one of his works was cited in the Epigenetic alterations subsection:

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10549-017-4218-4 “DNA methylation age is elevated in breast tissue of healthy women”

This freely-available 2017 study quoted below highlighted that epigenetic clock measurements as originally designed were tissue-specific:

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to demonstrate that breast tissue epigenetic age exceeds that of blood tissue in healthy female donors. In addition to validating our earlier finding of age elevation in breast tissue, we further demonstrate that the magnitude of the difference between epigenetic age of breast and blood is highest in the youngest women in our study (age 20–30 years) and gradually diminishes with advancing age. As women approach the age of the menopausal transition, we found that the epigenetic of age of blood approaches that of the breast.”

Additional caution was justified in both interpreting age measurements and extending them into “cellular hallmarks” when the tissue contained varying cell types:

“Our studies were performed on whole breast tissue. Diverse types of cells make up whole breast tissue, with the majority of cells being adipocytes. Other types of cells include epithelial cells, cuboidal cells, myoepithelial cells, fibroblasts, inflammatory cells, vascular endothelial cells, preadipocytes, and adipose tissue macrophages.

This raises the possibility that the magnitude of the effects we observe, of breast tissue DNAm age being greater than other tissues, might be an underestimation, since it is possible that not all of the cells of the heterogenous sample have experienced this effect. Since it is difficult to extract DNA from adipose tissue, we suspect that the majority of DNA extracted from our whole breast tissues was from epithelial and myoepithelial cells.”

A mid-year selection of epigenetic topics

Here are the most popular of the 65 posts I’ve made so far in 2018, starting from the earliest:

The pain societies instill into children

DNA methylation and childhood adversity

Epigenetic mechanisms of muscle memory

Sex-specific impacts of childhood trauma

Sleep and adult brain neurogenesis

This dietary supplement is better for depression symptoms than placebo

The epigenetic clock theory of aging

A flying human tethered to a monkey

Immune memory in the brain

The lack of oxygen’s epigenetic effects on a fetus

Addictive behavior and epigenetic DNA methylation

This 2018 McGill paper reviewed findings from animal and human studies on the relationships between drug-seeking behavior and epigenetic DNA methylation:

“Although there is an increasing line of evidence from preclinical models of addiction, there are only a few human studies that systematically assessed DNA methylation in addiction. Most of the studies were done on small cohorts and focused on one or a few candidate genes, except in the case of alcohol use where larger studies have been carried out.

A long line of evidence suggests that abnormal patterns of gene expression occur in brain regions related to drug addiction such as the nucleus accumbens, prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and the ventral tegmental area.

Using the “incubation of craving” model in rats trained to self-administer cocaine, and treated with either SAM or RG108, the genome-wide DNA methylation and gene expression landscape in the nucleus accumbens after short (1 day) and long (30 days) abstinence periods and the effects of epigenetic treatments were delineated. The main findings are:

  • A long incubation period results in robust changes in methylation;
  • Direct accumbal infusion of SAM that is paired with a “cue” after long incubation times increases drug-seeking behavior,
  • Whereas a single treatment with RG108 decreases this behavior.

Importantly, the effects of these single administrations of a DNA methylation inhibitor remain stable for 30 more days. These data suggest that DNA methylation might be mediating the impact of “incubation” on the craving phenotype and that this phenotype could be reprogrammed by a DNA demethylation agent.”


The subject has a large scope, and a narrow aspect was presented in this paper. Rodent research by one of the coauthors that was cited, Chronic pain causes epigenetic changes in the brain and immune system, provided some relevant details.

The review covered neither human dimensions of the impacts of unfulfilled needs nor investigations of exactly what pain may impel human drug-seeking behavior. The “Implications for Diagnostic and Therapeutics” were largely at the molecular level.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877117318300164 “The Role of DNA Methylation in Drug Addiction: Implications for Diagnostic and Therapeutics” (not freely available)

The lack of oxygen’s epigenetic effects on a fetus

This 2018 Loma Linda review subject was gestational hypoxia:

“Of all the stresses to which the fetus and newborn infant are subjected, perhaps the most important and clinically relevant is that of hypoxia. This review explores the impact of gestational hypoxia on maternal health and fetal development, and epigenetic mechanisms of developmental plasticity with emphasis on the uteroplacental circulation, heart development, cerebral circulation, pulmonary development, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and adipose tissue.

An understanding of the specific hypoxia-induced environmental and epigenetic adaptations linked to specific organ systems will enhance the development of target-specific inhibition of DNA methylation, histone modifications, and noncoding RNAs that underlie hypoxia-induced phenotypic programming of disease vulnerability later in life.

A potential stumbling block to these efforts, however, relates to timing of the intervention. The greatest potential effect would be accomplished at the critical period in development for which the genomic plasticity is at its peak, thus ameliorating the influence of hypoxia or other stressors.

With future developments, it may even become possible to intervene before conception, before the genetic determinants of the risk of developing programmed disease are established.”

Table 3 “Antenatal hypoxia and developmental plasticity” column titles were Species | Offspring Phenotypes of Disorders and Diseases | Reference Nos.

Hypoxia phenotypes


This review was really an ebook, with 94 pages and 1,172 citations in the pdf file. As I did with Faith-tainted epigenetics, I read it with caution toward recognizing 1) the influence of the sponsor’s biases, 2) any directed narrative that ignored evidence contradicting the narrative, and 3) any storytelling.

Can you match the meaning of the review’s last sentence (“intervene before conception” quoted above) with the meaning of any sentence in its cited reference Developmental origins of noncommunicable disease: population and public health implications? I can’t.

One review topic that was misconstrued was transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of hypoxic effects. The “transgenerational” term was used inappropriately by several of the citations, and no cited study provided evidence for gestational hypoxic effects through the  F2 grandchild and F3 great-grandchild generations.

One omitted topic was gestational hypoxic effects of caffeine. The first paper that came up for my PubMed search of “caffeine pregnancy hypoxia” was an outstanding 2017 Florida rodent review Long-term consequences of disrupting adenosine signaling during embryonic development that had this paragraph and figure:

“One substance that fetuses are frequently exposed to is caffeine, which is a non-selective adenosine receptor antagonist. We discovered that in utero alteration in adenosine action leads to adverse effects on embryonic and adult murine hearts. We find that cardiac A1ARs [a type of adenosine receptor] protect the embryo from in utero hypoxic stress, a condition that causes an increase in adenosine levels. 

After birth in mice, we observed that in utero caffeine exposure leads to abnormal cardiac function and morphology in adults, including an impaired response to β-adrenergic stimulation. Recently, we observed that in utero caffeine exposure induces transgenerational effects on cardiac morphology, function, and gene expression.”

The timing of in utero caffeine treatment leads to differences in adult cardiac function, gene expression, and phenotype. Exposure to caffeine from E6.5–9.5 leads the F1 generation to develop dilated cardiomyopathy with decrease % FS and increased Myh7 expression. In utero caffeine exposure from E10.5–13.5 leads to a hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in the F2 generation along with increased % FS and decreased Myh7 expression

Why was this review and its studies omitted? It was on target for both gestational hypoxia and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of hypoxic effects!

It was alright to review smoking, cocaine, methamphetamine, etc., but the most prevalent drug addiction – caffeine – couldn’t be a review topic?


The Loma Linda review covered a lot, but I had a quick trigger due to the sponsor’s bias. I started to lose “faith” in the reviewers after reading the citation for the review’s last sentence that didn’t support the statement.

My “faith” disappeared after not understanding why a few topics were misconstrued and omitted. Why do researchers and sponsors ignore, misrepresent, and not continue experiments through the F3 generation to produce evidence for and against transgenerational epigenetic inheritance? Where was the will to follow evidence trails regardless of socially acceptable beverage norms?

The review acquired the taint of storytelling with the reviewers’ assertion:

“..timing of the intervention. The greatest potential effect would be accomplished at the critical period in development for which the genomic plasticity is at its peak, thus ameliorating the influence of hypoxia or other stressors.”

Contradictory evidence was in the omitted caffeine study’s graphic above which described two gestational critical periods where an “intervention” had opposite effects, all of which were harmful to the current fetus’ development and/or to following generations. Widening the PubMed link’s search parameters to “caffeine hypoxia” and “caffeine pregnancy” returned links to human early life studies that used caffeine in interventions, ignoring possible adverse effects on future generations.

This is my final curation of any paper sponsored by this institution.

https://www.physiology.org/doi/abs/10.1152/physrev.00043.2017 “Gestational Hypoxia and Developmental Plasticity” (not freely available) Thanks to coauthor Dr. Xiang-Qun Hu for providing a copy.

Immune memory in the brain

This 2018 German rodent study was a proof-of-principle for immune epigenetic memory in the brain:

“Innate immune memory is a vital mechanism of myeloid [bone marrow] cell plasticity that occurs in response to environmental stimuli and alters subsequent immune responses.

Two types of immunological imprinting can be distinguished – training and tolerance. These are epigenetically mediated and enhance or suppress subsequent inflammation, respectively.

Certain immune stimuli train blood monocytes to generate enhanced immune responses to subsequent immune insults. By contrast, other stimuli induce immune tolerance — suppression of inflammatory responses to subsequent stimuli.

Microglia (brain-resident macrophages) are very long-lived cells. This makes them particularly interesting for studying immune memory, as virtually permanent modification of their molecular profile appears possible. Immune memory in the brain is predominantly mediated by microglia.

In a mouse model of Alzheimer’s pathology, immune training exacerbates cerebral β-amyloidosis and immune tolerance alleviates it; similarly, peripheral immune stimulation modifies pathological features after stroke. Our results identify immune memory in the brain as an important modifier of neuropathology.

Immune memory in the brain could conceivably affect the severity of any neurological disease that presents with an inflammatory component, but this will need to be studied for each individual condition.”


The researchers performed multiple experiments to test different hypotheses about how immune-response experiences are remembered. Modifications to histone methylation and acetylation were targeted.

The dosage of the stimulus needed to produce immune tolerance was usually four times the immune training dosage.

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-018-0023-4 “Innate immune memory in the brain shapes neurological disease hallmarks” (not freely available)