Transgenerational Transmission of Drug Exposure and Stress in Rodents

January 28, 2015 · Posted in Genetics · Comment 

baby rats

New data suggest that there can be transgenerational transmission of the effects of drug exposure and stress from a paternal rat to its offspring. The father mates with a female who was not exposed to drugs or stress and never has any contact with the offspring.  Consensus is now building that this transmission occurs via epigenetic alterations in sperm.

Epigenetic alterations are those that are mediated by chemical changes in the structure of DNA and of the histones around which DNA is wrapped. These changes do not alter the inherited gene sequences but only alter how easy it is for genes encoded in the DNA to be activated (transcribed) or suppressed (inhibited).

There are three common types of epigenetic modifications. One involves the attachment of a methyl or acetyl group to the N-terminals of histones. Methylation typically inhibits transcription while acetylation activates transcription. Histones can also be altered by the addition of other compounds. The second major type of epigenetic change is when the DNA itself is methylated. This usually results in inhibition of the transcription of genes in that area. The third epigenetic mechanism is when microRNA (miRNA) binds to active RNA and changes the degree to which proteins are synthesized.

At a recent scientific meeting, researchers described the various ways epigenetic changes can be passed on to future generations.

Researcher Chris Pierce reported that chronic cocaine administration increased brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the medial prefrontal cortex of rats. (BDNF is important for learning and memory.) The cocaine administration led to acetylation of the promoter for BDNF.

This exposure to cocaine in male rats who then fathered offspring led to two changes in the offspring, presumably conveyed by epigenetic changes to the fathers’ sperm. The first change was a decrease in cocaine reinforcement. The offspring took longer to acquire a cocaine self-administration habit. The second change was long-lasting learning deficits in the male offspring, specifically recognition of novel objects. The deficit was associated with a reduction in long-term potentiation in the offspring. Long-term potentiation is the strengthening of synapses that occurs through repeated patterns of activity. Surprisingly, the following generation also showed deficits in learning and memory, but did not show a loss of long-term potentiation.

Editor’s Note: These data indicate that alterations in sensitivity to cocaine (in this case slower acquisition of cocaine self-administration) can be transferred to a later generation, as can learning deficits in males. These data suggest that fathers’ experience of drugs can influence cocaine responsiveness and learning via epigenetic mechanisms likely mediated via epigenetic changes to the father’s sperm.

This research suggests the possibility that, in a human clinical situation, there would be three ways that a father’s drug abuse could affect his child’s DNA. First, there is the traditional genetic inheritance, where, for example, an increased risk for drug abuse is passed on to the child via the father’s genetic code. Next, drug abuse brings about epigenetic changes to the father’s sperm. (His genetic code remains the same, but acetyl groups attach to the BDNF promoter section of his DNA, changing how those proteins get produced.) Lastly, if the father’s drug abuse added stress to the family environment, this stress could have epigenetic effects on the child’s DNA.

Researcher Alison Rodgers described how epigenetic changes involving miRNA in paternal rats influence endocrine responsivity to stress in their offspring. Rodgers put rats under stress and observed a decrease in hormonal corticosterone response to stress. When a father rat was stressed, nine different miRNAs were altered in its sperm. To prove that this stress response could be passed on transgenerationally via miRNAs, the researchers took sperm from an unstressed father, loaded it with one or all nine miRNAs from the stressed animal, and artificially inseminated female rats. Rodgers found that the sperm containing all nine miRNAs, but not the sperm carrying one randomly selected miRNA, resulted in offspring with a blunted corticosterone response to stress.

Researcher Eric Nestler showed that when a rodent goes through 10 days of defeat stress (being defeated repeatedly by a larger animal), they begin to exhibit behaviors resembling those seen in depression. Social avoidance was the most robust change, and continued for the rest of the animal’s life. Animals did not have to be physically attacked by the bigger animal to show the depression-like effects of defeat stress. Just witnessing the repeated defeats of another rat was sufficient to produce the syndrome. Again, father rats that experienced defeat stress or witnessed it passed this susceptibility to defeat stress on to their offspring (with whom they never had any contact), likely by epigenetic changes to sperm. Read more

Older Fathers More Likely to Have Offspring with Bipolar Disorder

November 17, 2014 · Posted in Risk Factors · Comment 

older father

In a huge study of Swedish siblings, a sibling was 24.7 times more likely to have bipolar disorder if the father was older (over age 45) at the time of the birth than younger (younger than 24). Older paternal age was also associated with other risks of mental disorders, such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), suicide attempts, substance abuse and psychosis, but the strongest finding was of a relationship with bipolar disorder.

Mutations that occur during the production of sperm may be responsible for the increased risk of illness in the offspring of older fathers.

The population-based cohort study published by Brian M. D’Onofrio et al. in the journal JAMA Psychiatry included all individuals born in Sweden between 1973 and 2001.

Transgenerational Transmission of PTSD

January 2, 2014 · Posted in Risk Factors, Theory · Comment 

mother with newborn

At a recent scientific meeting, Rachael Yehada showed that PTSD-like traits could be passed transgenerationally. Mothers in New York City who were pregnant on September 11, 2001 and developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) produced children with low cortisol in their blood (a sign of PTSD). If the fathers had PTSD during the mother’s pregnancy, the children had high cortisol.

These gender-related findings have some parallels in studies of rodents. When a rat pup is separated from its mother for 15 minutes, the mother is overjoyed to see the pup return and licks and grooms it excessively. This maternal overprotection yields an animal with lifelong low cortisol through an epigenetic process. The glucocorticoid receptor gives a feedback message to suppress cortisol, and glucocorticoid receptors are increased in the pups’ brains because of lower methylation of the DNA promoter for glucocorticoid receptors.

If a father has PTSD, there is more methylation of the promoter for glucocorticoid receptors and less expression of them in the forebrain. There is also less feedback suppression of cortisol and the baby exhibits high cortisol.

The methylation of the glucocorticoid receptors in the offspring’s white blood cells is highly correlated (r=0.57, p<0.005, n=23) with methylation in the parent’s white blood cells.

Information from Environmental Experiences Can Be Passed on in Dad’s Sperm

December 30, 2013 · Posted in Theory · Comment 

lab mouse

Contrary to all common sense, researcher Brian Dias showed that when rats that were future fathers learned to associate an odor with a shock, this learning could be passed on to the next generation when the father mated with a female rat that had not learned the same association.

It turns out that the next generation of rat pups shows increased behavioral reactivity to the odor in a process different from the fear conditioning they might exhibit if they learned to avoid the odor through their own experiences.

Presumably, the pup is somehow programmed through an epigenetic modification of the father’s sperm to grow more neurons from the nose to the olfactory bulb that specifically react to the odor its father feared, and not to other odors. Miraculously, when the second generation pup grows up and fathers a third generation pup, the new pup also shows increased behavioral sensitivity to that specific odor. How the odor information from the first generation is represented in the fathers’ sperm and passed on to their descendants is still a complete mystery.

There are also new data that a father rat fed a diet deficient in folic acid (vitamin B9) will sire offspring with more congenital malformations. Additionally, an obese father rat fed a diet that includes extra fat calories will sire pups that become obese as adults even when fed a normal milk diet from a svelte mother before weaning and then fed a normal diet after weaning.

Mothers’ behavior usually gets most of the credit and/or blame for her children’s behavior, but now it looks like fathers’ diet or behavior (even before they have children) may have lasting consequences for their offspring.

Parental Nurturing Linked to Greater Hippocampal Volume in Young Children

May 4, 2012 · Posted in Neurobiology, Resources · Comment 


An article published by Medscape reports that in a recent study by Dr. Joan Luby of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, non-depressed preschool children whose parents showed more nurturing behaviors during a mildly stressful task were found to have hippocampal volume almost 10% greater than their peers whose parents showed fewer nurturing behaviors. The hippocampus affects cognitive functioning and emotion regulation.

Unfortunately, parental nurturing did not effect the hippocampal volume of children with early-onset depression.

Dr. Luby and colleagues think their findings could have “profound public health implications and suggest that greater public health emphasis on early parenting could be a very fruitful social investment.”

“The finding that early parenting support, a modifiable psychosocial factor, is directly related to healthy development of a key brain region known to impact cognitive functioning and emotion regulation opens an exciting opportunity to impact the development of children in a powerful and positive fashion”.