Posts Tagged ‘hypothalamus’

Effect of mitochondrial stress on epigenetic modifiers

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator



Early Mitochondrial Stress Alters Epigenetics, Secures Lifelong Health Benefits

GEN 5/3/2016

A little adversity builds character, or so the saying goes. True or not, the saying does seem an apt description of a developmental phenomenon that shapes gene expression. While it knows nothing of character, the gene expression apparatus appears to respond well to short-term mitochondrial stress that occurs early in development. In fact, transient stress seems to result in lasting benefits. These benefits, which include improved metabolic function and increased longevity, have been observed in both worms and mice, and may even occur—or be made to occur—in humans.

Gene expression is known to be subject to reprogramming by epigenetic modifiers, but such modifiers generally affect metabolism or lifespan, not both. A new set of epigenetic modifiers, however, has been found to trigger changes that do just that—both improve metabolism and extend lifespan.

Scientists based at the University of California, Berkeley, and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have discovered enzymes that are ramped up after mild stress during early development and continue to affect the expression of genes throughout the animal’s life. When the scientists looked at strains of inbred mice that have radically different lifespans, those with the longest lifespans had significantly higher expression of these enzymes than did the short-lived mice.

“Two of the enzymes we discovered are highly, highly correlated with lifespan; it is the biggest genetic correlation that has ever been found for lifespan in mice, and they’re both naturally occurring variants,” said Andrew Dillin, a UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology. “Based on what we see in worms, boosting these enzymes could reprogram your metabolism to create better health, with a possible side effect of altering lifespan.”

Details of the work, which appeared online April 29 in the journal Cell, are presented in a pair of papers. One paper (“Two Conserved Histone Demethylases Regulate Mitochondrial Stress-Induced Longevity”) resulted from an effort led by Dillin and the EPFL’s Johan Auwerx. The other paper (“Mitochondrial Stress Induces Chromatin Reorganization to Promote Longevity and UPRmt”) resulted from an effort led by Dillin and his UC Berkeley colleague Barbara Meyer.

According to these papers, mitochondrial stress activates enzymes in the brain that affect DNA folding, exposing a segment of DNA that contains the 1500 genes involved in the work of the mitochondria. A second set of enzymes then tags these genes, affecting their activation for much or all of the lifetime of the animal and causing permanent changes in how the mitochondria generates energy.

The first set of enzymes—methylases, in particular LIN-65—add methyl groups to the DNA, which can silence promoters and thus suppress gene expression. By also opening up the mitochondrial genes, these methylases set the stage for the second set of enzymes—demethylases, in this case jmjd-1.2 and jmjd-3.1—to ramp up transcription of the mitochondrial genes. When the researchers artificially increased production of the demethylases in worms, all the worms lived longer, a result identical to what is observed after mitochondrial stress.

“By changing the epigenetic state, these enzymes are able to switch genes on and off,” Dillin noted. This happens only in the brain of the worm, however, in areas that sense hunger or satiety. “These genes are expressed in neurons that are sensing the nutritional status of the animal, and these signals emanate out to the periphery to change peripheral metabolism,” he continued.

When the scientists profiled enzymes in short- and long-lived mice, they found upregulation of these genes in the brains of long-lived mice, but not in other tissues or in the brains of short-lived mice. “These genes are expressed in the hypothalamus, exactly where, when you eat, the signals are generated that tell you that you are full. And when you are hungry, signals in that region tell you to go and eat,” Dillin explained said. “These genes are all involved in peripheral feedback.”

Among the mitochondrial genes activated by these enzymes are those involved in the body’s response to proteins that unfold, which is a sign of stress. Increased activity of the proteins that refold other proteins is another hallmark of longer life.

These observations suggest that the reversal of aging by epigenetic enzymes could also take place in humans.

“It seems that, while extreme metabolic stress can lead to problems later in life, mild stress early in development says to the body, ‘Whoa, things are a little bit off-kilter here, let’s try to repair this and make it better.’ These epigenetic switches keep this up for the rest of the animal’s life,” Dillin stated.


Two Conserved Histone Demethylases Regulate Mitochondrial Stress-Induced Longevity

Carsten Merkwirth6, Virginija Jovaisaite6, Jenni Durieux,…., Reuben J. Shaw, Johan Auwerx, Andrew Dillin

  • H3K27 demethylases jmjd-1.2 and jmjd-3.1 are required for ETC-mediated longevity
  • jmjd-1.2 and jmjd-3.1 extend lifespan and are sufficient for UPRmt activation
  • UPRmt is required for increased lifespan due to jmjd-1.2 or jmjd-3.1 overexpression
  • JMJD expression is correlated with UPRmt and murine lifespan in inbred BXD lines

Across eukaryotic species, mild mitochondrial stress can have beneficial effects on the lifespan of organisms. Mitochondrial dysfunction activates an unfolded protein response (UPRmt), a stress signaling mechanism designed to ensure mitochondrial homeostasis. Perturbation of mitochondria during larval development in C. elegans not only delays aging but also maintains UPRmt signaling, suggesting an epigenetic mechanism that modulates both longevity and mitochondrial proteostasis throughout life. We identify the conserved histone lysine demethylases jmjd-1.2/PHF8 and jmjd-3.1/JMJD3 as positive regulators of lifespan in response to mitochondrial dysfunction across species. Reduction of function of the demethylases potently suppresses longevity and UPRmt induction, while gain of function is sufficient to extend lifespan in a UPRmt-dependent manner. A systems genetics approach in the BXD mouse reference population further indicates conserved roles of the mammalian orthologs in longevity and UPRmt signaling. These findings illustrate an evolutionary conserved epigenetic mechanism that determines the rate of aging downstream of mitochondrial perturbations.

Figure thumbnail fx1


Mitochondrial Stress Induces Chromatin Reorganization to Promote Longevity and UPRmt
Ye Tian, Gilberto Garcia, Qian Bian, Kristan K. Steffen, Larry Joe, Suzanne Wolff, Barbara J. Meyer, Andrew Dillincorrespondence             Publication stage: In Press Corrected Proof
  • LIN-65 accumulates in the nucleus in response to mitochondrial stress
  • Mitochondrial stress-induced chromatin changes depend on MET-2 and LIN-65
  • LIN-65 and DVE-1 exhibit interdependence in nuclear accumulation
  • met-2 and atfs-1 act in parallel to affect mitochondrial stress-induced longevity

Organisms respond to mitochondrial stress through the upregulation of an array of protective genes, often perpetuating an early response to metabolic dysfunction across a lifetime. We find that mitochondrial stress causes widespread changes in chromatin structure through histone H3K9 di-methylation marks traditionally associated with gene silencing. Mitochondrial stress response activation requires the di-methylation of histone H3K9 through the activity of the histone methyltransferase met-2 and the nuclear co-factor lin-65. While globally the chromatin becomes silenced by these marks, remaining portions of the chromatin open up, at which point the binding of canonical stress responsive factors such as DVE-1 occurs. Thus, a metabolic stress response is established and propagated into adulthood of animals through specific epigenetic modifications that allow for selective gene expression and lifespan extension

 Siddharta Mukherjee’s Writing Career Just Got Dealt a Sucker Punch
Author: Theral Timpson

Siddharha Mukherjee won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction for his book, The Emperor of All Maladies.  The book has received widespread acclaim among lay audience, physicians, and scientists alike.  Last year the book was turned into a special PBS series.  But, according to a slew of scientists, we should all be skeptical of his next book scheduled to hit book shelves this month, The Gene, An Intimate History.

Publishing an article on epigenetics in the New Yorker this week–perhaps a selection from his new book–Mukherjee has waltzed into one of the most active scientific debates in all of biology: that of gene regulation, or epigenetics.

Jerry Coyne, the evolutionary biologist known for keeping journalists honest, has published a two part critique of Mukherjee’s New Yorker piece.  The first part–wildly tweeted yesterday–is a list of quotes from Coyne’s colleagues and those who have written in to the New Yorker, including two Nobel prize winners, Wally Gilbert and Sidney Altman, offering some very unfriendly sentences.

Wally Gilbert: “The New Yorker article is so wildly wrong that it defies rational analysis.”

Sidney Altman:  “I am not aware that there is such a thing as an epigenetic code.  It is unfortunate to inflict this article, without proper scientific review, on the audience of the New Yorker.”

The second part is a thorough scientific rebuttal of the Mukherjee piece.  It all serves as a great drama about one of the most contested ideas in biology and also as a cautionary tale to journalists, even experienced writers such as Mukherjee, about the dangers of wading into scientific arguments.  Readers may remember that a few years ago, science writer, David Dobbs, similarly skated into the same topic with his piece, Die, Selfish Gene, Die, and which raised a similar shitstorm, much of it from Coyne.

Mukherjee’s mistake is in giving credence to only one side of a very fierce debate–that the environment causes changes in the genome which can be passed on; another kind of evolution–as though it were settled science.   Either Mukherjee, a physicisan coming off from a successful book and PBS miniseries on cancer, is setting himself up as a scientist, or he has been a truly naive science reporter.   If he got this chapter so wrong, what does it mean about an entire book on the gene?

Coyne quotes one of his colleagues who raised some questions about the New Yorker’s science reporting, one particular question we’ve been asking here at Mendelspod.  How do we know what we know?  Does science now have an edge on any other discipline for being able to create knowledge?

Coyne’s colleague is troubled by science coverage in the New Yorker, and goes so far as to write that the New Yorker has been waging a “war on behalf of cultural critics and literary intellectuals against scientists and technologists.”

From my experience, it’s not quite that tidy.  First of all, the New Yorker is the best writing I read each week.  Period.  Second, I haven’t found their science writing to have the slant claimed in the quote above.  For example, most other mainstream outlets–including the New York Times with the Amy Harmon pieces–have given the anti-GMO crowd an equal say in the mistaken search for a “balance” on whether GMOs are harmful.  (Remember John Stewart’s criticism of Fox News?  That they give a false equivalent between two sides even when there is no equivalent on the other side?)

But the New Yorker has not fallen into this trap on GMOs and most of their pieces on the topic–mainly by Michael Specter–have been decidedly pro science and therefore decided pro GMO.

So what led Mukherjee to play scientist as well as journalist?  There’s no question about whether I enjoy his prose.  His writing beautifully whisks me away so that I don’t feel that I’m really working to understand.  There is a poetic complexity that constantly brings different threads effortlessly together, weaving them into the same light.  At one point he uses the metaphor of a web for the genome, with the epigenome being the stuff that sticks to the web.  He borrows the metaphor from the Hindu notion of “being”, or jaal.

“Genes form the threads of the web; the detritus that adheres to it transforms every web into a singular being.”

There have been a few writers on Twitter defending Mukherjee’s piece.  Tech Review’s Antonio Regalado called Coyne and his colleagues “tedious literalists” who have an “issue with epigenetic poetry.”

At his best, Mukherjee can take us down the sweet alleys of his metaphors and family stories with a new curiosity for the scientific truth.  He can hold a mirror up to scientists, or put the spotlight on their work.   At their worst, Coyne and his scientific colleagues can reek of a fear of language and therefore metaphor.  The always outspoken scientist and author, Richard Dawkins, who made his name by personifying the gene, was quick to personify epigentics in a tweet:   “It’s high time the 15 minutes of underserved fame for “epigenetics” came to an overdue end.”  Dawkins is that rare scientist who has consistently been as comfortable with rhetoric and language as he is with data.

Hats off to Coyne who reminds us that a metaphor–however lovely–does not some science make. If Mukherjee wants to play scientist, let him create and gather data. If it’s the role of science journalist he wants, let him collect all the science he can before he begins to pour it into his poetry.


Same but Different  

How epigenetics can blur the line between nature and nurture.

Annals of Science MAY 2, 2016 ISSUE     BY

The author’s mother (right) and her twin are a study in difference and identity. CREDIT: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAYANITA SINGH FOR THE NEW YORKER

October 6, 1942, my mother was born twice in Delhi. Bulu, her identical twin, came first, placid and beautiful. My mother, Tulu, emerged several minutes later, squirming and squalling. The midwife must have known enough about infants to recognize that the beautiful are often the damned: the quiet twin, on the edge of listlessness, was severely undernourished and had to be swaddled in blankets and revived.

The first few days of my aunt’s life were the most tenuous. She could not suckle at the breast, the story runs, and there were no infant bottles to be found in Delhi in the forties, so she was fed through a cotton wick dipped in milk, and then from a cowrie shell shaped like a spoon. When the breast milk began to run dry, at seven months, my mother was quickly weaned so that her sister could have the last remnants.
Tulu and Bulu grew up looking strikingly similar: they had the same freckled skin, almond-shaped face, and high cheekbones, unusual among Bengalis, and a slight downward tilt of the outer edge of the eye, something that Italian painters used to make Madonnas exude a mysterious empathy. They shared an inner language, as so often happens with twins; they had jokes that only the other twin understood. They even smelled the same: when I was four or five and Bulu came to visit us, my mother, in a bait-and-switch trick that amused her endlessly, would send her sister to put me to bed; eventually, searching in the half-light for identity and difference—for the precise map of freckles on her face—I would realize that I had been fooled.

But the differences were striking, too. My mother was boisterous. She had a mercurial temper that rose fast and died suddenly, like a gust of wind in a tunnel. Bulu was physically timid yet intellectually more adventurous. Her mind was more agile, her tongue sharper, her wit more lancing. Tulu was gregarious. She made friends easily. She was impervious to insults. Bulu was reserved, quieter, and more brittle. Tulu liked theatre and dancing. Bulu was a poet, a writer, a dreamer.

….. more

Why are identical twins alike? In the late nineteen-seventies, a team of scientists in Minnesota set out to determine how much these similarities arose from genes, rather than environments—from “nature,” rather than “nurture.” Scouring thousands of adoption records and news clips, the researchers gleaned a rare cohort of fifty-six identical twins who had been separated at birth. Reared in different families and different cities, often in vastly dissimilar circumstances, these twins shared only their genomes. Yet on tests designed to measure personality, attitudes, temperaments, and anxieties, they converged astonishingly. Social and political attitudes were powerfully correlated: liberals clustered with liberals, and orthodoxy was twinned with orthodoxy. The same went for religiosity (or its absence), even for the ability to be transported by an aesthetic experience. Two brothers, separated by geographic and economic continents, might be brought to tears by the same Chopin nocturne, as if responding to some subtle, common chord struck by their genomes.

One pair of twins both suffered crippling migraines, owned dogs that they had named Toy, married women named Linda, and had sons named James Allan (although one spelled the middle name with a single “l”). Another pair—one brought up Jewish, in Trinidad, and the other Catholic, in Nazi Germany, where he joined the Hitler Youth—wore blue shirts with epaulets and four pockets, and shared peculiar obsessive behaviors, such as flushing the toilet before using it. Both had invented fake sneezes to diffuse tense moments. Two sisters—separated long before the development of language—had invented the same word to describe the way they scrunched up their noses: “squidging.” Another pair confessed that they had been haunted by nightmares of being suffocated by various metallic objects—doorknobs, fishhooks, and the like.

The Minnesota twin study raised questions about the depth and pervasiveness of qualities specified by genes: Where in the genome, exactly, might one find the locus of recurrent nightmares or of fake sneezes? Yet it provoked an equally puzzling converse question: Why are identical twins different? Because, you might answer, fate impinges differently on their bodies. One twin falls down the crumbling stairs of her Calcutta house and breaks her ankle; the other scalds her thigh on a tipped cup of coffee in a European station. Each acquires the wounds, calluses, and memories of chance and fate. But how are these changes recorded, so that they persist over the years? We know that the genome can manufacture identity; the trickier question is how it gives rise to difference.

….. more

But what turns those genes on and off, and keeps them turned on or off? Why doesn’t a liver cell wake up one morning and find itself transformed into a neuron? Allis unpacked the problem further: suppose he could find an organism with two distinct sets of genes—an active set and an inactive set—between which it regularly toggled. If he could identify the molecular switches that maintain one state, or toggle between the two states, he might be able to identify the mechanism responsible for cellular memory. “What I really needed, then, was a cell with these properties,” he recalled when we spoke at his office a few weeks ago. “Two sets of genes, turned ‘on’ or ‘off’ by some signal.”


“Histones had been known as part of the inner scaffold for DNA for decades,” Allis went on. “But most biologists thought of these proteins merely as packaging, or stuffing, for genes.” When Allis gave scientific seminars in the early nineties, he recalled, skeptics asked him why he was so obsessed with the packing material, the stuff in between the DNA.  …. A skein of silk tangled into a ball has very different properties from that same skein extended; might the coiling or uncoiling of DNA change the activity of genes?

In 1996, Allis and his research group deepened this theory with a seminal discovery. “We became interested in the process of histone modification,” he said. “What is the signal that changes the structure of the histone so that DNA can be packed into such radically different states? We finally found a protein that makes a specific chemical change in the histone, possibly forcing the DNA coil to open. And when we studied the properties of this protein it became quite clear that it was also changing the activity of genes.” The coils of DNA seemed to open and close in response to histone modifications—inhaling, exhaling, inhaling, like life.

Allis walked me to his lab, a fluorescent-lit space overlooking the East River, divided by wide, polished-stone benches. A mechanical stirrer, whirring in a corner, clinked on the edge of a glass beaker. “Two features of histone modifications are notable,” Allis said. “First, changing histones can change the activity of a gene without affecting the sequence of the DNA.” It is, in short, formally epi-genetic, just as Waddington had imagined. “And, second, the histone modifications are passed from a parent cell to its daughter cells when cells divide. A cell can thus record ‘memory,’ and not just for itself but for all its daughter cells.”




The New Yorker screws up big time with science: researchers criticize the Mukherjee piece on epigenetics

Jerry Coyne

Abstract: This is a two part-post about a science piece on gene regulation that just appeared in the New Yorker. Today I give quotes from scientists criticizing that piece; tomorrow I’ll present a semi-formal critique of the piece by two experts in the field.

esterday I gave readers an assignment: read the new New Yorkerpiece by Siddhartha Mukherjee about epigenetics. The piece, called “Same but different” (subtitle: “How epigenetics can blur the line between nature and nurture”) was brought to my attention by two readers, both of whom praised it.  Mukherjee, a physician, is well known for writing the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book (2011) The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. (I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my list.)  Mukherjee has a new book that will be published in May: The Gene: An Intimate History. As I haven’t seen it, the New Yorker piece may be an excerpt from this book.

Everyone I know who has read The Emperor of All Maladies gives it high praise. I wish I could say the same for Mukherjee’s New Yorker piece. When I read it at the behest of the two readers, I found his analysis of gene regulation incomplete and superficial. Although I’m not an expert in that area, I knew that there was a lot of evidence that regulatory proteins called “transcription factors”, and not “epigenetic markers” (see discussion of this term tomorrow) or modified histones—the factors emphasized by Mukherjee—played hugely important roles in gene regulation. The speculations at the end of the piece about “Lamarckian evolution” via environmentally induced epigenetic changes in the genome were also unfounded, for we have no evidence for that kind of adaptive evolution. Mukherjee does, however, mention that lack of evidence, though I wish he’d done so more strongly given that environmental modification of DNA bases is constantly touted as an important and neglected factor in evolution.

Unbeknownst to me, there was a bit of a kerfuffle going on in the community of scientists who study gene regulation, with many of them finding serious mistakes and omissions in Mukherjee’s piece.  There appears to have been some back-and-forth emailing among them, and several wrote letters to the New Yorker, urging them to correct the misconceptions, omissions, and scientific errors in “Same but different.” As I understand it, both Mukherjee and the New Yorker simply batted these criticisms away, and, as far as I know, will not publish any corrections.  So today and tomorrow I’ll present the criticisms here, just so they’ll be on the record.

Because Mukherjee writes very well, and because even educated laypeople won’t know the story of gene regulation revealed over the last few decades,  they may not see the big lacunae in his piece. It is, then,  important to set matters straight, for at least we should know what science has told us about how genes are turned on and off. The criticism of Mukherjee’s piece, coming from scientists who really are experts in gene regulation, shows a lack of care on the part of Mukherjee and theNew Yorker: both a superficial and misleading treatment of the state of the science, and a failure of the magazine to properly vet this piece (I have no idea whether they had it “refereed” not just by editors but by scientists not mentioned in the piece).

Let me add one thing about science and the New Yorker. I believe I’ve said this before, but the way the New Yorker treats science is symptomatic of the “two cultures” problem. This is summarized in an email sent me a while back by a colleague, which I quote with permission:

The New Yorker is fine with science that either serves a literary purpose (doctors’ portraits of interesting patients) or a political purpose (environmental writing with its implicit critique of modern technology and capitalism). But the subtext of most of its coverage (there are exceptions) is that scientists are just a self-interested tribe with their own narrative and no claim to finding the truth, and that science must concede the supremacy of literary culture when it comes to anything human, and never try to submit human affairs to quantification or consilience with biology. Because the magazine is undoubtedly sophisticated in its writing and editing they don’t flaunt their postmodernism or their literary-intellectual proprietariness, but once you notice it you can make sense of a lot of their material.

. . . Obviously there are exceptions – Atul Gawande is consistently superb – but as soon as you notice it, their guild war on behalf of cultural critics and literary intellectuals against scientists, technologists, and analytic scholars becomes apparent.

…. more

Researchers criticize the Mukherjee piece on epigenetics: Part 2

Trigger warning: Long science post!

Yesterday I provided a bunch of scientists’ reactions—and these were big names in the field of gene regulation—to Siddhartha Mukherjee’s ill-informed piece in The New Yorker, “Same but different” (subtitle: “How epigenetics can blur the line between nature and nurture”). Today, in part 2, I provide a sentence-by-sentence analysis and reaction by two renowned researchers in that area. We’ll start with a set of definitions (provided by the authors) that we need to understand the debate, and then proceed to the critique.

Let me add one thing to avoid confusion: everything below the line, including the definition (except for my one comment at the end) was written by Ptashne and Greally.

by Mark Ptashne and John Greally


Ptashne is The Ludwig Professor of Molecular Biology at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He wrote A Genetic Switch, now in its third edition, which describes the principles of gene regulation and the workings of a ‘switch’; and, with Alex Gann, Genes and Signals, which extends these principles and ideas to higher organisms and to other cellular processes as well.  John Greally is the Director of the Center for Epigenomics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.


The New Yorker  (May 2, 2016) published an article entitled “Same But Different” written by Siddhartha Mukherjee.  As readers will have gathered from the letters posted yesterday, there is a concern that the article is misleading, especially for a non-scientific audience. The issue concerns our current understanding of “gene regulation” and how that understanding has been arrived at.

First some definitions/concepts:

Gene regulation refers to the “turning on and off of genes”.  The primary event in turning a gene “on” is to transcribe (copy) it into messenger RNA (mRNA). That mRNA is then decoded, usually, into a specific protein.  Genes are transcribed by the enzyme called RNA polymerase.

Development:  the process in which a fertilized egg (e.g., a human egg) divides many times and eventually forms an organism.  During this process, many of the roughly 23,000 genes of a human are turned “on” or “off” in different combinations, at different times and places in the developing organism. The process produces many different cell types in different organs (e.g. liver and brain), but all retain the original set of genes.

Transcription factors: proteins that bind to specific DNA sequences near specific genes and turn transcription of those genes on and off. A transcriptional ‘activator’, for example, bears two surfaces: one binds a specific sequence in DNA, and the other binds to, and thereby recruits to the gene, protein complexes that include RNA polymerase. It is widely acknowledged that the identity of a cell in the body depends on the array of transcription factors present in the cell, and the cell’s history.  RNA molecules can also recognize specific genomic sequences, and they too sometimes work as regulators.  Neither transcription factors nor these kinds of RNA molecules – the fundamental regulators of gene expression and development – are mentioned in the New Yorker article.

Signals:  these come in many forms (small molecules like estrogen, larger molecules (often proteins such as cytokines) that determine the ability of transcription factors to work.  For example, estrogen binds directly to a transcription factor (the estrogen receptor) and, by changing its shape, permits it to bind DNA and activate transcription.

Memory”:  a dividing cell can (often does) produce daughters that are identical, and that express identical genes as does the mother cell.  This occurs because the transcription factors present in the mother cell are passively transmitted to the daughters as the cell divides, and they go to work in their new contexts as before.  To make two different daughters, the cell must distribute its transcription factors asymmetrically.

Positive Feedback: An activator can maintain its own expression by  positive feedback.  This requires, simply, that a copy of the DNA sequence to which the activator binds is  present  near its own gene. Expression of the activator  then becomes self-perpetuating.  The activator (of which there now are many copies in the cell) activates  other target genes as it maintains its own expression. This kind of ‘memory circuit’, first described  in  bacteria, is found in higher organisms as well.  Positive feedback can explain how a fully differentiated cell (that is, a cell that has reached its developmental endpoint) maintains its identity.

Nucleosomes:  DNA in higher organisms (eukaryotes) is wrapped, like beads on a string, around certain proteins (called histones), to form nucleosomes.  The histones are subject to enzymatic modifications: e.g., acetyl, methyl, phosphate, etc. groups can be added to these structures. In bacteria there are no nucleosomes, and the DNA is more or less ‘naked’.

“Epigenetic modifications: please don’t worry about the word ”epigenetic”; it is misused in any case. What Mukherjee refers to by this term are the histone modifications mentioned above, and a modification to DNA itself: the addition of methyl groups. Keep in mind that the organisms that have taught us the most about development – flies (Drosophila) and worms (C. elegans)—do not have the enzymes required for DNA methylation. That does not mean that DNA methylation cannot do interesting things in humans, for example, but it is obviously not at the heart of gene regulation.

Specificity Development requires the highly specific sequential turning on and off of sets of genes.  Transcription factors and RNA supply this specificity, but   enzymes that impart modifications to histones  cannot: every nucleosome (and hence every gene) appears the same to the enzyme.  Thus such enzymes cannot pick out particular nucleosomes associated with particular genes to modify.  Histone modifications might be imagined to convey ‘memory’ as cells divide – but there are no convincing indications that this happens, nor are there molecular models that might explain why they would have the imputed effects.

Analysis and critique of Mukherjee’s article

The picture we have just sketched has taken the combined efforts of many scientists over 50 years to develop.  So what, then, is the problem with the New Yorker article?

There are two: first, the picture we have just sketched, emphasizing the primary role of transcription factors and RNA, is absent.  Second, that picture is replaced by highly dubious speculations, some of which don’t make sense, and none of which has been shown to work as imagined in the article.

(Quotes from the Mukherjee article are indented and in plain text; they are followed by comments, flush left and in bold, by Ptashne and Greally.)

In 1978, having obtained a Ph.D. in biology at Indiana University, Allis began to tackle a problem that had long troubled geneticists and cell biologists: if all the cells in the body have the same genome, how does one become a nerve cell, say, and another a blood cell, which looks and functions very differently?

The problems referred to were recognized long before 1978.  In fact, these were exactly the problems that the great French scientists François Jacob and Jacques Monod took on in the 1950s-60s.  In a series of brilliant experiments, Jacob and Monod showed that in bacteria, certain genes encode products that regulate (turn on and off) specific other genes.  Those regulatory molecules turned out to be proteins, some of which respond to signals from the environment.  Much of the story of modern biology has been figuring out how these proteins – in bacteria and in higher organisms  – bind to and regulate specific genes.  Of note is that in higher organisms, the regulatory proteins look and act like those in bacteria, despite the fact that eukaryotic DNA is wrapped in nucleosomes  whereas bacterial DNA is not.   We have also learned that certain RNA molecules can play a regulatory role, a phenomenon made possible by the fact that RNA molecules, like regulatory proteins, can recognize specific genomic sequences.

In the nineteen-forties, Conrad Waddington, an English embryologist, had proposed an ingenious answer: cells acquired their identities just as humans do—by letting nurture (environmental signals) modify nature (genes). For that to happen, Waddington concluded, an additional layer of information must exist within a cell—a layer that hovered, ghostlike, above the genome. This layer would carry the “memory” of the cell, recording its past and establishing its future, marking its identity and its destiny but permitting that identity to be changed, if needed. He termed the phenomenon “epigenetics”—“above genetics.”

This description greatly misrepresents the original concept.  Waddington argued that development proceeds not by the loss (or gain) of genes, which would be a “genetic” process, but rather that some genes would be selectively expressed in specific and complex cellular patterns as development proceeds.  He referred to this intersection of embryology (then called “epigenesis”) and genetics as “epigenetic”.We now understand that regulatory proteins work in combinations to turn on and off genes, including their own genes, and that sometimes the regulatory proteins respond to signals sent by other cells.  It should be emphasized that Waddington never proposed any “ghost-like” layer of additional information hovering above the gene.  This is a later misinterpretation of a literal translation of the term epigenetics, with “epi-“ meaning “above/upon” the genetic information encoded in DNA sequence.  Unfortunately, this new and pervasive definition encompasses all of transcriptional regulation and is of no practical value.


By 2000, Allis and his colleagues around the world had identified a gamut of proteins that could modify histones, and so modulate the activity of genes. Other systems, too, that could scratch different kinds of code on the genome were identified (some of these discoveries predating the identification of histone modifications). One involved the addition of a chemical side chain, called a methyl group, to DNA. The methyl groups hang off the DNA string like Christmas ornaments, and specific proteins add and remove the ornaments, in effect “decorating” the genome. The most heavily methylated parts of the genome tend to be dampened in their activity.

It is true that enzymes that modify histones have been found—lots of them.  A striking problem is that, after all this time, it is not at all clear what the vast majority of these modifications do.  When these enzymatic activities are eliminated by mutation of their active sites (a task substantially easier to accomplish in yeast than in higher organisms) they mostly have little or no effect on transcription.  It is not even clear that histones are the biologically relevant substrates of most of these enzymes.  

 In the ensuing decade, Allis wrote enormous, magisterial papers in which a rich cast of histone-modifying proteins appear and reappear through various roles, mapping out a hatchwork of complexity. . . These protein systems, overlaying information on the genome, interacted with one another, reinforcing or attenuating their signals. Together, they generated the bewildering intricacy necessary for a cell to build a constellation of other cells out of the same genes, and for the cells to add “memories” to their genomes and transmit these memories to their progeny. “There’s an epigenetic code, just like there’s a genetic code,” Allis said. “There are codes to make parts of the genome more active, and codes to make them inactive.”

By ‘epigenetic code’ the author seems to mean specific arrays of nucleosome modifications, imparted over time and cell divisions, marking genes for expression.  This idea has been tested in many experiments and has been found not to hold.

….. and more


Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP

I hope that this piece brings greater clarity to the discussion.  I have heard the use of the term “epigenetics” for over a decade.  The term was never so clear.  I think that the New Yorker article was a reasonable article for the intended audience.  It was not intended to clarify debates about a mechanism for epigenetic based changes in evolutionary science.  I think it actually punctures the “classic model” of the cell depending only on double stranded DNA and transcription, which deflates our concept of the living cell.  The concept of epigenetics was never really formulated as far as I have seen, and I have done serious work in enzymology and proteins at a time that we did not have the technology that exists today.  I have considered with the critics that protein folding, protein misfolding, protein interactions with proximity of polar and nonpolar groups, and the regulatory role of microRNAs that are not involved in translation, and the evolving concept of what is “dark (noncoding) DNA” lend credence to the complexity of this discussion.  Even more interesting is the fact that enzymes (and isoforms of enzymes) have a huge role in cellular metabolic differences and in the function of metabolic pathways.  What is less understood is the extremely fast reactions involved in these cellular reactions.  These reactions are in my view critical drivers.  This is brought out by Erwin Schroedinger in the book What is Life? which infers that there can be no mathematical expression of life processes.





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Neural Activity Regulating Endocrine Response

Writer and Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP


Defensive responses of Brandt’s voles (Lasiopodomys brandtii) to chronic predatory stress

Ibrahim M. Hegab, Guoshen Shang, Manhong Ye, Yajuan, et al.
Physiology & Behavior 126 (2014) 1–7

Predator odors are non-intrusive natural stressors of high ethological relevance. The objective of this study was to investigate the processing of a chronic, life-threatening stimulus during repeated prolonged presentation to Brandt’s voles. One hundred and twenty voles were tested by repeated presentation of cat feces in a defensive withdrawal apparatus. Voles exposed to feces for short periods showed more avoidance, more concealment in the hide box, less contact time with the odor source, more freezing behavior, less grooming, more jumping, and more vigilant rearing than did non-exposed voles, and those exposed for longer periods. Serum levels of adrenocortico-tropic hormone and corticosterone increased significantly when animals were repeatedly exposed to cat feces for short periods. The behavioral and endocrine responses  habituated during prolonged presentation of cat feces.  ΔfosB mRNA expression level was highest in voles exposed to cat feces for 6 and 12 consecutive days, and subsequently declined in animals exposed to cat feces for 24 days. We therefore conclude that the behavioral and endocrine responses to repeated exposure to cat feces undergo a process of habituation, while ΔfosB changes in the medial hypothalamic region exhibit sensitization. We propose that habituation and sensitization are complementary rather than contradictory processes that occur in the same individual upon repeated presentation of the same stressor.

Neuroendocrine changes upon exposure to predator odors

Ibrahim M. Hegab, Wanhong Wei
Physiology & Behavior 131 (2014) 149–155

Predator odors are non-intrusive and naturalistic stressors of high ethological relevance in animals. Upon exposure to a predator or its associated cues, robust physiological and molecular anti-predator defensive strategies are

elicited thereby allowing prey species to recognize, avoid and defend against a possible predation threat. In this review, we will discuss the nature of neuroendocrine stress responses upon exposure to predator odors. Predator odors can have a profound effect on the endocrine system, including activation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, and induction of stress hormones such as corticosterone and adrenocorticotropic hormone. On a neural level, short-term exposure to predator odors leads to induction of the c-fos gene, while induction of ΔFosB in a different brain region is detected under chronic predation stress. Future research should aim to elucidate the relationships between neuroendocrine and behavioral outputs to gage the different levels of antipredator responses in prey species.

Involvement of NR1, NR2A different expression in brain regions in anxiety-like behavior of prenatally stressed offspring

Hongli Sun, Ning Jia, Lixia Guan, Qing Su, et al.
Behavioural Brain Research 257 (2013) 1– 7

Prenatal stress (PS) has been shown to be associated with anxiety. However, the underlying neurological mechanisms are not well understood. To determine the effects of PS on anxiety-like behavior in the adult offspring, we evaluated anxiety-like behavior using open field test (OFT) and elevated plus maze (EPM) in the 3-month offspring. Both male and female offspring showed a significant reduction of crossing counts in the center, total crossing counts, rearing counts and time spent in the center in the OFT, and only male offspring showed a decreased percentage of open-arm entries and open-arm time in open arms in the EPM. Additionally, expression of NR1 and NR2A subunit of N-methyl-d-aspartate receptor (NMDAR) in the hippocampus (HIP), prefrontal cortex (PFC) and striatum (STR) was studied. Our results showed that PS reduced NR1 and NR2A expression in the HIP, NR2A expression in the PFC and STR in the offspring. The altered NR1 and NR2A could have potential impact on anxiety-like behavior in the adult offspring exposed to PS.

Acute serotonergic treatment changes the relation between anxiety and HPA-axis functioning and periaqueductal gray activation

Dietmar Hestermann, Yasin Temel, Arjan Bloklan, Lee Wei Lim

Serotonergic (5-HT) drugs are widely used in the clinical management of mood and anxiety disorders. However, it is reported that acute 5-HT treatment elicits anxiogenic-like behavior. Interestingly, the periaqueductal gray (PAG), a midbrain structure which regulates anxiety behavior – has robust 5-HT fibers and reciprocal connections with the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis. Although the HPA axis and the 5-HT system are well investigated, the relationship between the stress hormones induced by 5-HT drug treatment
and the PAG neural correlates of the behavior remain largely unknown. In
this study, the effects of acute and chronic treatments with buspirone (BUSP)
and escitalopram (ESCIT) on anxiety related behaviors were tested in an open-
field (OF). The treatment effects on PAG c-Fos immunoreactivity (c-Fos-ir) and corticosterone (CORT) concentration were measured in order to determine the neural endocrine correlates of anxiety-related behaviors and drug treatments. Our results demonstrate that acute BUSP and ESCIT treatments induced anxiogenic behaviors with elevation of CORT compared to the baseline. A decrease of c-Fos-ir was found in the dorsomedial PAG region of both the treatment groups. Correlation analysis showed that the CORT were not associated with the OF anxiogenic behavior and PAG c-Fos-ir. No significant differences were found in behaviors and CORT after chronic treatment.
In conclusion, acute BUSP and ESCIT treatments elicited anxiogenic response with activation of the HPA axis and reduction of c-Fos-ir in the dorsomedial PAG. Although no correlation was found between the stress hormone and
the PAG c-Fos-ir, this does not imply the lack of cause-and-effect relationship between neuroendocrine effects and PAG function in anxiety responses. These correlation studies suggest that the regulation of 5-HT system was probably disrupted by acute 5-HT treatment.

Neuroendocrine mechanisms for immune system regulation during stress in fish

Gino Nardocci,, Cristina Navarro, Paula P. Cortes, Monica Imarai
Fish & Shellfish Immunology 40 (2014) 531e538

In the last years, the aquaculture crops have experienced an explosive and intensive growth, because of the high demand for protein. This growth has increased fish susceptibility to diseases and subsequent death. The constant biotic and abiotic changes experienced by fish species in culture are challenges that induce physiological, endocrine and immunological responses. These changes mitigate stress effects at the cellular level to maintain homeostasis. The effects of stress on the immune system have been studied for many years. While acute stress can have beneficial effects, chronic stress inhibits the immune response in mammals and teleost fish. In response to stress, a signaling cascade is triggered by the activation of neural circuits in the central nervous system because the hypothalamus is the central modulator of stress. This leads to the production of catecholamines, corticosteroid-releasing hormone, adrenocorticotropic hormone and glucocorticoids, which are the essential neuroendocrine mediators for this activation. Because stress situations are energetically demanding, the neuroendocrine signals are involved in metabolic support and will suppress the “less important” immune function.  Understanding the cellular mechanisms of the neuroendocrine regulation of immunity in fish will allow the development of new pharmaceutical strategies and therapeutics for the prevention and treatment of diseases triggered by stress at all stages of fish cultures
for commercial production.

Stress and immune modulation in fish

Lluis Tort
Developmental and Comparative Immunology 35 (2011) 1366–1375

Stress is an event that most animals experience and that induces a number of responses involving all three regulatory systems, neural, endocrine and immune. When the stressor is acute and short-term, the response pattern is stimulatory and the fish immune response shows an activating phase that specially enhances innate responses. If the stressor is chronic the immune response shows suppressive effects and therefore the chances of an infection may be enhanced. In addition, coping with the stressor imposes an allostatic cost that may interfere with the needs of the immune response. In this paper the mechanisms behind these immunoregulatory changes are reviewed and the role of the main neuroendocrine mechanisms directly affecting the building of the immune response and their consequences are considered.

Stress is a general term proposed by Hans Selye in 1953 (Selye, 1953) applying to a situation in which a person or an animal is subjected to a challenge that may result in a real or symbolic danger for its integrity. The stress response applies to a wide range of physiological mechanisms, including gene and protein changes, metabolism, energetics, immune, endocrine, neural and even behavioral changes that will first try to overcome that situation and then compensate for the imbalances produced by either the stressor or the consequences generated by the first array of responses.

The stress response is a general and widespread reaction in animals and it
may be assumed that this response has common traits along the phylogenetic tree. Thus, responses such as the fight and flight reaction and therefore the repertoire of energetic arrangements to serve the surplus of activity are observed in all animals. For instance, in terms of molecular responses, the increase in heat shock proteins is observed from invertebrates to fish to humans; the induction of acute phase proteins is also a common trait.

Stress and immune response

Stress and immune response

Stress and immune response. Main events regarding the principal hormones and immune mechanisms involved in acute and chronic stress

A variety of immune changes have been described after applying different kinds of stressors in fish. Hence, both activating and suppressive processes have been described following stress episodes, although the majority of changes often result in deleterious effects. Immediate responses during the activation phase enhance innate humoral immunity such as increased levels of lysozyme and C3 proteins after acute stress or the increase of the number of myeloid-type leukocytes in the peritoneum after intraperitoneal bacterial injection. Moreover, glucocorticoid receptor sites increase in head kidney leukocytes after acute handling stress.

Longer term treatments normally show suppressive effects: Sea bass subjected to crowding stress show reduced immunocompetence, as shown by reduced rates of cytotoxicity and chemiluminescence. A decrease of complement activity, lysozyme levels, agglutination activity and antibody titers is observed after 3 days onwards after repeated stress in sea bream. Stress reduces the number of circulating B-lymphocytes, and decreases the antibody response after immunization in vivo.

Effects of cortisol on cell immune responses

Effects of cortisol on cell immune responses

Effects of cortisol on cell immune responses. The arrow indicates permissive and the cross indicates suppressive. Neuroendocrine response to stress after perception by the sensors of the nervous system involves the immediate secretion of corticosteroid releasing hormone (CRH) by the preoptic nucleus of the hypothalamus. The stimulated CRH receptors in the corticotropic cells of the pituitary gland induce release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) into the circulation that subsequently stimulates release of cortisol by the head kidney interrenal cells. ACTH as well as melanocyte-stimulating hormone (α-MSH) are derived from cleavage of the pro-opiomelanocortin gene product. In most fishes this hormone releasing sequence is taking place in seconds for CRH, seconds to minutes for ACTH, and minutes for cortisol. Since the effect of corticosteroids is exerted in most tissues, a number of studies looking at the consequences of cortisol release on the immune system have been performed but less work has been done on its precursors.

It is assumed that the nervous system plays a principal role in stress episodes as the main center for sensing the challenge and developing fight-or-flight responses. At the same time, endocrine networks are responsible for a number of responses related to the subsequent reorganization of energetic resources and modification of metabolism. Finally, the immune system is not only activated very early in the time course response but it has been shown to appear as a main partner in the regulatory network that is able to modulate non-specific immediate responses and modify hormonal activity. Therefore, in summary

  • all three regulatory systems have a role in the building of a stress response
    (b) their interaction modulates and fine tunes the initial response to avoid excessive activation and adapting resources to the specific challenge.
    These interactions will not only serve for any particular stress episode but also for adapting and preparing the response for future challenges.

Neural Input Is Critical for Arcuate Hypothalamic Neurons to Mount Intracellular Signaling Responses to Systemic Insulin and Deoxyglucose Challenges in Male Rats: Implications for Communication Within Feeding and Metabolic Control Networks

Arshad M. Khan, Ellen M. Walker, Nicole Dominguez, and Alan G. Watts
Endocrinology 155: 405–416, 2014

The hypothalamic arcuate nucleus (ARH) controls rat feeding behavior in part through peptidergic

neurons projecting to the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus (PVH). Hindbrain catecholaminergic

(CA) neurons innervate both the PVH and ARH, and ablation of CA afferents to PVH neuroendocrine

neurons prevents them from mounting cellular responses to systemic metabolic challenges such as insulin or 2-deoxy-D-glucose (2-DG). Here, we asked whether ablating CA afferents also limits their ARH responses to the same challenges or alters ARH connectivity with the PVH. We examined ARH neurons for three features:

(1) CA afferents, visualized by dopamine-β-hydroxylase (DBH)– immunoreactivity;

(2) activation by systemic metabolic challenge, as measured by increased numbers of neurons immunoreactive (ir) for phosphorylated ERK1/2 (pERK1/2);

(3) density of PVH-targeted axons immunoreactive for the feeding control peptides Agouti-related peptide and  α-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (αMSH).
Loss of PVH DBH immunoreactivity resulted in concomitant ARH reductions of DBH-ir and pERK1/2-ir neurons in the medial ARH, where AgRP neurons are enriched. In contrast, pERK1/2 immunoreactivity after systemic metabolic challenge was absent in αMSH-ir ARH neurons. Yet surprisingly, axonal αMSH immune-reactivity in the PVH was markedly increased in CA-ablated animals. These results indicate that

(1) intrinsic ARH activity is insufficient to recruit pERK1/2-ir ARH neurons during systemic metabolic challenges (rather, hindbrain-originating CA neurons are required); and

(2) rats may compensate for a loss of CA innervation to the ARH and PVH by increased expression of αMSH.
These findings highlight the existence of a hierarchical dependence for ARH responses to neural and humoral signals that influence feeding behavior and metabolism.

Acute hypernatremia dampens stress-induced enhancement of long-term potentiation in the dentate gyrus of rat hippocampus

Chiung-Chun Huang, Chiao-Yin Chu, Che-Ming Yeh , Kuei-Sen Hsu
Psychoneuroendocrinology (2014) 46, 129—140

Stress often occurs within the context of homeostatic threat, requiring integration of physiological and psychological demands to trigger appropriate behavioral, autonomic and endocrine responses. However, the neural mechanism underlying stress integration remains elusive. Using an acute hypernatremic challenge (2.0 M NaCl subcutaneous), we assessed whether physical state may affect subsequent responsiveness to psychogenic stressors. We found that experienced forced swimming (FS, 15 min in 25 8C), a model of psychogenic stress, enhanced long-term potentiation (LTP) induction in the dentate gyrus (DG) of the rat hippocampus ex vivo. The effect of FS on LTP was prevented when the animals were adrenalectomized or given mineralocorticoid receptor antagonist RU28318 before experiencing stress. Intriguingly, relative to normonatremic controls, hypernatremic challenge effectively elevated plasma sodium concentration and dampened FS-induced enhancement of LTP, which was prevented by adrenalectomy. In addition, acute hypernatremic challenge resulted in increased extracellular signal regulated kinase (ERK)1/2 phosphorylation in the DG and occluded the subsequent activation of ERK1/2 by FS. Moreover, stress response dampening effects by acute hypernatremic challenge remained intact in conditional oxytocin receptor knockout mice. These results suggest that acute hypernatremic challenge evokes a sustained increase in plasma corticosterone concentration,

Long-term dysregulation of brain corticotrophin and glucocorticoid receptors and stress reactivity by single early-life pain experience in male and female rats

Nicole C. Victoria, Kiyoshi Inoue, Larry J. Young, Anne Z. Murphy
Psychoneuroendocrinology (2013) 38, 3015—3028

Inflammatory pain experienced on the day of birth (postnatal day 0: PD0) significantly dampens behavioral responses to stress- and anxiety-provoking stimuli in adult rats. However, to date, the mechanisms by which early life pain permanently alters adult stress responses remain unknown. The present studies examined the impact of inflammatory pain, experienced on the day of birth, on adult expression of receptors or proteins implicated in the activation and termination of the stress response, including corticotrophin releasing factor receptors (CRFR1 and CRFR2) and glucocorticoid receptor (GR). Using competitive receptor autoradiography, we show that Sprague Dawley male and female rat pups administered 1% carrageenan into the intraplantar surface of the hindpaw on the day of birth have significantly decreased CRFR1 binding in the basolateral amygdala and midbrain periaqueductal gray in adulthood. In contrast, CRFR2 binding, which is associated with stress termination, was significantly increased in the lateral septum and cortical amygdala. GR expression, measured with in situ hybridization and immunohistochemistry, was significantly increased in the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus and significantly decreased in the hippocampus of neonatally injured adults. In parallel, acute stress-induced corticosterone release was significantly attenuated and returned to baseline more rapidly in adults injured on PD0 in comparison to controls.
Collectively, these data show that early life pain alters neural circuits that regulate responses to and neuroendocrine recovery from stress, and suggest that pain experienced by infants in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit may permanently alter future responses to anxiety- and stress provoking stimuli.

The Impact of Ventral Noradrenergic Bundle Lesions on Increased IL-1 in the PVN and Hormonal Responses to Stress in Male Sprague Dawley Rats

Peter Blandino Jr, CM Hueston, CJ Barnum, C Bishop, and Terrence Deak
Endocrinology 154: 2489–2500, 2013

The impact of acute stress on inflammatory signaling within the central nervous system is of interest because these factors influence neuroendocrine function both directly and indirectly. Exposure to certain stressors increases expression of the proinflammatory cytokine, Il-1 in the hypothalamus. Increased IL-1 is reciprocally regulated by norepinephrine (stimulatory) and corticosterone (inhibitory), yet neural pathways underlying increased IL-1 have not been clarified.
These experiments explored the impact of bilateral lesions of the ventral noradrenergic bundle (VNAB) on IL-1 expression in the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus (PVN) after foot shock. Adult male Sprague Dawley rats received bilateral 6-hydroxydopamine lesions of the VNAB (VNABx) and were exposed to intermittent foot shock. VNABx depleted approximately 64% of norepinephrine in the PVN and attenuated the IL-1 response produced by foot shock. However, characterization of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal response, a crucial prerequisite for interpreting the effect of VNABx on IL-1 expression, revealed a profound dissociation between ACTH and corticosterone.

Specifically, VNABx blocked the intronic CRH response in the PVN and the increase in plasma ACTH, whereas corticosterone was unaffected at all time points examined. Additionally, foot shock led to a rapid and profound increase in cyclooxygenase-2 and IL-1 expression within the adrenal glands, whereas more subtle effects were observed in the pituitary gland.

Together the findings were

1) demonstration that exposure to acute stress increased expression of inflammatory factors more broadly throughout the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis;

2) implication of a modest role for norepinephrine-containing fibers of the VNAB as an upstream regulator of PVN IL-1; and

3) suggestion of an ACTH-independent mechanism controlling the release of corticosterone in VNABx rats.

Stress and trauma: BDNF control of dendritic-spine formation and regression

M.R. Bennett,  J. Lagopoulos
Progress in Neurobiology 112 (2014) 80–99

Chronic restraint stress leads to increases in brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) mRNA and protein in some regions of the brain, e.g. the basal lateral amygdala (BLA) but decreases in other regions such as the CA3 region of the hippocampus and dendritic spine density increases or decreases in line with these changes in BDNF. Given the powerful influence that BDNF has on dendritic spine growth, these observations suggest that the fundamental reason for the direction and extent of changes in dendritic spine density in a particular region of the brain under stress is due to the changes in BDNF there. The most likely cause of these changes is provided by the stress initiated release of steroids, which readily enter neurons and alter gene expression, for example that of BDNF. Of particular interest is how glucocorticoids and mineralocorticoids tend to have opposite effects on BDNF gene expression offering the possibility that differences in the distribution of their receptors and of their downstream effects might provide a basis for the differential transcription of the BDNF genes. Alternatively, differences in the extent of methylation and acetylation in the epigenetic control of BDNF transcription
are possible in different parts of the brain following stress. Although present evidence points to changes in BDNF transcription being the major causal agent for the changes in spine density in different parts of the brain following stress, steroids have significant effects on downstream pathways from the TrkB receptor once it is acted upon by BDNF, including those that modulate the density of dendritic spines. Finally, although glucocorticoids play a canonical role in determining BDNF modulation of dendritic spines, recent studies have shown a role for corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF) in this regard. There is considerable improvement in the extent of changes in spine size and density in rodents with forebrain specific knockout of CRF receptor 1 (CRFR1) even when the glucocorticoid pathways are left intact. It seems then that CRF does have a role to play in determining BDNF control of dendritic spines.

Chronic restraint stress leads to increases in brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) mRNA and protein in some regions of the brain, e.g. the basal lateral amygdala (BLA) but decreases in other regions such as the CA3 region of the hippocampus and dendritic spine density increases or decreases in line with these changes in BDNF. Given the powerful influence that BDNF has on dendritic spine growth, these observations suggest that the fundamental reason for the direction and extent of changes in dendritic spine density in a particular region of the brain under stress is due to the changes in BDNF
there. The most likely cause of these changes is provided by the stress initiated release of steroids, which readily enter neurons and alter gene expression, for example that of BDNF. Of particular interest is how glucocorticoids and mineralocorticoids tend to have opposite effects on BDNF gene expression offering the possibility that differences in the distribution of their receptors and of their downstream effects might provide a basis for the differential transcription of the BDNF genes. Alternatively, differences in the extent of methylation and acetylation in the epigenetic control of BDNF transcription are possible in different parts of the brain following stress.

Structure of the rodent BDNF gene

Structure of the rodent BDNF gene

Structure of the rodent BDNF gene. Exons are represented as boxes and the introns as lines. Numbers of the exons are indicated in Roman numerals. The coding exon (exon IX) contains two polyadenylation sites (poly A). The start codon (ATG) that marks the initiation of transcription is indicated. The red box shows the region of exon IX coding for the pro-BDNF protein. Some exons, like exon II and IX, contain different transcript variants with alternative splice-donor sites. Also shown is part of the BDNF exon IV sequence in adults with adverse infant experiences showing cytosine methylation (M) at three of the 12 CG dinucleotide sites (numbered with superscripts). See Boulle et al. (2012).

Epigenetic mechanism associated with repression and activation of BDNF exon IV transcription.

Epigenetic mechanism associated with repression and activation of BDNF exon IV transcription.

Epigenetic mechanism associated with repression and activation of BDNF exon IV transcription. The BDNF exon IV displays 12 distinct CpG sites, which can be methylated and interact selectively with MeCp2 to form complexes that repress gene transcription (see also Fig. 1). Histone methyltransferases (HMT) are responsible for adding methyl groups at histone tails (Panel A), whereas histone deacetylases (HDAC) remove acetylation at histone tails (Panel B), both processes that repress gene transcription. Moreover, low levels of nicotinamine adenine dinucleotide (NAD) promote DNA methylation at the BDNF locus. BDNF gene activation is associated with increased histone H3 and H4 acetylation, which is mediated by histone acetyl transferase (HAT) activity. DNA demethylation might be facilitated by growth arrest and DNA damage proteins such as Gadd45b. An increased binding of CREB to its specific binding protein, CREB binding protein (CBP), is also associated with an increase in BDNF gene transcription. See Boulle et al. (2012).

signaling and epigenetic pathways in granule neurons of the dentate gyrus

signaling and epigenetic pathways in granule neurons of the dentate gyrus

Schematic representation of the signaling and epigenetic pathways in granule neurons of the dentate gyrus thought to be involved in the consolidation process of memory formation after a psychologically stressful challenge. Activation of NMDAR results in stimulation of the MAPK/ERK signaling cascade, the AC /PKA cascade and the CaMKII cascade. In conjunction with activated GR these signaling cascades result in the activation of MSK and ERK leading to the formation of dual histone acetylation marks along the c-Fos promoter and subsequently induction of gene transcription. Signaling via CREB also leads to the same outcome. The induction of gene transcription is thought to be instrumental in the consolidation of memory formation in various stressful learning events. See Trollope et al. (2012).

Model for G9a-GLP complex transcriptional activity in the hippocampus

Model for G9a-GLP complex transcriptional activity in the hippocampus

Model for G9a/GLP complex transcriptional activity in the hippocampus during fear memory consolidation. Shown (panels A and B) is the role of G9a/GLP in the regulation of chromatin remodeling during long-term memory consolidation. Regulation of histone lysine methylation mediates active and repressive transcriptional regulation of genes in the hippocampus. The
changes in chromatin structure results in transcriptional gene silencing in the hippocampus. H3K9me2 dimethylation is associated with transcriptional silencing (not shown). The G9a/GLP complex methyltransferase is specific for producing this modification. Abbreviations: Ac, acetylation; M, methylation; MLLI, histone H3 lysine 4 methyltransferase (which regulates memory formation); H3K9me2, histone H3 lysine 9 dimethylation; HAT, histone acetyltransferase; G9a/GLP, G9a/G9a-like protein (GLP) complex methyltransferase.

Modification of serotonin reuptake transport, with inhibitors such as fluoxetine, augments BDNF exon I mRNA levels in the BLA as well as in the hippocampus. This augmentation is lost and replaced by a decrease in BDNF levels if the mice are homozygous for the BDNF Val66Met SNP. A better outcome is obtained for erasing fear memories in PTSD subjects than using D-cycloserine if a combination is used of extinction training with chronic fluoxetine treatment that augments BDNF exon I mRNA.


The following points are suggested by the present review on identifying the changes in dendritic spine synapses in neural networks under stress, the mechanisms that drive these, and how these networks can be reinstated to normality.

Dendritic spines and BDNF

Activation of BDNF leads to the sprouting of dendrites in many areas of the brain, such as CA1 in the hippocampus. As glucocorticoids decrease BDNF expression they decrease dendritic spine density in these areas . Thus activation of both GR and MR with corticosterone leads to an increase in dendritic spine turnover on pyramidal neurons in these areas. In other areas of the brain glucocorticoids do not have this.  Extinction of a fear memory, such as, of the negative effects of opiate withdrawal, involves increases of BDNF mRNA and protein in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, through the action of CREB at histone H3 of the BDNF exon I transcript promoter with acetylation of the histone. This could be enhanced before extinction training with histone deacetylase inhibitors such as trichostatin A or inhibitors such as U0126 of ERK.
Major risk factors for PTSD are low levels of cortisol in the blood immediately after the trauma occasion; and before the trauma, in peripheral blood mononuclear cells, the presence of high GR numbers, low FKBP5 expression, and high levels of GILZ mRNA. All of these risk factors are involved in the action of cytoplasmic GR in modulating gene transduction, including most likely that for the BDNF gene, as well as regulating the capacity for BDNF itself to act. This emphasis on GR in PTSD is enforced by the observations that there is an association between two polymorphisms in the GR gene (N363S and Bcl1) and PTSD as there is between that of FKBP5 and GILZ on the one hand and the capacity of GR to modulate gene function on the other.

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor in the amygdala mediates susceptibility to fear conditioning

Dylan Chou, Chiung-Chun Huang, Kuei-Sen Hsu
Experimental Neurology 255 (2014) 19–29

Fear conditioning in animals has been used extensively tomodel clinical anxiety disorders. While individual animals exhibit marked differences in their propensity to undergo fear conditioning, the physiologically relevant mediators have not yet been fully characterized. Here, we demonstrate that C57BL/6 inbred mouse strain subjected to a regimen of chronic social defeat stress (CSDS) can be separated into susceptible and resistant subpopulations that display different levels of fear responses in an auditory fear conditioning  paradigm. Susceptible mice had significantly more c-Fos protein expression
in neurons of the basolateral amygdala (BLA) following CSDS and showed exaggerated conditioned fear responses, while there were no significant differences between groups in innate anxiety- and depressive-like behaviors. Through the use of conditional brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) knockout strategies, we find that elevated BLA BDNF level following fear conditioning training is a key mediator contributing to determine the levels of conditioned fear responses. Our results also show that relative to susceptible mice, resistant mice had a much faster recovery from conditioned stimuli-induced cardiovascular and corticosterone responses. Systemic administration of norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor atomoxetine increased c-Fos protein expression in BLA neurons following fear conditioning training and promoted the expression of conditioned fear in resistant mice. Conversely, administration of β-adrenergic receptor antagonist propranolol reduced fear conditioning training-induced c-Fos protein expression in BLA neurons and reduced conditioned fear responses in susceptible mice. These findings reveal a novel role for the BDNF signaling within the BLA in mediating individual differences in autonomic, neuroendocrine and behavioral reactivity to fear conditioning.

Melanocortin-4 receptor in the medial amygdala regulates emotional stress-induced anxiety-like behavior, anorexia and corticosterone secretion

Jing Liu, Jacob C. Garza, Wei Li and Xin-Yun Lu
Intl J Neuropsychopharmacology (2013), 16, 105–120.

The central melanocortin system has been implicated in emotional stress-induced anxiety, anorexia and activation of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. However, the underlying neural substrates have not been identified. The medial amygdala (MeA) is highly sensitive to emotional stress and expresses high levels of the melanocortin-4 receptor (MC4R). This study investigated the effects of activation and blockade of MC4R in the MeA
on anxiety-like behavior, food intake and corticosterone secretion. We demonstrate that MC4R-expressing neurons in the MeA were activated by acute restraint stress, as indicated by induction of c-fos mRNA expression. Infusion of a selective MC4R agonist into the MeA elicited anxiogenic-like effects in the elevated plus-maze test and decreased food intake. Local MeA infusion of SHU 9119, an MC4R antagonist, on the other hand, blocked restraint stress-induced anxiogenic and anorectic effects. Moreover, plasma corticosterone levels were increased by intra-MeA infusion of the MC4R agonist under non-stressed conditions and restraint stress-induced elevation of plasma corticosterone levels was attenuated by pretreatment with SHU 9119 in the MeA. Thus, stimulating MC4R in the MeA induces stress-like anxiogenic and anorectic effects as well as activation of the HPA axis, whereas antagonizing MC4R in this region blocks such effects induced by restraint stress. Together, our results implicate MC4R signaling in the MeA in behavioral and endocrine responses to stress.

The neuroendocrine functions of the parathyroid hormone 2 receptor

Arpád Dobolyi, Eugene Dimitrov, Miklós Palkovits and Ted B. Usdin
Front in Endocr Oct 2012 | Volume 3 | Article 121, 1-10

The G-protein coupled parathyroid hormone 2 receptor (PTH2R) is concentrated in endocrine and limbic regions in the forebrain. Its endogenous ligand, tuberoinfundibular peptide of 39 residues (TIP39), is synthesized in only two brain regions, within the posterior thalamus and the lateral pons.TIP39-expressing neurons have a widespread projection pattern, which matches the PTH2R distribution in the brain. Neuroendocrine centers including the preoptic area, the periventricular, paraventricular, and arcuate nuclei contain the highest density of PTH2R-positive networks. The administration of TIP39 and an antagonist of the PTH2R as well as the investigation of mice that lack functional TIP39 and PTH2R revealed the involvement of the PTH2R in a variety of neural and neuroendocrine functions. TIP39 acting via the PTH2R modulates several aspects of the stress response. It evokes corticosterone release by activating corticotropin-releasing hormone-containing neurons in the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus. Block of TIP39 signaling elevates the anxiety state
of animals and their fear response, and increases stress-induced analgesia.

TIP39 has also been suggested to affect the release of additional pituitary hormones including arginine-vasopressin and growth hormone. A role of the TIP39-PTH2R system in thermoregulation was also identified. TIP39 may play
a role in maintaining body temperature in a cold environment via descending excitatory pathways from the preoptic area. Anatomical and functional studies also implicated the TIP39-PTH2R system in nociceptive information processing. Finally, TIP39 induced in postpartum dams may play a role in the release of prolactin during lactation. Potential mechanisms leading to the activation ofTIP39 neurons and how they influence the neuroendocrine system are also described. The unique TIP39-PTH2R neuromodulator system provides the possibility for developing drugs with a novel mechanism of action to control neuroendocrine disorders.

Interaction of the Serotonin Transporter-Linked Polymorphic Region and Environmental Adversity: Increased Amygdala-Hypothalamus Connectivity as a Potential Mechanism Linking Neural and Endocrine Hyperreactivity

Nina Alexander, T Klucken, G Koppe, R Osinsky, B Walter, et al.
Biol Psychiatry 2012;72:49–56

Background: Gene by environment (GE) interaction between genetic variation in the promoter region of the serotonin transporter gene (serotonin transporter-linked polymorphic region [5-HTTLPR]) and stressful life events (SLEs) has been extensively studied in the context of depression. Recent findings suggest increased neural and endocrine stress sensitivity as a possible mechanism conveying elevated vulnerability to psychopathology. Furthermore, these GE mediated alterations very likely reflect interrelated biological processes. Methods: In the present functional magnetic resonance imaging study, amygdala reactivity to fearful stimuli was assessed in healthy male adults (n[1]44),who were previously found to differ with regard to endocrine stress reactivity as a function of 5-HTTLPRSLEs. Furthermore, functional connectivity between the amygdala and the hypothalamus was measured as a potential mechanism linking elevated neural and endocrine responses during stressful/threatening situations. The study sample was carefully preselected regarding 5-HTTLPR genotype and SLEs. Results: We report significant GE interaction on neural response patterns and functional amygdala-hypothalamus connectivity. Homozygous carriers of the 5-HTTLPR S’ allele with a history of SLEs (S’S’/high SLEs group) displayed elevated bilateral amygdala activation in response to fearful faces. Within the same sample, a comparable GE interaction effect has previously been demonstrated regarding increased cortisol reactivity, indicating a cross-validation of heightened biological stress sensitivity. Furthermore, S’S’/high SLEs subjects were characterized by an increased functional coupling between the right amygdala and the hypothalamus, thus indicating a potential link between neural and endocrine hyperreactivity.

Amygdala reactivity to fearful faces as a function of the serotonin transporter-linked polymorphic region (5-HTTLPR)

Amygdala reactivity to fearful faces as a function of the serotonin transporter-linked polymorphic region (5-HTTLPR)

Amygdala reactivity to fearful faces as a function of the serotonin transporter-linked polymorphic region (5-HTTLPR) stressful life events (SLEs). The color bar depicts t values for the gene by environment interaction effect. For illustration reasons, the data were thresholded with a t value at 2.5 (see color bar for exact t values).

We report a significant 5-HTTLPRxSLEs interaction effect on bilateral amygdala reactivity to fearful faces in a sample of healthy male adults. As hypothesized, S’S’/high SLEs individuals appeared to be most reactive, which can be interpreted in terms of elevated amygdala reactivity to briefly presented (phasic) aversive stimuli. Interestingly, we have observed a similar response pattern regarding cortisol reactivity to acute stress within the same sample, indicating a cross-validation of neuroendocrine hyperreactivity to threatening/stressful stimuli as a function of 5-HTTLPRxSLEs.

Thus, our results are in line with findings from a small sample sized (n = 15) study reporting a positive association between amygdala reactivity to fearful faces and SLEs in S allele carriers during an unconscious fear processing condition. In contrast, a study using a comparable paradigm and sample size (n = 44) to our own found amygdala activity in the contrast neutral faces versus fixation to be negatively associated with SLEs in S allele carriers. The authors interpret the latter finding in support of a tonic model, by which SLEs interact with 5-HTTLPR on amygdala resting activation. Similar inconsistencies have been reported regarding the association of 5-HTTLPR and amygdala activation independent of environmental adversity, with studies supporting either a phasic or tonic model. Likewise, increased resting blood perfusion in S allele carriers has been reported in independent studies, whereas the largest study
to date could not replicate these findings.

Functional connectivity between the right amygdala as the seed region

Functional connectivity between the right amygdala as the seed region

  • Functional connectivity between the right amygdala as the seed region

(blue circle, right figure) and the hypothalamus (red circles). The middle figure depicts significant differences in activation patterns between the S’S’/high stressful life events (SLEs) and the L’/low SLEs groups and the left figure displays significant differences between S’S’/high SLEs and S’S’/high SLEs subjects. For illustration reasons, threshold was t =2.5 b (below).
(B) Surface plot of functional connectivity at the z-slice location of the peak coordinate. Voxel intensities are given in t values. 5-HTTLPR, serotonin-transporter-linked polymorphic region.

In conclusion, we report increased amygdala responsivity to aversive stimuli in healthy S’S’/high SLEs subjects who have previously been shown to display elevated cortisol secretion in response to psychosocial stress. Thus, our findings contribute to the current debate on potential mechanisms mediating susceptibility for the development of psychiatric disorders as a function of 5-HTTLPRxSLEs. Moreover, the present study extends previous findings by demonstrating altered functional coupling between the amygdala and the hypothalamus, thus indicating a potential link between threat/stress related neural and endocrine alterations associated with 5-HTTLPR x SLEs.

Identifying Molecular Substrates in a Mouse Model of the Serotonin Transporter Environment Risk Factor for Anxiety and Depression


Valeria Carola, Giovanni Frazzetto, Tiziana Pascucci, Enrica Audero, et al.
Biol Psychiatry 2008;63:840–846

Background: A polymorphism in the serotonin transporter (5-HTT) gene modulates the association between adverse early experiences and risk for major depression in adulthood. Although human imaging studies have begun to elucidate the neural circuits involved in the 5-HTT environment risk factor, a molecular understanding of this phenomenon is lacking. Such an understanding might help to identify novel targets for the diagnosis and therapy of mood disorders. To address this need, we developed a gene-environment screening paradigm in the mouse.

Methods: We established a mouse model in which a heterozygous null mutation in 5-HTT moderates the effects of poor maternal care on adult anxiety and depression-related behavior. Biochemical analysis of brains from these animals was performed to identify molecular substrates of the gene, environment, and gene environment effects.

Results: Mice experiencing low maternal care showed deficient ϒ-aminobutyric acid–A receptor binding in the amygdala and 5-HTT  heterozygous null mice showed decreased serotonin turnover in hippocampus and striatum. Strikingly, levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) messenger RNA in hippocampus were elevated exclusively in 5-HTT heterozygous null mice experiencing poor maternal care, suggesting that developmental programming of hippocampal circuits might underlie the 5-HTT environment risk factor.

Conclusions: These findings demonstrate that serotonin plays a similar role in modifying the long-term behavioral effects of rearing environment in diverse mammalian species and identifies BDNF  as a molecular substrate of this risk factor. In summary, we have produced a mouse model of the 5-HTT environment risk factor for human depression and have used this model to identify molecular substrates underlying this risk factor.

Elevated GABA-A receptor expression in amygdala, decreased 5-HT turnover in hippocampus, and enhanced BDNF expression in hippocampus each correlated significantly with the behavioral phenotype seen in our mice. In particular, increased expression of BDNF in CA1 pyramidal neurons was found in mice with reduced 5-HTT function and exposed to low maternal care. This defect was accompanied by an increased bias in the response to threatening cues as assessed by ambiguous cue fear conditioning.

Our data suggest that alterations in hippocampal gene expression and function underlie at least part of the interaction between 5-HTT and rearing environment and point to a role for this structure in the increased anxiety and depression-related behavior that is a risk factor for major depression.

Gene—environment interactions predict cortisol responses after acute stress: Implications for the etiology of depression

Nina Alexander, Yvonne Kuepper, Anja Schmitz, Roman Osinsky, et al.
Psychoneuroendocrinology (2009) 34, 1294—1303

Background: Growing evidence suggests that the serotonin transporter polymorphism (5-HTTLPR) interacts with adverse environmental influences to produce an increased risk for the development of depression while the underlying mechanisms of this association remain largely unexplored. As one potential intermediate phenotype, we investigated alterations of hypothalamic—pituitary—adrenal (HPA) axis responses to stress in individuals with no history of psychopathology depending on both 5-HTTLPR and stressful life events.

Methods: Healthy male adults (N = 100) were genotyped and completed a questionnaire on severe stressful life events (Life Events Checklist). To test for gene-by-environment interactions on endocrine stress reactivity, subjects were exposed to a standardized laboratory stress task (Public Speaking). Saliva cortisol levels were obtained at 6 time points prior to the stressor and during an extended recovery period.

Results: Subjects homozygous for the s-allele with a significant history of stressful life events exhibited markedly elevated cortisol secretions in response to the stressor compared to all other groups, indicating a significant gene-by-environment interaction on endocrine stress reactivity. No main effect of either 5-HTTLPR (biallelic and triallelic) or stressful life events on cortisol secretion patterns appeared.

Conclusion: This is the first study reporting that 5-HTTLPR and stressful life events interact to predict endocrine stress reactivity in a non-clinical sample. Our results underpin the potential moderating role of HPA-axis hyper-reactivity as a premorbid risk factor to increase the vulnerability for depression in subjects with low serotonin transporter efficiency and a history of severe life events.

The immune system and developmental programming of brain and behavior

Staci D. Bilbo, Jaclyn M. Schwarz
Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology 33 (2012) 267–286

The brain, endocrine, and immune systems are inextricably linked. Immune molecules have a powerful impact on neuroendocrine function, including hormone–behavior interactions, during health as well as sickness. Similarly, alterations in hormones, such as during stress, can powerfully impact immune function or reactivity. These functional shifts are evolved, adaptive responses that organize changes in behavior and mobilize immune resources, but can also lead to pathology or exacerbate disease if prolonged or exaggerated. The developing brain in particular is exquisitely sensitive to both endogenous and exogenous signals, and increasing evidence suggests the immune system has a critical role in brain development and associated behavioral outcomes for the life of the individual. Indeed, there are associations between many neuropsychiatric disorders and immune dysfunction, with a distinct etiology in neurodevelopment. The goal of this review is to describe the important role of the immune system during brain development, and to discuss some of the many ways in which immune activation during early brain development can affect the later-life outcomes of neural function, immune function, mood and cognition.

Neuroplasticity signaling pathways linked to the pathophysiology of schizophrenia

Darrick T. Balua, Joseph T. Coyle
Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 35 (2011) 848–870

Schizophrenia is a severe mental illness that afflicts nearly 1% of the world’s population. One of the cardinal pathological features of schizophrenia is perturbation in synaptic connectivity. Although the etiology of schizophrenia is unknown, it appears to be a developmental disorder involving the interaction of a potentially large number of risk genes, with no one gene producing a strong effect except rare, highly penetrant copy number variants. The purpose of this review is to detail how putative schizophrenia risk genes (DISC-1, neuregulin/ErbB4, dysbindin, Akt1, BDNF, and the NMDA receptor) are involved in regulating neuroplasticity and how alterations in their expression may contribute to the disconnectivity observed in schizophrenia. Moreover, this review highlights how many of these risk genes converge to regulate common neurotransmitter systems and signaling pathways. Future studies aimed at elucidating the functions of these risk genes will provide new insights into the pathophysiology of schizophrenia and will likely lead to the nomination of novel therapeutic targets for restoring proper synaptic connectivity in the brain in schizophrenia and related disorders.

Glutamate receptor composition of the post-synaptic density is altered in genetic mouse models of NMDA receptor hypo- and hyperfunction

Darrick T. Balu, Joseph T. Coyle
Brain Research 1392 (2011 ) 1–7

The N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor (NMDAR) and α-amino-3-hydroxyl-5-methyl-4-isoxazole-propionate receptor (AMPAR) are ionotropic glutamate receptors responsible for excitatory neurotransmission in the brain. These excitatory synapses are found on dendritic spines, with the abundance of receptors concentrated at the postsynaptic density (PSD).
We utilized two genetic mouse models, the serine racemase knockout (SR−/−) and the glycine transporter subtype 1 heterozygote mutant (GlyT1+/−), to determine how constitutive NMDAR hypo- and hyperfunction, respectively, affect the glutamate receptor composition of the PSD in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex (PFC).

Using cellular fractionation, we found that SR−/− mice had elevated protein levels of NR1 and NR2A NMDAR subunits specifically in the PSD-enriched fraction from the hippocampus, but not from the PFC. There were no changes in the amounts of AMPAR subunits (GluR1, GluR2), or PSD protein of 95 kDa (PSD95) in either brain region. GlyT1+/− mice also had elevated protein expression of NR1 and NR2A subunits in the PSD, as well as an increase in total protein. Moreover, GlyT1+/− mice had elevated amounts of GluR1 and GluR2 in the PSD, and higher total amounts of GluR1. Similar to SR−/− mice, there were no protein changes observed in the PFC. These findings illustrate the complexity of synaptic adaptation to altered NMDAR function.

Interleukin-1 (IL-1): A central regulator of stress responses

Inbal Goshen, Raz Yirmiya
Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology 30 (2009) 30–45

Ample evidence demonstrates that the pro-inflammatory cytokine interleukin-1 (IL-1), produced following exposure to immunological and psychological challenges, plays an important role in the neuroendocrine and behavioral stress responses. Specifically, production of brain IL-1 is an important link in stress induced activation of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis and secretion of glucocorticoids, which
mediate the effects of stress on memory functioning and neural plasticity, exerting beneficial effects at low levels and detrimental effects at high levels. Furthermore, IL-1 signaling and the resultant glucocorticoid secretion mediate the development of depressive symptoms associated with exposure to acute and chronic stressors, at least partly via suppression of hippocampal neurogenesis. These findings indicate
that whereas under some physiological conditions low levels of IL-1 promote the adaptive stress responses necessary for efficient coping, under severe and chronic stress conditions blockade of IL-1 signaling can be used as a preventive and therapeutic procedure for alleviating stress-associated neuropathology
and psychopathology.

IL-1 mediates stress-induced activation of the HPA axis

IL-1 mediates stress-induced activation of the HPA axis

IL-1 mediates stress-induced activation of the HPA axis. Immunological and
psychological stressors increase the levels of IL-1 in various brain areas, including
several brain stem nuclei, the hypothalamus and the hippocampus. In turn, IL-1
induces the secretion of CRH from the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus (PVN),
ACTH from the pituitary and glucocorticoids from the adrenal. Following immunological
stressors, peripheral IL-1 can directly influence brain stem nuclei, such as
the nucleus tractus solitarius (NTS) and ventrolateral medulla (VLM) as well as the
hypothalamus via penetration to adjacent circumventricular organs, (the area
postrema (AP) and the organum vasculosum of the lamina terminalis (OVLT),
respectively). Concomitantly, IL-1 in the periphery can activate vagal afferents,
which innervate and activate the NTS and VLM. These nuclei project to the
hypothalamus, in which the secretion of NE induces further elevation of IL-1 levels,
possibly by microglial activation. Psychological stressors can also activate the NTS
and VLM, either by intrinsic brain circuits or via vagal feedback from physiological
systems (e.g., the cardiovascular system) that are stimulated by the sympathetic
nervous system. Similarly to their role in immunological stress, the NTS and VLM
then elevate hypothalamic IL-1 levels, stimulating the CRH neurons.

The inverted U-shaped effect of IL-1 on memory and plasticity is mediated by glucocorticoids

The inverted U-shaped effect of IL-1 on memory and plasticity is mediated by glucocorticoids

The inverted U-shaped effect of IL-1 on memory and plasticity is mediated by glucocorticoids. The influence of IL-1 on memory and plasticity follows an inverted Ushape pattern, i.e., learning-associated increase in IL-1 levels is needed for memory formation (green), whereas any deviation from the physiological range, either by excess elevation in IL-1 levels or by blockade of IL-1 signaling, results in memory and plasticity impairment (red). Low dose GCs can also facilitate memory, whereas chronic or severe stressors, as well as high GC levels, can impair memory and neural plasticity. Studies on the implications of the interaction between stress, IL-1 and GCs on memory
and plasticity show that IL-1 mediates the detrimental effects of stress on memory, and that GCs are involved in both the detrimental and the beneficial effects of IL-1 on memory formation. Based on these studies, the following model is proposed: stressful stimuli induce an increase in brain IL-1 levels, which in turn contributes to the activation of the HPA axis. Subsequently, the secretion of GCs affects memory and plasticity processes in an inverted U-shaped pattern.

Immune modulation of learning, memory, neural plasticity and neurogenesis

Raz Yirmiya ⇑, Inbal Goshen
Brain, Behavior, and Immunity 25 (2011) 181–213

Over the past two decades it became evident that the immune system plays a central role in modulating learning, memory and neural plasticity. Under normal quiescent conditions, immune mechanisms are activated by environmental/psychological stimuli and positively regulate the remodeling of neural circuits, promoting memory consolidation, hippocampal long-term potentiation (LTP) and neurogenesis.
These beneficial effects of the immune system are mediated by complex interactions among brain cells with immune functions (particularly microglia and astrocytes), peripheral immune cells (particularly T cells and macrophages), neurons, and neural precursor cells. These interactions involve the responsiveness of non-neuronal cells to classical neurotransmitters (e.g., glutamate and monoamines) and hormones
(e.g., glucocorticoids), as well as the secretion and responsiveness of neurons and glia to low levels of inflammatory cytokines, such as interleukin (IL)-1, IL-6, and TNFa, as well as other mediators, such as prostaglandins and neurotrophins. In conditions under which the immune system is strongly activated by infection or injury, as well as by severe or chronic stressful conditions, glia and other brain immune cells change their morphology and functioning and secrete high levels of pro-inflammatory
cytokines and prostaglandins. The production of these inflammatory mediators disrupts the delicate balance needed for the neurophysiological actions of immune processes and produces direct detrimental effects on memory, neural plasticity and neurogenesis. These effects are mediated by inflammation induced neuronal hyper-excitability and adrenocortical stimulation, followed by reduced production of neurotrophins and other plasticity-related molecules, facilitating many forms of neuropathology
associated with normal aging as well as neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric diseases.

It is now firmly established that the immune system can modulate brain functioning and behavioral processes. This modulation is exerted by plasticity are among the most important aspects of brain functioning that are modulated by immune mechanisms. The aim of the present review is to present a comprehensive and integrative view of the complex dual role of the immune system in learning,memory, neural plasticity and neurogenesis. The first part of the review will focus on the physiological
beneficial effects of the immune system under normal, quiescent conditions. Under such conditions, immune mechanisms are activated by environmental/psychological stimuli and positively regulate neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, promoting learning, memory, and hippocampal long-term potentiation (LTP). The second part of the review will focus on the detrimental effects of inflammatory conditions induced by infections and injury as well as severe or chronic stress, demonstrating that under such
conditions the delicate physiological balance between immune and neural processes is disrupted, resulting in neuronal hyperexcitability, hormonal aberrant ions, reduced neurotrophic factors production and suppressed neurogenesis, leading to impairments in learning, memory and neuroplasticity.

A systemic model of the beneficial role of immune processes in behavioral and neural plasticity

A systemic model of the beneficial role of immune processes in behavioral and neural plasticity

A systemic model of the beneficial role of immune processes in behavioral and neural plasticity. Learning, memory and synaptic plasticity involve neural activation of hippocampal circuits by glutamatergic inputs that originate mainly in multiple cortical areas. Long-term memory consolidation also requires emotional (limbic) activation (particularly of the amygdala and hypothalamus), inducing a mild stressful condition, which in turn results in HPA axis and sympathetic nervous system (SNS) stimulation. The peripheral organs that are the targets of these systems (e.g., the adrenal glad, heart, blood vessels and gastrointestinal (GI) tract), in turn, send afferent inputs to the brain that culminate in stimulation of receptors for glucocorticoids, norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin on hippocampal cells. These inputs are critical for memory consolidation, neural plasticity and neurogenesis. Furthermore, these inputs induce the production of IL-1, and possibly other cytokines, chemokines and immune mediators in the hippocampus, as well as in other brain areas (such as the hypothalamus and brain stem) that are critically important for neurobehavioral plasticity. Moreover, these cytokines, in turn further activate the HPA axis and SNS, thus participating in a brain-to-body-to-brain reverberating feedback loops.

Chemokines and the hippocampus: A new perspective on hippocampal plasticity and vulnerability

Lauren L. Williamson, Staci D. Bilbo
Brain, Behavior,and Immunity 30(2013)186–194

Chemokines roles within the hippocampus

Chemokines roles within the hippocampus

Chemokines have important roles within the hippocampus and may modulate plasticity and vulnerability within this unique structure. Neuroimmune signaling can occur across the blood-brain-barrier (BBB) via endothelial cells, astrocytes, and microglia within the BBB that recapitulate the immune signal from the periphery by secreting their own cohort of cytokines into the brain. Chemokines recruit cells to sites of injury as well . Microglia receive input from neurons via several membrane-bound and secreted factors, including neuronal CX3CL1 (fractalkine) and its receptor, CX3CR1, on microglia, which allow direct neuroimmune interaction. CXCL12 is released from vesicles concomitantly with GABA from basket cells onto immature neurons in the DG granule cell layer.  In the healthy brain, chemokines may modulate neuronal signaling during behavior, though this phenomenon remains to be explored. The spatial and temporal signaling and cellular sources of chemokines and their receptors are critical for understanding

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