Repairing childhood trauma: Newly discovered pathway links adult mental illness to childhood

Friday, January 13, 2017

Two cartoon figures - one in the corner and the other looking down

Byline: Jonathan Sutley, Pharmacy MSc student

Chronic early life social isolation is linked with negative psychological and social outcomes in adulthood. Waterloo researchers have discovered social isolation changes unusual protein expression in the adult brain of rodents who socially isolated. Examining how stress affects the brain on a molecular level can help researchers get insight into disorders like schizophrenia and depression.   

Under the supervision of Profs. Michael Beazely (School of Pharmacy) and John Mielke (School of Public Health), Pharmacy doctoral student Nyasha Gondora is studying the underlying molecular mechanisms of depressive behaviour in rodents.

The brain is maladapted for dealing with long periods of stress in early development, and the coping mechanisms that do exist don’t seem very effective.

Gondora has identified a deficiency in a key protein following early social isolation in both sexes, but the stress response may be sex-specific. The protein expression was different in females compared to males with females being more robust to stressful circumstances than males.

This finding suggests that females have stronger neuroprotective mechanisms than males. Understanding how neurons interact with this protein may be the key to restoring normal brain function in clinical depression and schizophrenia.

“When we look at the composition of male brains and compare them to female brains, there are notable differences in the concentrations of proteins linked to stress,” says Gondora. “From what we’ve seen so far, female brains appear more plastic and better able to handle adverse conditions – though this is speculation based on preliminary data.”

Ongoing work in the Beazely lab will focus on understanding how stress affects set signaling pathways in specific brain regions such as the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. Work will also continue with quantifying the concentrations of sex-specific stress proteins and developing new neuropharmacological strategies and drug therapies to target these proteins.

We’re hopeful we can pin down how the brain changes when subjected to long-term stressful stimuli, and that our work will lead to breakthroughs in the prevention and successful medication of mental illness,” says Gondora. “Everything we do is focused on getting a better understanding of how stress impacts the developing brain. One day we hope to design an appropriate intervention.

This research is supported by grants from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

NOTE: BIOL 690 Scientific Communication is a graduate course that helps students enhance their skills in the acquisition, organization and presentation of scientific information. Students in the course interviewed and wrote a news story about one of their classmates' research.