How You Deal With Stress Could Be In Your Genes

Dr. Ian Weaver in his lab at Dalhousie University. (Photo courtesy of  Dalhousie)

Dr. Ian Weaver in his lab at Dalhousie University. (Photo courtesy of Dalhousie)

Many people are no stranger to stress, but some are much better at handling it than others. The ability to handle stress, as well as health outcomes that can develop from exposure to stress, are often passed down through generations.

By looking at genes and their relation to maternal stress during pregnancy and maternal care after birth, Dr. Ian Weaver is hoping to learn more about why some individuals develop more stress-related health conditions and how those conditions can be prevented.

Severe maternal stress can increase the risk of a child developing a range of altered psychological and neurodevelopmental outcomes, such as learning and behavioural disorders (e.g. ADHD), anxiety and depression, and impaired cognitive development. These health outcomes are some of the most burdensome for individuals, families and society due to their long duration, disabling nature and limited forms of treatment—and they significantly impact how one handles stress.

“Our bodies respond to stress using the glucocorticoid (GC) hormone, which is often used to treat a number of conditions in obstetrics and perinatal medicine,” explains Dr. Weaver, Assistant Professor with Dalhousie’s Faculties of Science and Medicine. “GCs also play an important role during fetal development, but the biology underlying their effect on genes and early brain development in the fetus is complex and we are only beginning to understand these processes.”

Using infrastructure funded through the Nova Scotia Research and Innovation Trust (NSRIT) and the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), Dr. Weaver and his of team graduate and undergraduate students manipulate and monitor specific populations of brain cells in mice that have been exposed to increased levels of GCs to see how they function at several key stages of neural development, from late fetal and early neonatal periods through to adulthood.

“The students learn cutting-edge techniques in the new field of neural and behavioural epigenetics,” says Dr. Weaver. “Learning these new techniques will provide an excellent foundation for their careers in scientific research.”

The equipment purchased with $125,000 NSRIT support includes a “next generation” DNA sequencing system, specialized microscopes and molecular biology equipment used for the analysis and detection of mutations.  With the equipment, the Assistant Professor has qualified for a five-year NSERC Discovery grant worth $165,000 over five years and two Department of Psychiatry Research Fund (DPRF) grants worth $20,000.

Dr. Weaver has trained two technicians, two graduate students as and three undergraduate students annually since 2012. He expects to recruit one postdoctoral fellow and a further two graduate students within the next two to three years.

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