By Josee Beaudry, Department of Psychology, Carleton University
Our life experiences may have a considerable impact on not only our own development, but as well, the development of our children. Which events and experiences, and how they impact individuals in early and later life is the fundamental question in Frances Champagne’s research. Champagne is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University. Her research crosses the disciplines of neuroscience and psychology with a primary focus on how early life experiences influence the brain and behaviour and the molecular mechanisms associated with them. One main focus of her research is on the role of maternal care experienced and how it varies and has effects on offspring development.
Champagne’s research began during her undergraduate work at Queens University. The Psychology Department at the time focused primarily on criminal populations, which was not surprising as there were a lot of high security prisons within the Kingston area. She did her honors thesis on the personality and social characteristics of child molesters and how they differed from non-offenders. The variables she focused on were loneliness, social aptitude, feelings of empathy and self-worth. Through this research it became apparent that a lot of these problems emanated from early life adversities these individuals experienced. This line of research led her to be interested in exploring diseases and risks of psychopathology in schizophrenic patients and their developmental origins. She went on to do her Masters at McGill University, where she helped conduct a 3 year study on early life determinants of schizophrenia. The outcome of interest was not whether the individual became schizophrenic or not, but rather, what kind of symptom profiles were exhibited. The research team did assessments on family history of mental illness to identify genetic risk factors, as well as looked at siblings to see whether they had developmental challenges as well.
In the end, it was very clear that most schizophrenic patients encountered a lot of family and environmental stressors that put them at risk. She then went on to work with colleagues in the Neuroscience Department on maternal care and its influence on the development of the brain in animal models. This was the right move for her in terms of what she wanted to study; although she could look at a lot through humans, she couldn’t experiment, manipulate, and control the environment the same as with animal models. One of her maing research findings was that prenatal stress decreases the quality of maternal care, which ,in turn, is predictive of difficulties later in life for the infants. Getting involved in the Neuroscience lab really allowed her to explore how early life experiences and variation in care could shape the brain, as well as whether or not social enrichment could reverse some of these effects.
Throughout her research, stress seems to be a critical pre-disposing factor for developmental disruptions and challenges. Experiencing stress can be adaptive in the sense that it tells our body when something is wrong and that we need to act on it. Mild acute stressors have minimal impacts, but if an organism suffers from chronic stress the effects can be considerable. The problem though is that stress is difficult to define; what is stressful for some is not stressful to others. Certainly it is easier to measure in animal models because researchers can expose the animals to a specific stressor of fixed duration. In human studies it is different. Researchers have to measure how individuals perceive stressors rather than absolute stressor exposure, because each individual might appraise or cope with the stressor differently, which results in variations of the subjective experience.
A lot of research has focused on how mothers and their exposure to social and environmental stressors affect their offspring. Much less research has been done to assess whether the paternal stressor exposures plays a role. Champagne and her colleagues is fairly unique in that they have looked the effects of paternal stress, and in particular on how it influences maternal care. They conducted a study using rats in which stress on half the male rats were stressed by restricting their accessibility to food. They found that, even though the females weren’t around during the stressful event, that their level of maternal care for their young ones were affected by whether the male they subsequently mated with had or had not been exposed to the stressor. The females that mated with a stressed male showed higher levels of maternal care; perhaps they somehow sensed the wellness of the male rat and compensated with greater care of the offspring. Champagne is now looking at how what signaled to the female rat the need to change her level of maternal care.
As a result of her research, Champagne has come to appreciate the importance of looking at both paternal and maternal stressor exposure. She is also finding evidence that the effects of stressors on offspring can depend on the timing of when the stressors were encountered. Effectively, like others, her work is contributing to a greater understanding and appreciation of how plastic neuronal systems are. Such ‘epigenetic’ plasticity means that we aren’t hardwired; bad experiences don’t decide who you become. What we experience may have an influence on us but we can change and adapt as well.
On November 29, Dr. Frances Champagne delivered a public lecture on Epigenetic Impact of Toxins, Stress & Social Interactions: Transgenerational Perspectives. Her slides can be accessed here Champagne Carleton 2015.