NEW YORK – The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Brain Insight Lecture Series continued on Feb. 8 at Columbia University’s Faculty House in Morningside Heights. How Do Early Life Experiences Shape Behavior? was presented by Frances Champagne, PhD highlighted the brain’s plasticity and the effects of the environment on the brain’s development through epigenetic variation.
Offered free to the public to enhance the understanding of the biology of the mind and the complexity of human behavior, the lectures are hosted by Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute and supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.
Brain development is a dynamic process that reflects the complex interplay between genes and environments.
The experiences occurring during early life can have profound effects on brain development with long-term implications for behavior and mental health. How does the environment achieve such enduring effects?
Dr. Champagne spoke about the molecular pathways through which early experiences shape the activity of genes and the consequences of these effects for behavior.
These “epigenetic” pathways are a fundamental link between genes and environments that may account for both risk and resilience to the effects of early life adversity and the “inheritance” of environmental effects on the brain.
Dr. Champagne is an Associate Professor and Vice Chair in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University, a faculty member of the Columbia Population Research Center (CPRC), and a Sackler Scientist within the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology.
Dr. Champagne’s research integrates molecular, neurobiological, and behavioral approaches toward an understanding of how a broad range of environmental exposures can lead to long-term biological and behavioral outcomes.
In particular, her work is examining the epigenetic origins of variation in mental health and the transmission of these epigenetic effects across generations.
Thomas Jessell, PhD- Co-director of Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute and Claire Tow Professor of Motor Neuron Disorders at Columbia University Medical Center- gave the welcoming remarks, noting the presence of benefactor Mort Zuckerman and the representatives of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Rick Petty,
Sarah Needham, and Nancy McKinstry. Dr. Jessell introduced Dr. Champagne, mentioning her training in psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience, and Dr. Champagne’s current and future research focusing on “investigating the epigenetic mechanisms via which individual variation in reproductive, social, and addictive behavior can be induced via variation in early life experiences, and investigating the epigenetic mechanisms via which offspring may overcome or be resilient to such early life experiences.”
Noting that one brain differs from another, Dr. Champagne explained that epigenetic changes can be seen on the molecular level, turning genes on and off depending on a variety of factors, so that even genetically similar people can be so different, for example, studies show that identical monozygotic twins are epigenetically different.
They start out very similar, then variation emerges across a lifetime, contributing to unique outcomes.
Stress, exposure to toxins, and nutrition are just a few of the environmental factors that can lead to epigenetic changes with consequences for behavior, health, and future generations.
Dr. Champagne illustrated her point with a study on the impact of prenatal stress, when pregnant mothers are under a great deal of stress, their unborn babies are affected.
The impact includes risk of prematurity, low birth weight, increased stress response and risk of depression and anxiety later in life.
The placenta acts as a barrier, but not complete barrier, between the mother and fetus, so that under high stress, the gene keeping the stress hormone away from the baby is switched off, resulting in even more stress passing to the baby.
Studies on mice allow for more multigenerational effects to be observed including sex specific differences and inherited epigenetic variation when the mice are exposed to toxins like Bisphenol A, present in plastics, or subjected to food restriction.
This dynamic view of development, the dynamic epigenome, silencing some genes while activating others at any time demonstrates the brain’s plasticity throughout a lifetime and embraces a broader view of inheritance.
DR. Champagne said, “Not only genes but other variations are also inherited,” though they are not set in stone.
A Q&A session followed the lecture. A teacher from the audience asked about his students who worried that poor maternal care is an inherited trait, a vicious cycle they can’t escape.
Dr. Champagne noted that studies are revealing hope because of the dynamic nature of brain development and the brain’s plasticity.