Concordia University’s Centre for Studies in Behavioral Neurobiology (CSBN) kicked off its 30th anniversary celebrations with a lecture on Oct. 4 by Concordia graduate Michael Meaney, featuring his current research on how childhood experiences affect genes.
“CSBN embodies Concordia’s commitment to research on subjects that matter deeply to society,” said Graham Carr, vice-president of Research and Graduate Studies at Concordia.
Meaney’s lecture, entitled, Environmental Epigenetics: how childhood experience regulates the activity of genes, explained that childhood environments physically change the structure of DNA, with effects lasting into adulthood.
Meaney’s research, labelled as “the biology of social forces,” uncovered the “how” of what psychologists and neurobiologists already knew — that an interaction between the environment and genes affect behaviour.
Meaney explained that in childhood, early experiences with poverty, abuse, alcoholism, and illicit-drug exposure by adults leads to long-term health problems for the child that last into adulthood. These problems include obesity, heart disease, and in some instances, cancer.
While early experiences have lifetime consequences, Meaney noted that intensive therapy interventions for people living in poverty have positive results that are equally long lasting.
As an example, he cited the Nurse-Family Partnership, an organization pairing nurses with low-income first-time mothers early in their pregnancy and during the first two years of the child’s life. Nineteen years after the study, children with nurse intervention in infancy had significantly lower criminal activity and better academic performance than those without the experience.
Currently, Meaney is a professor in the departments of psychiatry,neurology and neurosurgery at McGill, director of the Program for the Study of Behaviour, Genes and Environment, and the associate director of the Research Centre at the Douglas Mental Health Institute.
He began his career back in the 1980s as a CSBN graduate student. Meaney studied how early life experiences in rats affect their responses to stress later in life under the guidance of Jane Stewart, co-founder of the CSBN and Professor Emeritus at Concordia.
According to Stewart, the idea of the Centre was to “make it interdisciplinary and make it a place where there would be enough people working on similar problems and ideas to enrich the experience for the graduate students.”
Established in 1983 at Sir George Williams before moving to Loyola, the CSBN has grown from four founding Concordia faculty members to over 180 members in labs at Concordia, McGill, and the Université de Montréal.
“We could have the kinds of opportunities that didn’t exist in any one individual’s lab,” said Stewart. CSBN co-founders include Concordia professors Zalman Amit, Roy Wise, and Peter Schickele, all from the department of psychology.
“The founding members set out to create a community of highly skilled scientists dedicated to the study of addiction, motivation, and reward,” said Carr.
The Centre grew from the founders’ separate research into topics including appetite, motivation, drug use, hormones, and sexual behaviour. It has since expanded into researching sleep and memory systems of the brain.
Carr’s sentiment of “fostering top-notch graduate education and training” at the CSBN were echoed in Stewart’s hopes for a continuing legacy.
“My goal would be that people try, that they are successful, hardworking, curious, and that they want to do the science,” said Stewart. “Otherwise the students won’t flourish. Everybody has to work together.”