Our research aims to characterize the mechanisms by which early life environment influences physiology and behaviors later in life. In humans, the quality of the parental-child relationship is inversely correlated with the age of onset of puberty, sexual activity, and depression/anxiety levels in adults. In rats, as in humans, early environmental conditions, including maternal care provided during the first few days of life, programs the endocrine system which in turn modulates numerous behaviors. For example, a low level of maternal care has been shown to increase reproductive hormones during proestrus in the female rat and to increase sexual behavior (and reproductive success) compared to animals that had received high levels of care. Furthermore, offspring that received low levels of care are more stress sensitive, display more anxiety/depression-like behavior, and are more at risk for drug abuse. Thus, our central hypothesis is that the parent-child interaction influences the neuroendocrine system of the offspring, which in turn modulates the differential sensitivity to adverse environments. To address our hypothesis, we are currently studying three main areas of research:
- The effects of natural variations in maternal care on the development of the female neuroendocrine system.
- The effects of early life environment on alcohol use and abuse.
- The effects of parent-child relationships and risky behavior, relationships and health in humans.
Our laboratory uses two rat animal models, one that examines the effects of natural variations in maternal care and a second that investigates the consequences of prenatal alcohol exposure on the offspring's development and behavior. We utilize behavioral testing, molecular biology techniques, hormonal and protein assays, pharmacological manipulations and neuroanatomical techniques, in a whole-organism approach aimed at understanding potential mechanisms that mediate the epigenetic effects of early life environment on the neuroendocrine system, the brain and behavior. Furthermore, we use human subjects to access the translational value of our research with rats. With humans, we use surveys, hormonal assays and genotyping to investigate the effects of early life environment, and parent-child relationships, on hormone levels, health, affective state, sexual behavior and alcohol intake. The use of human and animal research in our laboratory complement each other and allow us to approach our scientific questions from different angles.