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Queen's University

Stress, Neurodevelopment & Emotions Lab

Research Program

The impact of early stress and genes on brain development and risk for psychopathology

Numerous studies have shown that altered levels of the brain chemicals, like serotonin, in combination with early life stressors, can increase the risk of developing mental health problems, especially major depression and aggression. Recent animal studies have shown that, in addition to genetic characteristics, environmental stressors in the foetal and/or infant stage can leave their mark on gene expression, with consequences for brain chemistry. Specifically, the early environment can change the expression of genes critical for development by altering the way these genes are marked by a chemical coating of DNA, termed ‘DNA methylation.’ This, in turn, could affect the activity of certain neurochemicals like serotonin, raising the risk of mental disorder.

The aim of our research program is to study the impact of early stressors on brain developmental processes and DNA methylation. We are also investigating the role of DNA methylation in the risk for mental disorders, in particular with regard to mood disorders and externalizing problems. With this research, we hope to contribute to the development of biomarkers for mental health problems, which could have an impact on prediction, prevention and treatment of mental disorders. The studies we are conducting are done in children, adolescents and adults and use neuro-imaging, (epi)genetics and/or cognitive-behavioural assessments. Some of the studies are done in longitudinal cohort samples followed since birth or early childhood, as part of ongoing research collaborations with the Research Unit on Children’s Psychosocial Maladjustment (GRIP).

Topics of ongoing research projects include:

1)    Impact of (early) stress on DNA methylation.
2)    Impact of (early) stress on brain function in adolescence and adulthood.
3)    Role of DNA methylation in mental disorders.
4)    Neural mechanisms in mood disorders and externalizing problems (using fMRI).
5)    Basic research on DNA methylation processes.
6)    Gene-Environment studies on brain and behaviour, using twin designs.


Impact of neurochemicals on development

In collaboration with the Sainte-Justine hospital research centre (principal site), the Kingston General Hospital, and other research sites across Canada, we are working on a longitudinal research project on the impact of environmental chemicals on development (maternal-infant research on environmental chemicals; MIREC). The MIREC study started a few years ago in which women were followed since their pregnancy, to determine if elevated levels of various chemicals were found in the Canadian population, and the potential effects, if any, of exposure to elevated levels of these chemicals on pregnancy outcomes. The objective is now to examine if there is a link between early life exposures to elevated levels of environmental chemicals (if any) and how their children develop.

MIREC families from six Canadian cities are presently invited to participate in this follow-up study. Dr. Booij and two members of her team (Katherine Bailey and Sarah Goegan) are responsible for the neurodevelopmental testing of the children living in the Kingston area.

For more information, please go to:

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Kingston, Ontario, Canada. K7L 3N6. 613.533.2000