Exploring the link between early life stress and mental illness
Nichola Brydges's research, funded by the Hodge Foundation, is focused on uncovering the biological consequences of early life stress and how these are linked to increased risk of developing psychiatric disorders.
Understanding these biological mechanisms is crucial for discovering new approaches to treatment and prevention.
Epidemiological studies have shown that exposure to stress early in life is linked with an increased risk of developing several psychiatric disorders, from depression to schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar.
The biological mechanisms underpinning this are not fully known, yet improved understanding of how stress early in life alters behaviour and molecular processes would greatly enhance our ability to prevent and treat these life-changing illnesses. This is of increasing importance as rates of mental illness, particularly amongst young people, continue to rise.
My group uses a combination of methods to try and uncover the biological consequences of early life stress. We look at the effects of stress on behaviour, particularly that governed by the hippocampus, a structure in the brain that is important for learning and memory.
Social behaviour is another major focus; this is severely impaired in a number of psychiatric illnesses. We then tie these behavioural changes to molecular alterations, in order to determine what underlying biological processes are affected. Here we have targeted neurogenesis, the generation of new neurons in the adult hippocampus, and arginine vasopressin, a social neuropeptide. A final focus is on reversing these changes using pharmacological and environmental manipulations as we search for new strategies and therapies to treat mental illness.
Through our research we hope to improve knowledge on the biological mechanisms linking early life stress to an increased risk of developing mental illness, and discover new avenues for treatment and prevention.