How do paternal experiences modify offspring stress resilience?
Issues with a child's health have historically been linked to maternal factors, such as the maternal health status before conception and throughout pregnancy. In the past decade, emerging evidence indicates that the father's health is equally essential. My research is a unique combination of neuroscience and reproductive biology. I discovered that stress changes the molecular profile of sperm and that paternal stress alone can be linked to anxiety disorders in sons. I am now working to decipher the mechanisms involved in this indirect relationship.
To discover how physical, environmental and chemical stressors impacting an individual can lead to transgenerational shifts in brain development, anxiety and depressive behaviours and stress-response of subsequent generations.
It is estimated that 10% of the population will experience PTSD at least once in their lifetime, and animal model studies suggest that paternal traumatic stress can be linked to behavioural shifts and potential learning difficulties offspring. The 2015 Australian Psychological Society Stress & Well-being survey reported that ~50% of surveyed individuals experience moderate levels of stress, with young adults being particularly vulnerable during the current Covid-19 pandemic.
Our lab developed a unique model of chronic low-level stress in young adult male mice (Short, Transl Psychiatry 2016) and we discovered the emergence of anxiety behaviours in the male offspring and subsequent behavioural alterations in the grand-offspring. The F1 offspring are also hypersensitive to antidepressant treatment (Rawat, Environ Epigenet 2018). However, promisingly, shorter periods of paternal stress do not affect offspring behaviour (Fennell, Sci Rep 2020).
This project has a broad scope to address multiple aspects of transgenerational research and offers students the opportunity to learn a range of research techniques. Rodent behavioural testing will be used to further characterise behaviours associated with risk-assessment, risk-aversion and anxiety. These will be closely paired with physiological studies of stress-response using blood hormone assays and gene-expression profiling of stress-regulating brain regions such as the hypothalamus, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. Characterisation of brain development and function will involve immunohistological studies of cell proliferation and turnover in the hippocampus (a key region for regulating cognition and emotion) and frontal cortex.
Students have to be able to work as part of a team, and will gain experience in a range of techniques including animal behavioural testing, brain and organ dissections, RNA/DNA expression analyses, cell turnover and stress-related hormone assays.
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