Quick Project Snapshot

Investigating the inherited paternal influence on offspring cognition and behaviour

As diploid animals, each individual human being is a genetic combination of their parents. Emerging evidence now indicates that the environment that our parents were exposed to can also influence us. The potential for maternal health and well-being to impact on the development of their offspring is well demonstrated and established. Stress during pregnancy has a negative impact on offspring by slowing developmental milestones, cognitive growth, and is also associated with adult-onset mental disorders. In contrast, the paternal influence on offspring development and mental health is largely unknown. Given the increasing exposure to physical, psychosocial and environmental stressors that are prevalent in our society, it is important to be aware of the possible transgenerational effects on the mental health of future generations. Initial work on a mouse model of elevated physiological stress discovered resulting anxietyrelated behavioural alterations in offspring generations. Sex-specific effects were observed, which perhaps highlights the importance of this transgenerational influence from an evolutionary and ‘preservation-of-species’ perspective. We are seeking to expand on those findings by investigating other potential transgenerational modifiers of offspring phenotypes. We are also aiming to understand how these environmental cues act to alter the developmental trajectory of the embryo.

Our lab is seeking highly motivated individuals to conduct research into the following projects.

  1. Investigating how different levels of physical exercise engaged by a male influences the cognitive capacity, stress response, and anxiety levels of offspring.
  2. Exploring the benefits of regular exercise in preventing the transgenerational effects of stress in fathers.
  3. Examining enhanced cognitive stimulation (environmental enrichment) as a potential protectant for offspring born to stressed fathers.
  4. Conducting an initial investigation into the transgenerational effects of alcohol consumption on offspring behaviour and physiology.

Epigenetics and Neural Plasticity Laboratory

The Neural Plasticity Laboratory investigates gene-environment interactions and experience-dependent plasticity in the healthy and diseased brain, using a variety of experimental approaches.  This includes research using a model of Huntington’s disease (HD), a tandem repeat disorder, where we are following up our discoveries regarding the beneficial effects of environmental enrichment (enhanced cognitive stimulation and physical activity) and exercise, as well as depression and dementia-like symptoms associated with abnormalities of brain plasticity.  Furthermore, we recently discovered that chronic stress can accelerate onset of HD, and are investigating these neurotoxic effects of stress in HD and other brain disorders.

Many neurological and psychiatric disorders have their origins in abnormal maturation of the brain, including the billions of neurons exquisitely connected by trillions of synapses. We are also investigating how genetic and environmental factors combine to cause specific disorders of brain development and cognition, including schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders (ASD).  We are interested in the mechanisms whereby specific genes regulate maturation of the brain and are dynamically regulated by interaction with the environment in conditions like ASD and schizophrenia. 

Our research links data at behavioural and cognitive levels to underlying cellular and molecular mechanisms.  We use a variety of behavioural tools, including automated touchscreen testing of cognition and high-throughput data analysis of vocalization and communication, that are directly translatable to clinical tests.  We are establishing the extent to which experience-dependent plasticity, including adult neurogenesis and synaptic plasticity, can modulate these behavioural and cognitive endophenotypes, in models with targeted genome editing.  This cellular level of understanding is linked, in turn, to molecular mechanisms, including epigenetics, transcriptomics and proteomics.

Based on this research, and the identification of key target molecules, we are also exploring the concept of ‘enviromimetics’, therapeutics that mimic or enhance the beneficial effects of cognitive stimulation and physical exercise.  One goal is to develop such therapeutic agents to help reduce the personal and societal burdens of devastating brain disorders such as schizophrenia, HD and dementia.

All Projects by this Lab

Investigation of paternal influence on offspring mental healthUtilising Touchscreen technology for preclinical modeling of attention in autism spectrum disorderInvestigating social communication in the Neuroligin 3 mouse model of AutismInvestigating the inherited paternal influence on offspring cognition and behaviourExperience-dependent plasticity modulating cognitive deficits in schizophreniaGene-environment interactions modulating dementia and depression in a tandem repeat disorder

Behavioural Neuroscience

The Division of Behavioural Neuroscience focuses on the use and development of models that reflect aspects of human disorders such as addiction, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, autism and neurodegenerative conditions such as Huntington’s disease. The Cognitive Neuroscience group additionally studies cognitive disorders caused by diseases such as stroke (cerebrovascular disease), Alzheimer's disease and other dementias from a clinical perspective.

All Labs that operate in this Division

Addiction Neuroscience LaboratoryDevelopmental Psychobiology LaboratoryEpigenetics and Neural Plasticity LaboratoryGenes Environment and Behaviour LaboratorySynapse Biology and Cognition Laboratory