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Epigenetics and mental health: the Canadian neuroepigenetics network

Principal Investigator:
  • Michael J. Meaney, Douglas Mental Health University Institute
Team Members:
  • Paul R. Albert, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
  • Guillaume Bourque, McGill University
  • Gustavo Turecki, Douglas Hospital Research Centre
  • Michael Kobor, University of British Columbia
  • Thomas Boyce, University of British Columbia
  • Joanna Holbrook, Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences
  • The W. Garfield Weston Foundation

Project Overview

Psychiatry, like all areas of medicine and biology, has long considered the origins of individual differences. This issue ultimately produced a nature vs nurture schism that divided researchers who emphasized the importance of environmental influences from those who considered the importance of heritable variation in the genome. This was never a fruitful debate. As Hebb once mused, attempting to quantify the relative importance of nature and nurture in defining individual variation was like asking what contributes more to the area of a rectangle – the length or the width! Indeed over the past decade we now understand how the influence of environmental conditions on brain function is moderated by genotype (and vice versa). The result is that of studies showing statistical interactions between gene and environment in determining the risk for psychopathology. But what is the biological nature of the interaction between gene and environment? the team’s earlier studies suggest that environmental conditions, particularly those involving parental influences in early life, can alter the structure and function of the genome. This effect involves the biochemical signals that regulate gene transcription, collectively referred to as epigenetic mechanisms. The studies proposed in this application attempt to integrate the study of epigenetics into Psychiatry and to examine whether environmentally-induced epigenetic signals might serve to distinguish children who carry and increased lifetime vulnerable for psychopathology. Since current predictors of mental health risk (e.g., birth weight, socio-economic status, etc.) are only limited in accuracy, such advances are critical if we are to more successfully stratify individuals truly at risk and thus more strategically target our interventions at an age when we can actually prevent the occurrence of mental illness.