RyanRyan McLaughlin – HMC Children’s Prize in Mental Health

Exposure to stress during the first few weeks of post-natal life can have profound effects on brain development and the way we cope with stress later in life. In rodents, early-life stressors such as maternal separation or maternal neglect produce exaggerated stress responses in the brain, which could be due to early activation of the amygdala, a brain region that dictates how we respond to fearful situations. Over time, too much amygdala activity can lead to the development of affective disorders such as anxiety and major depression, but luckily, our brain has developed a system that works to keep the amygdala in check during periods of high stress, thus ensuring that we can function normally without being consumed by the constant barrage of stress in our day-to-day lives. This system is called the “endocannabinoid system”, which as its name suggests, consists of natural “cannabis-like” molecules that are made by our brain whenever there is a threat in the environment. It is likely that these cannabis-like molecules also contribute to early-life stress responses; however, the exact nature of their contribution is currently unknown.

“My research examines the effects of maternal separation or neglect during the first 10 days of life on the stress circuitry in the developing brain, maturation of the amygdala, and the expression of fear in neonatal rats. The goal of my research is to determine whether increasing endocannabinoid activity during this early developmental period can prevent the structural, functional, and behavioral changes produced by early-life stress. These studies hope to enhance our understanding of the effects of early-life stress on brain development, offer insight into how this type of stress may confer vulnerability to stress-related disorders later in life, and could point to the endocannabinoid system as a new therapeutic target for early intervention in at-risk individuals.”

*Ryan McLaughlin’s study will be taking place in the USA, and as such funds from this Canadian award will not be used in the study.