University of Delaware
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Brain Trust

Researcher seeks to understand links between early-life stress and disease

Tania Roth

Tania Roth is researching how negative experiences early in life affect the brain.


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Tania Roth, assistant professor of psychology at UD and a researcher whose work is supported by the new Delaware Center for Neuroscience Research, knows that the genes we're born with don't determine our future.

Her investigations focus on behavioral epigenetics, seeking to define the molecular mechanisms that are responsible for environmental influences on gene activity, the development of behavior and psychiatric disorders. Epigenetics refers to the tiny chemical "tags" in living things that interact with genes and affect the way they function, sometimes, for example, "turning off" the normal operation of a particular gene.

The epigenome has been compared to the software that tells a computer—the genome itself—when to operate and what to do.

"In our lab, we're interested in understanding how the environment interacts with genes," Roth says. "We look at molecular, or epigenetic, changes that occur and then how that affects the brain and behavior."

She uses a rodent model to investigate the relationship between environmental experiences and lifelong patterns of gene expression and behavior. Roth's work focuses on DNA methylation, which is a chemical change in the brain that is important for cell development and gene expression.

She is specifically researching the effects of negative experiences early in life—particularly, adverse care giving, such as neglect or mistreatment—on epigenetic programming and patterns of gene expression. Such an adverse early experience, she says, can lead to epigenetic changes in the brain that might last a lifetime and even affect later generations.

Roth, who has been interested since graduate school in early life experiences and their effects on the brain, says her work with genes and chemical tags is the specific focus of the grant she's received through the new neuroscience center. But her research also has expanded recently to include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and she has been collaborating with a national consortium of scientists studying that condition.

"Your early life experiences can chemically tag your DNA, and that in turn can cause changes in the activity of your genes and behavior," she says. "One question we are interested in addressing is: Do chemical tags on DNA produced by adverse early life experiences make you more susceptible to developing PTSD if you experience trauma as an adult?"

PTSD has gained attention in recent years because of its rates of occurrence among soldiers who served in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but many cases also occur outside the military, including in victims of violent crimes and survivors of serious car accidents.

However, these chemical tags are not only relevant to understanding PTSD, but a host of other health outcomes associated with early-life adversity, including depression and anxiety.

Roth adds, "Studies in the field of behavioral epigenetics are giving us a new molecular framework to understand how our experiences can become part of our biology. An epigenetics perspective in research with animal models and in clinical trials stands to yield substantial information regarding biological determinants of brain function and health outcomes, and new approaches to diagnose and possibly treat psychiatric disorders."