I completed my undergraduate degree in the Department of Psychology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, in 1995. After completing a M.Sc. in Psychiatry in 1999 I obtained my PhD in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University in Montreal under the supervision of Michael Meaney. From 2004-2006, I conducted post-doctoral research at the Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour at the University of Cambridge, UK. In July 2006 I was appointed the position of assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University in New York City.
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Maternal behavior, Epigenetics, Transgenerational effects, Neuroendocrinology, Environmental regulation of behavior
Perhaps one of the most defining characteristics of early mammalian development is the intense level of mother-infant interaction both prenatally and postnatally. Amongst altricial young, this postpartum period represents a critical stage of development in which thermoregulation, feeding and infant physiology are dependent on maternal care. Study of the long-term consequences of variation in maternal care during the postpartum period indicates that in additional to promoting infant growth and survival, the quality of the mother-infant interaction can alter patterns of brain development, gene expression and behavior. In a rodent model, natural variation in maternal licking/grooming (LG) of pups, one particular form of tactile stimulation of infants, can alter stress physiology and cognition. Moreover, female offspring who have received high levels of LG in infancy engage in higher levels of this form of maternal behavior when caring for their own offspring. This transmission of maternal care from mother to infant and the neural and molecular mechanisms that mediate this transfer is the focus of my current research.
Advances in molecular biology have lead to a more refined understanding of the elegant process of gene regulation and the consequence of these regulatory processes for phenotype at a cellular level. Consequently, it has been realized that within the genome the information contained within DNA is supplemented by information contained within the surrounding structure of those nucleotide sequences. Thus, dynamic characteristics of the structure of DNA that do not alter the sequence of DNA can have a profound effect on the expression level of genes. Understanding of the impact of these epigenetic characteristics of the genome has progressed rapidly and continues to be explored, providing exciting new insights into the complex relationship between genotype (an individual’s DNA sequence variation) and phenotype (characteristics of the individual). My research has sought to incorporate these advances in molecular biology into the study of the origins of individual differences in behavior and the role of environment in shaping the epigenetic characteristics of the genome.
When aspects of social and reproductive behavior are altered as a consequence of mother-infant interactions, these effects may extend beyond the offspring generation to grand-offspring. Thus, environmental effects can be “inherited” by subsequent generations. Though the stability of this inheritance would suggest a genetic mechanism, we have found that this transmission is environmentally mediated and may involve epigenetic changes to gene expression. We are currently developing models in which the transgenerational effects of a variety of early life experiences can be studied to determine the mechanisms that mediate these effects.
Department of Psychology
406 Schermerhorn Hall
1190 Amsterdam Ave
email: Prof Frances Champagne