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Mechanisms underlying the lasting effects of early-life experiences on brain structure and function

During the early-life period, our brain develops at an amazing rate. When this period is disturbed by exposure childhood adversity, it can have a lasting impact on the adult we become. Indeed, exposure to early-life stress is associated with impaired learning and memory and a higher risk for psychopathology in later life. Because prevention of early-life stress is often difficult, a better understanding of the mechanisms that underlie the early programming of the brain and behaviour is needed.

The main goal of our research group is to better understand the biological mechanisms and environmental factors involved in brain programming by stressful early-life experiences and to test the efficacy of (nutritional) interventions.

We aim to identify how the various components of the early-life environment, including stress-hormones, early nutrition and inflammatory modulators act synergistically in programming the brain, possibly via epigenetic mechanisms. Furthermore, we address early-life stress-induced alterations in the various cell types of the brain (neurons, astrocytes, microglia), in vivo and in vitro.

Our main focus is on the hippocampus, a very plastic brain region involved in learning and memory and in stress regulation. The hippocampus is also unique as it exhibits the ability to generate new neurons throughput adulthood, a process called 'adult neurogenesis'. Our studies show that adult neurogenesis is modified by early-life stress and that hippocampal plasticity is one of the neurobiological substrates underlying the cognitive impairments induced by early stress.

To aid the development of possible therapeutic strategies to prevent the lasting consequences of early stress on the brain we use our acquired knowledge to study the potential of nutritional intervention. The translational value of this approach is high as nutrition is typically non-invasive, cheap and easily applicable.