Road to 200: Dr. Michael Meaney - Can our upbringing change our genes?

Michael Meaney is the Director of the Sackler Program for Epigenetics & Psychobiology at McGill. He is a James McGill Professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurology & Neurosurgery, as well as Scientific Director at the Ludmer Centre for Neuroinformatics & Mental Health. Dr. Meaney investigates how environmental conditions shape early brain development. He spoke to us about his research, from external factors that influence our genes to the impact of maternal care on mental health outcomes.

Your research focuses on epigenetics, or how environmental factors can affect the way genes are expressed. How does this work?

Epigenetics provides us with a clear understanding of how the environment can act to regulate the activity of genes. Our environment actually comes to shape the way in which our genetic material – what we will inherit – is manifested, determining the activity of cells in our body that make us more vulnerable to disease, better at certain things but worse at others, and so on.

As it turns out, not all people respond to their environments in the same way. The environment can influence what makes your brain cells different from my brain cells. These modifications, or epigenetic marks, determine which genes might be more active in my brain compared to your brain.

How does this tie into maternal care and mental health?

The environments in which we develop are crucial in defining who we are, and the environment in early life can actually shape the activity of genes over the lifespan of the individual. An amazing feature of the human brain is that it can be wired very differently in two different people, even when those two people seem to be very much alike.

I’m interested in why a child could grow up under the most miserable circumstances and succeed, while another child in the same circumstances could have a completely different outcome. I’m interested in resilience, in what makes those rare people different from so many others. Ultimately, under conditions of strain or stress – both in the womb and in early life – you start to see the way in which these brains operate and produce differences in terms of health outcomes.

Why is McGill the place to work on epigenetics?

McGill is actually probably ground zero for modern neuroscience and the study of the brain. Donald Hebb, who was a professor of psychology here at McGill, is often acknowledged as the father of modern neuroscience. One of Hebb’s great contributions was to actually think in terms of how the environment shapes the brain in a way that sustains individual differences over the lifespan. Conceptually, then, there has always been a great deal of receptivity to the type of questions that we ask at McGill. And today, McGill has an incredible critical mass of scientists who study the brain in relation to either health or behavioral outcomes.

How does philanthropy help your work?

Philanthropy allows you to go to places unseen. When you write a research grant for a federal agency, you’re asking the taxpayers to put money in your wallet to achieve specific objectives. They want to know that those objectives are feasible. The problem is, in science, often times where you want to go is more of a hunch. Philanthropy allows you to pursue those hunches. It allows for greater possibility of true discovery than would traditional funding mechanisms. It is absolutely essential to the development of science.