IPN Student Profile: Daniel Almeida

In the later years of my high school education my father survived a major stroke. During the 8 months that followed, his rehabilitation seemed bleak.  Until one day his rehabilitation nurse handed me the book My Stroke of Insight by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard trained neuroanatomist who used her knowledge of neuroplasticity to recover following a stroke.  That evening I stayed awake all night soaking up every page in hopes that I would miraculously find the secret to stroke recovery. During the next few months that followed, my father’s recovery became my own observation of brain and behaviour. A fascination of the brain began to evolve in me and it suddenly became clear that I wanted to spend my life studying this complex organ.

The next year I began an HBSc at the University of Toronto enrolled in the Integrative Physiology specialist program. It was in my second year when I oversaw a colleague of mine was reading an introduction to abnormal psychology textbook. I noticed a concept box that wrote about an individual suffering with depression that experienced what the text described as hopelessness. I thought about it for a moment and realized that this word described perfectly a feeling that I was all too familiar with since my father’s stroke. I decided to add a psychology major to my degree in hopes that I could further explore how brain physiology related to behaviour. As my academic interests emerged I became involved in various community positions targeted at supporting individuals living with a mental illness and those who experience thoughts of suicide. What I found most interesting was the life story that each of these individuals brought to my understanding of the etiology of mental illness. All of this cumulated into a personal question of how life experiences could impact our brain and inevitably our behaviour. I decided that this was the exact question that I wanted to study at the graduate level. Despite the fact that I interviewed with tons of supervisors in various universities in Ontario I hadn’t felt a connection to the research questions they were asking.

I finally expanded my search to include out of province universities. Given McGill’s reputation and interdisciplinary neuroscience research, I was drawn to the IPN. I came across Dr. Gustavo Turecki’s profile, was attracted to the research questions of his lab and requested an interview. I was particularly drawn to his interest in early life abuse and suicide. As a clinician scientist Gustavo’s impressive career combined together the science of depression and suicide while translating these findings with the end goal of informing clinical practice. After our first meeting I knew that training in his lab would help me develop a capacity for critical thinking and ability to synthesize the implications of my research. Gustavo has since then allowed me to develop autonomy and initiative while providing support and guidance. Today my doctoral thesis explores the idea of an epigenetic memory resulting from childhood abuse and how these molecular changes might explain why an individual developed depression and died by suicide. While our group has previously demonstrated that childhood abuse associates with altered DNA methylation and functional downstream changes in genes involved in stress responses and neural plasticity, this work has been primarily conducted using whole tissue homogenates.  Since neuronal diversity arises in part through spatiotemporal regulation of gene expression, it’s reasonable to hypothesize that epigenetic landscapes should mirror neuronal diversity.  My project thus utilizes laser capture microdissection as a means for isolating specific cellular populations in post-mortem brain for downstream whole genome bisulfite and transcriptomic sequencing. These studies will allow us to robustly and specifically identify novel candidate pathways epigenetically influenced by childhood abuse in the context of depression and suicide.  The translational potential of this work is to eventually gain insight into whether alterations in identified molecular pathways are reversible through therapies tailored to specifically target impaired biological processes.

By studying the impact of life experiences on the development of mental illness I foresee my research one day having an impact on health policy surrounding clinical identification, assessment and treatment of depression and suicidal behaviour. Suicide is often referred to as the “silent epidemic”; by studying its underlying etiology the field brings itself closer to helping those who suffer in silence.