Embracing the complexity

Barbara Barth, PhD, reflects on her career trajectory and her motivation to pursue neuroscience in Montreal.

Why did you choose McGill?

I was trained as a clinical psychologist in Brazil and did a master’s in experimental psychology investigating attentional bias to food in individuals with obesity. I felt that there was a biological component missing from my practice and research. I had a lot of biological questions, but I didn’t have the training to incorporate that into my practice. At the end of my MA degree, I changed from psychology to neuroscience for my PhD. There’s no better place to study neuroscience than Montreal, with the amazing infrastructure we have at McGill. But what made me sure about my decision was finding out that Patricia Silveira Pelufo, MD, PhD, originally from Brazil like me, was moving her lab to McGill. I received the Emerging Leaders in the Americas scholarship for my MA and completed a research trainee program with Dr. Silveira. At the end of the program, she invited me to do a PhD in her lab. Of course I accepted, and it was the best decision I made.


You started your career as a clinical psychologist, and have now completed a PhD from McGill’s Integrated Program in Neuroscience. What motivated this change in trajectory?

I had a short but fulfilling career as a clinical psychologist, but I always felt that something was missing. I did a lot of research in my time as an undergraduate, and always had contact with the research element. I felt that I could contribute more to knowledge and advance the field if I was in academia. I still value clinical practice and may go back to it in the future. But at the time, I had the opportunity to invest in my academic career and a training that would position me as a great scientist and equip me with the tools to advance the field and ask more complex questions. I also knew it was going to be a great combination for my career moving forward. Throughout my training, I felt that I never left my clinical view. I was learning more about neuroscience and genomics, but I never left the application perspective.


What was your PhD research about?

I studied the interplay between genes and environment and how they influence the development of cardiometabolic and psychiatric conditions. We know early life adversity has a long-lasting impact on behaviour and cognition, but also that the impact of the environment is not the same for everybody. This is why it’s important to understand the interaction between genes and environment. Prior research showed that a specific polymorphism in the dopaminergic receptor gene (DRD4) is involved in eating behaviours in children. Instead of studying a single mutation, I looked at the whole expression of the gene. We found an interaction between the individual predicted prefrontal DRD4 gene expression and early environment quality in predicting emotional eating. This is important due to the comorbidity of cardiometabolic conditions — such as obesity and diabetes — on the one hand, and psychological conditions — such as emotional regulation and eating disorders — on the other hand. Using the UK Biobank, I studied a network of genes co-expressed with the dopamine transporter in the striatum and its interaction with birth weight as a measure of early environment. We found a significant interaction between the two in predicting cardiometabolic and psychiatric disease in adults, as well as adolescents from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) cohort at risk of developing such conditions later in life. In a more technical perspective, I also investigated, in two separate manuscripts, the best way to capture gene by environment interaction while also investigating possibly underlying biological mechanisms.


What are the implications of your research? How does it apply to mental health and cognitive development?

These findings provide evidence that early environment is important for development, and that some children may benefit more than others from early intervention because of their genetic makeup. This may help us understand why interventions won’t work for everyone, and to adapt and design more flexible interventions accommodating individual differences that are beneficial for everyone. Furthermore, this evidence is at the translational level, showing how dopamine may be involved in humans rather than in animal models.


How did the Ludmer Centre make an impact on your academic and professional journey?

The mission of the Ludmer Centre is to advance multimodal approaches to data and research to understand brain development. This can’t be accomplished by a single person: you need a community of researchers, driven by advancement, innovation and discovery. The Ludmer Centre makes a true impact by fostering a collaborative environment and facilitating transdisciplinary partnership to advance both the technology and the research. Another key component is the diversity at the Ludmer Centre. Coming to McGill as a woman from Latin America and working with amazing researchers such as Dr. Silveira, who is also from Brazil, has been wonderful.


What unique opportunities or resources did the Ludmer Centre offer you?

I needed the opportunity to be at the forefront of science, which is what McGill and the Ludmer Centre offered me. Amongst many opportunities, there were two events that were very influential in my career projection. The first was a seminar with Sara Mostafavi, founder of GeneMANIA. As a user of her platform, it was empowering to see a woman who had an idea and went for it and built it! It inspired me not only as a researcher but to be curious about advancing techniques.

The other was a symposium on combining polygenic scores, genetics and brain imaging. At the time, I was working on implementing Parallel Independent Component Analysis at the Silveira Lab, a technique used to associate neuroimaging and genetic data and fuse the two modalities. The symposium was about this exact topic, and everybody attending was interested in knowing more about it. This was very validating and gave me the green light that I was on the right path.


What’s next for you? What will you be working on and where will you be doing that?

I will be doing a postdoc in the Eating Disorder Continuum program at the Douglas, where I’ll be collecting data using functional MRI in individuals with anorexia nervosa. I’m going to take all the technical skills I acquired through the years and apply it in my postdoc.


Do you envision engaging with the Ludmer Centre as you transition into the next phase of your career?

I would be happy to collaborate with my former lab, the Silveira Lab. I will have access to methylation data from individuals with eating disorders. I’m excited for the type of polygenic scores we can create with clinical samples, which will be different from data acquired from a biobank. Our collaboration may help us create genetic scores combining genotype and methylation data and possibly answer some questions that are related to the biological underpinnings of eating disorders.


Where would you like your career to take you?

I’ve been a course instructor for the Hormones and Behaviours class at the Department of Psychology at McGill for the last two years, and I love interacting with students and passing on knowledge with an engaging narrative to help them understand the content. It’s something I really love to do. But I’ve also invested a lot throughout the years to pursue a career as a principal investigator, so that’s the dream. That’s what I want to achieve. My ideal scenario is doing both!


The Douglas is a strong research centre in basic, translational and clinical sciences. It sounds like it had a profound influence on your career development and projection. What do you think about that?

I came from the clinical domain to study neuroscience without any prior experience. But during my time at the Douglas, I have never felt that my training as a clinical psychologist was in vain. I knew that I could incorporate it in my research questions. The Douglas has given me the encouragement that at some point in my career, I was going to use everything that I was learning to help me understand the brain.

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