Lab Canada

Behavioural geneticist wins $1.2 million Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize

Montreal, QC – McGill University professor Michael Meaney has been selected as the 2014 Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize Laureate in recognition of his groundbreaking achievements in the biology of child development.

The prize carries an award of one million Swiss francs (CAD $1.2 million). A jury of experts selected Prof. Meaney, who is also scientific director at the Ludmer Centre for Neuroinformatics and Mental Health at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, for this honour for his pioneering, cutting-edge research on the biological mechanisms by which parental behaviour affects brain development and lifelong function. He is also a senior fellow in CIFAR’s program in Child & Brain Development.

A founder of the field the behavioural genetics, Meaney’s work demonstrates that early experiences can switch some genes on and others off, with profound impacts on our physical and emotional health. These effects can last for our entire lives, and sometimes throughout the lives of our children.

“Michael’s work has been truly transformative in helping us think about the way in which early parenting and early experiences of all kinds modify our development through the molecular changes in the development of genes,” says W. Thomas Boyce (University of California, San Francisco), co-director of CIFAR’s program in Child & Brain Development and a member of the jury which awarded the prize.

In one of his most important papers, he showed how different forms of mothering would directly affect gene expression in rats. When a rat mother fails to lick and groom her pups enough, the pups grow up to show increased hormonal and behavioural signs of stress. Those pups were also less likely to lick and groom their own pups.

But the difference wasn’t genetic – it was epigenetic. When Meaney took pups from good mothers and allowed them to be reared by neglectful mothers, the pups suffered more from stress, and also turned into neglectful mothers themselves. The same happened in reverse.

Meaney and his collaborators were also able to track down the molecular mechanism behind the epigenetic changes. They found molecular changes that controlled expression of a gene that encodes for a particular kind of neuroreceptor, one associated with the stress response. In effect, neglected pups had the dimmer switch for the genes turned down, and suffered greater stress as a result.

Later, work on humans showed the same result. People with a documented history of neglectful and abusive childhoods showed the same epigenetic alterations as those in the neglected rats.

“Now that we know that childhood experiences change how genes are expressed, we may be able to identify the children who are most at risk and put in place appropriate interventions at ages early enough to provide sustained benefits,” said Meaney. “This will make it possible to develop therapies tailored to the needs of each child – therapies that are likely to produce the greatest benefits and to be most cost-effective over the long term.”

The award will be presented on December 5, 2014, at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.