Neurobiologist Michael Meaney, a McGill University professor and a senior fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, receives the 2014 Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize in recognition of his ground-breaking achievements in child and youth development.
Received the 2014 Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize: Michael J. Meaney.
Meaney studies how experiences shape biology at the molecular level. His research focuses on the following questions: How do genes and environment interact to produce individual differences in brain function? Why are some better able than others to deal with illness, psychological problems or adverse life circumstances? Is it possible to determine an individual’s susceptibility to certain environmental influences by looking at that person’s biology, and can interventions reduce or even eliminate that susceptibility?
Life experiences alter genes
In the 1990s, using studies of mother rats and their pups, Meaney was able to identify biological mechanisms by which a mother’s care for her young – that is, her behaviour, rather than her genes – can result in a long-term change in the offspring’s development.
In 2009, Meaney and his colleagues applied these insights to human studies. They looked at samples of brain tissue from suicide victims who had been abused as children, suicide victims who had not been abused, and individuals who had not been abused and had died of natural causes.
For the first time, it was possible to show for humans that childhood experiences leave biochemical markers in an individual’s DNA. Experiences in the family context, particularly during the first years of life, become part of a child’s biology and influence the child’s health and attainments throughout life – in positive as well as negative ways.
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“Our biggest challenge now is to understand the biology of vulnerability, the risk an individual carries,” explains Meaney. “Second, can we then chart the reversibility through intervention programs? And can we evaluate the biological impact of the intervention at the level of the individual?”
Meaney’s research has the potential to produce significant changes in social policy. 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. 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.
A jury of experts selected Meaney for this honour because of his “pioneering, cutting edge research on the biological mechanisms by which parental behaviour affects offspring development. Beyond the purely scientific value of his research, Meaney’s work has tangible implications for psychosocial interventions and social policy measures to promote child and youth development.”
For his research on the mechanisms for how parental care becomes embedded in children’s biology Meaney was awarded the Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize 2014 at a celebratory award ceremony at the University of Zurich on December 5, 2014.