Director, Neuroscience Research Division, Douglas Institute
Claire-Dominique Walker, PhD, and her team study the neuronal, physiological and behavioural consequences of early perturbations in the environment of the developing young. These perturbations can be mediated by maternal factors or by external stimuli. The team's most recent contribution to this field concerns the early “programming” actions of maternal high fat diet on the neonatal and adult offspring. By modifying the dopamine reward circuitry, they can lead to the developement of obesity and other pathologies such as substance abuse.
Another interest in the laboratory is to understand how early exposure to environmental stress (e.g. pain, hypoxia) can modify the morphology, function and plasticity in neuronal systems responsible for coping responses to external stressors. Claire-Dominique Walker and her team are currently investigating the role of stress-induced release of endocannabinoids on amygdalar plasticity and neuroendocrine stress responses in the adult rat. She also looks at the role of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex in determining stressor salience in nursing mothers. Unraveling long lasting alterations in these neuronal systems controlling stress responses will contribute to our understanding of long term vulnerability and resilience to stress-related mental illness.
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