Maternal stress and offspring mental health: interview with Veronika Kiryanova

Written by Lauren Pulling

Following the showcasing of her research at Neuroscience 2016 (12–16 November 2016) by the Society for Neuroscience, we spoke to Veronika Kiryanova (University of Calgary, Canada) about her recent work on maternal stress and offspring mental health, and her thoughts on how research such as this will impact future research and clinical practice.
Please could you tell us a little about your background and current research focuses?

I am currently a PhD candidate in Behavioural Neuroscience at the University of Calgary. I work under the supervision of Richard Dyck, a professor in the Department of Psychology. I work with mice, and I have dedicated my graduate degree to studying how the brain and behavior of offspring are affected by maternal stress (which is an animal model of depression) and maternal intake of antidepressants during pregnancy.

You recently presented your work at Neuroscience 2016 – could you give us an overview of this? How do these most recent findings follow on from your previous work on the effects of perinatal exposure to fluoxetine?

At Neuroscience 2016 I presented our laboratory’s recent findings. In our latest series of studies, we used animal models to help uncover the long-term effects of maternal fluoxetine (brand name Prozac) treatment, maternal depression and their combination on the offspring.

Current human and animal studies regarding the safety of maternal antidepressant drug treatment with respect to the fetus are controversial. Animal models prove extremely useful in studying the long-term effects of antidepressants. Our laboratory has previously demonstrated that fluoxetine has a number of long-term effects on offspring development. However, we realized that our study had limited application, because antidepressants are not prescribed to healthy pregnant women; they are most often prescribed to treat depression, which co-occurs with stress. We were further surprised to learn that very few animal studies have examined the effects of antidepressants in combination with maternal stress.

To help uncover the effects of maternal depression and antidepressant exposure, we exposed pregnant mice to chronic stress (which leads to a depressive-like state in mice) and to fluoxetine. When the offspring of these moms became adults, we tested their behavior, including cognitive skills; sensation and motor capabilities; and social, emotional and aggressive behaviors. We also examined the ability of the brain’s internal ‘clock’ to do its job, which is to respond to environmental time cues, such as light, and non-environmental time cues, which can be mimicked by certain drugs.

We found that both stress and fluoxetine have distinct effects on behavior. Maternal stress led to more hyperactive, timid offspring that did not react to time cues appropriately. Fluoxetine alone (without maternal stress) decreased anxiety, increased aggression, and increased the time required to recover from a jetlag-like shift in the mice’s daily light cycle.

Remarkably, fluoxetine normalized some of the long-term effects of maternal stress, including timidness and a number of the inappropriate responses to time cues. We also found that the offspring’s sex played an important role, with female mice being naturally protected from the effects of both stress and fluoxetine.

How do you anticipate that your findings could impact patients and clinical practices in the future?

We know that maternal stress and maternal depression during pregnancy can have long-lasting negative effects on the child, for which there is currently no remedy. Our research shows that interventions are possible. While we show that fluoxetine may not be the ideal drug for the job, as it has a number of effects of its own, other compounds may exist that are able to protect the fetus against the detrimental effects of maternal stress and depression. Finding such compounds and interventions could have a positive impact on patients and clinical practices in the future.

One of the key research themes highlighted at the conference was the effects of parental experience on offspring – how do you think the growth of research in this area could influence research in other areas of neuroscience and neurology in coming years?

Only recently have neuroscientists begun to appreciate the importance of parental experience on offspring development. Considering the effects of parental experience will help scientists understand the source and risk factors of psychopathology, drug addiction and mental illness. It will also urge animal scientists to consider the early prenatal and postnatal conditions animals are raised in, leading to reduced variability and improved replicability of scientific findings.

Finally, what was your highlight of Neuroscience 2016?

I attend this conference almost every year and I always enjoy the sessions, networking opportunities and the workshops this conference offers. This year, the opportunity to participate in the press conference where I got to talk to the media and communicate my research to a broader audience was the highlight for me.