Frances Champagne Studies How a Mother's Care Affects the Brain

June 27, 2017
Frances Champagne smiling, with short brown hair, and a purple shirt.

Forget nature vs. nurture. Scientists now know that maternal behavior can change offspring in ways that may be passed on to future generations.

“It’s the interaction between genes and the environment that makes us who we are,” said Frances Champagne, an associate professor of psychology at Columbia and a leader in the growing field of behavioral epigenetics. “Every experience we have, be it social, nutritional or toxicological, embeds within our body and shapes us.”

Epigenetics is the study of how genes can be turned off or on without changing the structure of DNA itself. Champagne’s research focuses on how experiences before and just after birth can change gene activity in ways that affect a child’s brain and lifelong behavior.

Until the 1970s, scientists believed that changes in the way genes are expressed could take place only during embryonic development. In the 1980s, gene researchers began to focus on the development of cancer cells and environmental influences. Only recently have researchers looked at the impact of the environment on gene activity as it affects the brain and behavior throughout a person’s life.

Studies based on rodent mothers’ licking and grooming of their newborns have shown that inadequately nurtured males behaved more aggressively throughout their lifespans and females were less nurturing to their own offspring. The genes that helped them cope with stress had been turned off, making them more sensitive to stress throughout their lives.

Because mothers are the primary caregivers in most species, less research involves fathers. Studies on rodent species in which both parents are involved in newborn care, however, found that fathers also shape the brain development of their offspring. “It may be that fathers transmit epigenetic information through their sperm,” Champagne said, adding that research on fathers is still new and therefore somewhat controversial.

Champagne also studies how early life experiences such as inadequate nutrition and exposure to toxic substances, as well as other difficult circumstances in the prenatal and post-natal periods, affect brain development. For example, she worked with mice that were exposed daily throughout pregnancy to bisphenol A, or BPA, a common chemical in plastics. Her team found changes in the brain that negatively affected learning and memory in male offspring but not in females. “The sex differences were striking,” she said.

“There is so much interest now in translating these animal studies into humans,” Champagne said. Working with Columbia University Medical Center colleagues who examined pregnant women in northern Manhattan, Champagne has studied how stress and exposure to toxic substances in the prenatal and post-natal periods affect children’s behavior.

But it’s hard to know everything that people are exposed to. In her lab, where she works with mice to be able to control the environment and isolate and turn off specific genes, she can more easily determine what causes changes in the brain and to behavior.

So far, there hasn’t been much research beyond the post-natal period, she said, although there have been some studies of epigenetic changes in the brain during adolescence and adulthood. She has worked with the Yale Child Study Center to explore the impact of hormonal changes in adolescence and motherhood on gene activity.

At Columbia she teaches courses on brain development, including one focusing on the embryo through adolescence and another that examines the adult brain with a focus on environmental influences. Her other courses explore different methods of inheritance, including epigenetics, and the neurobiology of reproductive behavior. She also teaches “Ethics, Genetics and the Brain,” which focuses on the ethical implications of recent advances in neuroscience.

“Frances is the bee’s knees of neuroscience,” said Thomas Jessell, co-director of Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, as he introduced Champagne at a lecture earlier this year titled “How Do Early Life Experiences Shape Behavior?”

Champagne joined Columbia in 2006, after earning a master’s degree in psychiatry and a doctorate in neuroscience from McGill University in Montreal and completing a post-doc at Cambridge University in the U.K. As a master’s student, she worked with schizophrenia patients and their mothers, identifying both genetic and environmental factors in their history. As a Ph.D. student in a neuroscience lab she studied mothering behavior, extracting DNA from rodents to see how social interactions might change the brain.

“It was fascinating to see that differences in maternal care could have lasting effects,” she recalled. Research for her Ph.D. included how those effects were passed on to the next generation. She expects that future research in the field will focus on the multigenerational impact as well as on ways to reverse epigenetic changes.

Champagne, who has a 5-year-old daughter, doesn’t believe that her research has changed her own maternal behavior. She is conscious of the impact of emotional and social interactions, however. “I do try to manage my stress,” she said. “I want to buffer her a little.”

—By Georgette Jasen