The Laboratory of Neuroimmunology
Focus Of Research
The laboratory has a research focus on the plasticity of endocrine control mechanisms in the neonate. Animal research has demonstrated that exposure of rat pups to stress during the perinatal period can produce permanent physiological changes in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Exposure to bacteria during this period is a significant stressor for the newborn and is associated with alterations to the HPA axis and hypersecretion of corticosterone in response to stress in adulthood. Our laboratory has provided one of the first demonstrations that neonatal exposure to bacterial endotoxin results in a significant impairment in tumour immunity in adulthood. At this point the mechanisms underlying this response are unknown. However, current research is investigating the hypothesis that alterations in the endocrine system account for the impaired tumour immunity in animals exposed to bacteria as neonates. The findings are of clinical significance for the human neonate. Exposure to infectious agents is a common event for the human infant. One of the more common causes of infection in the neonate is a gram-negative bacterium. Bacterial endotoxins are gram-negative and, as such, are useful in modelling the effects of neonatal sepsis.
A second line of research in this area is investigating the impact of perinatal infection on behavioural outcomes, and we have demonstrated early life bacterial exposure to increase anxiety-like behaviour, which is associated with increased hippocampal cytokine production in response to stress in adulthood. We have also demonstrated these effects have transgenerational implications and are investigating the underlying reproductive and epigenetic mechanisms for this.
The third line of research is to understand how neonatal stress influences gut microbiota, leading to irritable bowel syndrome. We are currently investigating whether early life probiotic administration can alleviate the predisposition to later life gut diseases.
A final line of research in this area is to examine the early life neuroimmune pathways underlying pain sensitivity. This work will focus on the inflammatory properties of acute pain, and discern whether cytokine-driven pathways in the spinal cord and brain can influence perception of pain.