Using our past to determine our future

Professor Deborah Hodgson works at the intersection of neuroscience, psychology and immunology, to explore the impact of early life events on long term health outcomes

Deborah Hodgson

Any one person who tackles the dual roles of Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation), and Director of the University of Newcastle's Laboratory of Neuroimmunology must obviously be enamored with science, but Professor Deborah Hodgson's enthusiasm for her field of expertise appears boundless.

A leading international expert in the field of fetal programming, Deb's area of focus is the role of pre-natal and early life events in the development of the brain and immune system.

"Things that happen early in life, affect your trajectory towards health or disease later in life," she explains.

"It seems like we are stating the obvious, but such a focus is critical in rethinking the origins of disease".

Deb is leading a number of studies that are exploring how perinatal stress may lead to adverse physiological and psychological health outcomes.

"Mothers are essentially a sense organ for their child," Deb states.

"Pregnancy prepares the offspring for what it is going to experience when it is born, and behavioural, physiological and psychological adaptations are about ensuring survival."

"In most cases those adaptations are of benefit to the offspring, but in some cases they are not."

FOR THE LOVE OF SCIENCE

For as long as she can remember Deb has been fascinated by science and in particular medicine.

"I was one of the nerdy kids that loved biology and would read surgical texts for relaxation," she laughs.

This preoccupation led Deb to commence the undergraduate medical training program at UNSW.  However the reality of medicine was not as she had imagined. A fascination with research and in particular neuroscience shifted her focus to study psychology, particularly the psychology of pain, at Macquarie University.

During her PhD studies in neuroscience, Deb studied a phenomenon called stress- induced analgesia.

"Using animal models, we showed that the more unpredictable or uncontrollable an event is, the more aversive it is, and the more aversive the event, the more analgesic the animal would become," she explains.

It was during her doctoral studies that Deb began to consider more deeply two concepts raised by her study: that psychology affects perception of pain, and that pain impacts on our susceptibility and response to illness. She resolved to learn more about interactions between the brain and the immune system.

CALIFORNIA HERE WE COME

Determined to learn from the best, Deb applied to UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) in 1993. UCLA was renowned as the emerging centre for the study of psychoneuroimmunology, a field which studies the interaction between the brain and the immune system and connects illness, stress, and mood. Dedicating her studies to this emerging field, Deb was awarded the esteemed Post Doctoral Norman Cousins Fellowship.

"It was a very prestigious program, and I had some fantastic mentors there," she recalls.

"It was very exciting to be part of what was a very new field at that stage, and to be working with great minds that were pushing boundaries."

Returning to Australia in 1998, Deb commenced employment at the University of Newcastle.  Her research focused on the fetal alcohol syndrome work which she had been working on with a mentor in the latter stages of her UCLA Fellowship.

"I guess that sparked my interest in what I do now, and I have done it ever since," she contemplates.

"Since 1993, I have been attempting to understand how our early life environment plays a critical role in our predisposition to disease."

SPREADING THE WORD

The compulsion to help people who shaped her early career is still strong in Deb, as she not only supervises lab work, but also spends time sharing her expertise with clinicians, medical practitioners and community groups who have heard about the field of fetal programming.

"The impact of the early life environment is particularly important in countries where poor maternal health is often encountered," Deb explains.

Her work has been translated into research projects in Sri Lanka and The Maldives where attempts have been made to improve maternal outcomes through an improved understanding of the impact of the early environment on long term health outcomes.

"I like the fact that our research makes a difference. What we are doing really does translate and can potentially explain certain phenomena we observe in human populations."

"A source of constant amazement is the capacity for resilience and adaptation evident in the human phenotype," she adds.

WHEN MEDICAL RESEARCH CHANGES MEDICAL PRACTICE

The field of fetal programming has already changed the way medicine views the relativity of a patient's history. Medical practitioners have discovered that enquiring about early life health and experience may provide invaluable perspective on possible future health challenges.

Designing pharmaceutical interventions that target specific receptors in the brain which may be malfunctioning due to the impact of early life stressors is one possible outcome from research in this field. More immediate intervention may come in the form of educating parents and medical practitioners regarding behavioural interventions, which may lessen the probability of a child developing a disease, despite a predisposition.

Deb provides an example with respect to pain management. "A current dilemma in pain research is understanding why some individuals following trauma, recover quickly with no residual and pain, whilst others with the same injury develop chronic pain syndromes."

"A research program that two of my PhD students have been working on has demonstrated that perceptions of pain are altered by exposure to early life stress," she shares.

"This exposure alters a number of basic pain and neuroendocrine pathways.  We are now able to suggest that in some cases a predisposition toward chronic pain following acute trauma may be dependent, at least in part, on experiences in early life."

"Given that the physiology of chronic pain versus acute pain differs, this information allows us to more readily develop strategies to manage pain appropriately."

Deb is passionate about research in this field informing future directions in public health.

"The only way we are going to change health trajectories is by understanding the basic determinants of disease processes. And, in some cases those determinants are happening pre-birth," she discloses.

PAIN, FERTILITY AND GUTS

The burning curiosity that drives Deb forward is never more evident than when asked about upcoming collaborations, directions and projects. She is excited to be involved in any work that increases her understanding of the brain, speaking with equal enthusiasm about a PhD study in the UON lab or an international collaboration.

"Obviously because the brain regulates so many different systems we can look at many different outcomes; we've looked at how the early life environment impacts our responses to pain, potential links to psychopathology and disruptions to glucose metabolism, …" she lists.

Another study, assessing the role of the early life environment and in particular, exposure to viruses on the gut, also has Deb's attention.

"There is a lot of current research focusing on the relationship between mood disorders and diet which needs to be evaluated," she says.

This focus on how food allergies and dietary related phenomenon affect mood perfectly targets her area of expertise, the intersection of illness, brain, and behaviour.

"Your gut produces cytokines, and cytokines enter your brain, affecting mood, appetite, sleep, perceptions of pain plus much more," clarifies.

"So, we've gone from the brain/behaviour axis to the gut/brain axis."

"The gut/brain axis is one of our major future areas of focus," she predicts.

The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.