CIHR grant allows researchers to dig deeper into the effects of prenatal stress

Dr. Gerlinde Metz, a University of Lethbridge neuroscientist, and her team of researchers have received more than $1.1 million in funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to conduct further research into prenatal stress and examine the role of fathers’ stress in preterm birth and newborn development.

Research evidence suggests prenatal stress is linked to adverse pregnancy outcomes, such as preterm birth, and that the negative consequences from prenatal stress can be passed from one generation to another.

Dr. Gerlinde Metz, at left, works with a student in the lab at the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience. The CIHR funding will allow the research team to further study the effects of prenatal stress.

“This research funding will help us get closer to answers about the effects of prenatal stress and identify treatments that can improve and even reverse preterm birth risk,” says Metz. “About 15 million preterm babies are born every year and they can face increased health risks throughout their lives. This is a significant issue around the world.”

Metz, along with Dr. Igor Kovalchuk, a U of L biology professor, and Dr. David Olson, an obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics and physiology professor at the University of Alberta, will take a neuroscience approach and use three separate rat models of prenatal stress. They’ll study the effects of generational stress on offspring when only fathers are stressed, when only mothers are stressed, and when both mothers and fathers are stressed.

“We will identify mechanisms involved in how the brain translates stress to alter pregnancy health and identify markers of prenatal stress that translate to future human studies of risk assessment,” says Metz.

The researchers will also study the mitigating effects of enriched environments and drug treatments. Previous research has shown that enriched environments have reduced stress responses. The researchers hypothesize that the use of enriched environments will reverse stress markers, normalize pregnancy outcomes and lessen the negative behavioural and developmental outcomes.

“Our goal is to develop new treatments that promote healthy futures for our children and next generations,” says Metz.