Student Success

U of L doctoral student wins prestigious Brain Star Award

For her work in illuminating the multigenerational effects of prenatal stress, Mirela Ambeskovic has been awarded a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Brain Star award, one of 15 winners of the $1,500-award across the country.

“It was a pleasant surprise, for sure,” says Ambeskovic. “I’m honoured to have received this award and grateful for this funding and all the funding I’ve had during my studies. It has made it easier to focus on research and my studies.”

Ambeskovic (BSc ’09, BA ’11, MSc ’13), a PhD candidate in neuroscience who works in Dr. Gerlinde Metz’s lab, looked at the effects of prenatal stress on motor development in male and female rats. In the study, which was published last year in Cerebral Cortex, she compared the behaviours of animals that had experienced one generation of stress with those that had experienced four generations of stress.

“We found that multigenerational stress altered behaviour and brain lateralization in males, while improving behavioural abilities in females,” she says.

While the animals were performing a reaching task, she found that multigenerational stress shifted paw performance to favour left-handedness in males, while it had no effects on paw preference in females, showing that ancestral stress may have a protective effect for females.

“It could be that, through epigenetic mechanisms, our moms prepare us for a stressful environment that might be coming down the road, where females are programmed to cope with stressful environments more sufficiently as they will be the bearers of the future generation,” says Ambeskovic.

In the same way, males affected by ancestral stress might be better prepared to defend their territory because they are more adaptable, perhaps because they could be more prone to using both paws if needed.

“Mirela’s findings illustrate the complex consequences of stress on development,” says Metz. “Stress is primarily supposed to promote survival and to make sure that behaviour adapts to a changing environment. The brain readily responds to stress and changes its structure accordingly.”

The Brain Star Award, through the Institute Community Support Grants and Awards program of CIHR, recognizes the excellence of research done in Canada by students and trainees.