The Effect of Maternal Care on Epigenetic Regulation in the Developing Spinal Cord


  • Nadia Brogan, Psychology, University of Delaware

Faculty Mentor(s)

  • Dr. Tania Roth, Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Delaware


Epigenetics is the study of how behavior and the environment can cause changes that affect genes. DNA methylation is one epigenetic mechanism that underlies plasticity in the brain and behavioral adaptation to the environment. There is little known about epigenetic regulation in the developing spinal cord. When the spinal cord is injured early in life, more motor function can be recovered compared to when the injury occurs during adulthood, in a phenomenon known as the infant lesion effect. We hypothesize that this may be, in part, due to changes in the regulation of the Bdnf gene, which codes for Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, as Bdnf is a vital protein for the central nervous system development. In the current study, we are working to determine if the amount of tactile maternal care affects motor behavior and spinal Bdnf epigenetic regulation in the injured and in-tact developing spinal cord. To do this, we utilize a preclinical rodent model wherein rat pups undergo a spinal cord transection or sham surgery on postnatal day 1. The rat pups are then exposed to either normal maternal care or reduced maternal care. Overall, this preclinical model is expected to contribute to our understanding of early-life spinal cord injuries and the biological mechanisms surrounding potential therapeutic mediators. The field of neuroscience and psychology will benefit from this approach because this study will be able to increase the understanding of neurobehavioral development. This is done by identifying important processes that contribute to early phenotypic and neural plasticity and to the production of developmental outcomes. The results of this study are expected to show that the developing spinal cord is actively responsive to environmental changes via epigenetic regulation and thus a significant contributor to early neurobehavior developmental and plasticity processes.