Meaghan Wilkin: The long-lasting impact of intermittent stress in adolescents

woman sitting in front of a microscope
Meghan Wilkin

Abuse and neglect are serious issues for many children and youth. Many young people are at increased risk of later developing stress-related mental disorders such as anxiety, depression and addiction.

Meaghan Wilkin, a PhD candidate in Brain Behaviour and Cognitive Sciences in the Department of Psychology at Queen’s University, is studying the long-lasting impact of intermittent stress during adolescent development by using the rat as a model. Specifically, how does stress during those periods of vulnerability lead to anxiety, depression and risk-taking behaviour in later life?

EENet has developed a Student Spotlight on Meaghan’s work. Student Spotlight provides brief profiles of up-and-coming student researchers.

Read it below or download the PDF.

What You Need to Know

Fear, at different ages within the adolescent period, influences what types of mental illness and risk-taking a person may experience in adulthood. Understanding this relationship between adolescent fear, and adult mental illness and risk-taking could lead to better interventions and treatments.

About Meaghan

Meaghan Wilkin is a PhD candidate in Brain Behaviour and Cognitive Sciences in the Department of Psychology at Queen's University. She completed her undergraduate in Psychology at Brock University with a focus on how stressful stimuli produce changes in the endocrine system.  As a graduate student, Meaghan found her ideal fit at Queen’s University, under Dr. Janet Menard, who focuses on the neurobiology of fear and anxiety. 

What is Meaghan’s research about?

Meaghan studies the long-lasting impact of intermittent stress during adolescent development by using the rat as a model. Specifically, how does stress during those periods of vulnerability lead to anxiety, depression and risk-taking behaviour in later life?

Abuse and neglect are serious issues for many children and youth. Many young people are at increased risk of later developing stress-related mental disorders such as anxiety, depression and addiction. “A better understanding of how early life adversity translates to psychopathology in later life could ultimately guide the development of better interventions for preventing or treating the development of these debilitating outcomes,” says Meaghan.

Animal models provide a way to investigate the underlying neural mechanisms that may be affected by early life adversity and ultimately lead to issues in adulthood. By exposing rats to different types of stress during adolescence and then testing them in adulthood, a researcher can understand how the brain processes fear. In Meaghan’s study, she can  track the influence that fear has, at specific developmental phases, in regards to adult anxiety, depression, and risk-taking.

Through her intensive and ongoing research, Meaghan has learned that, like humans, the timing of adversity in her rat model is important. “We know that when teenagers, versus adults, experience trauma in their lives, the outcome later in life can be quite complex,” she notes. “We also know that the brain is undergoing a second important wave of neural development during adolescence.  So this makes the adolescent brain more vulnerable to the threat of stress. Not surprisingly when we expose rats to stress in adolescence, we see a unique pattern of behaviour that is different from the behaviour of those rats exposed to the very same stressors either earlier (in childhood) or later (in adulthood)”.  

Right now, Meaghan’s research is examining the life-long impact these stressors can have on the neural processes responsible for anxiety-like and risk-taking behaviour.  

“Our ultimate goal is to understand the mechanism. When you understand the underlying mechanism, it paints a much clearer picture of what is happening, at the level of behaviour, at the level of intervention, and at the level of treatment”. 

Through her research, Meaghan contributes to basic scientific knowledge regarding animal and human development and psychopathology. She also contributes to higher medical application through modeling human conditions. She admits a soft spot for adolescents led her to this area of expertise and that the best outcome for her research would be a clearer understanding of how early life adversity has a lasting impact on neural, behavioural, and endocrine reactivity. 

What’s Next for Meaghan?

Meaghan’s research and career are focused on producing better outcomes for people who have experienced childhood or adolescent adversity. She is currently most interested in pursuing epigenetic research to examine what outcomes adolescent stress can have on, not only adult behaviour, but also on the second generation. In short, can the effects of early life adversity in one person’s life be passed from one generation to the next?

For more information please contact meaghan [dot] wilkin [at] queensu [dot] ca.

Author: Heather Lackner