Research Projects

Our main research projects are focused on the following questions, all centered on understanding the mechanistic role for immune cells as regulators of brain plasticity.

  1. How does early life stress alter the function of immune cells in the brain, called microglia and mast cells, to shape brain development and outcomes such as myelination, synaptic pruning, growth factor expression, the stress response, and anxiety behavior? Does a life history of early life stress lead to risk for complications after secondary hits, such as traumatic brain injury? (Funded by Department of Defense; Collaboration with Dr. Niki Kokiko-Cochran; OSU Dept. of Neuroscience)
  2. Does early life allergic inflammation alter the trajectory of offspring brain development to increase risk for neurodevelopmental disorders? Our current work is focused on vertical transmission of allergic responses from mother to offspring, activation of brain-resident mast cells in offspring, and the sculpting of neural circuits for social behavior, especially glutamate and oxytocin synapses.
  3. How does pediatric traumatic brain injury (TBI) impact males and females brain development differently? What about TBI in the context of early life stress? Our current work is focused on mast cells and microglia as key mediators, and myelination, synaptic pruning and the blood brain barrier as potentially sensitive targets during development. (Funded by NINDS and the Department of Defense. Collaboration with Dr. Niki Kokiko-Cochran, Dr. Jon Godbout, and Dr. Cole VonderHaar; OSU Dept. of Neuroscience)
  4. Is neuroimmune function altered in the maternal brain during pregnancy? How does the brain’s immune system change during the course of healthy pregnancy and influence maternal caregiving behaviors? Does exposure to either stress or opioids during pregnancy lead to maternal care disruptions, including symptoms of postpartum depression, via neuroimmune-driven changes in circuits responsible for mood and caregiving? (Funded by NSF; Co-PI with Dr. Benedetta Leuner, Ohio State Psychology Dept.).
  5. How do hormonal contraceptives influence the development of the adolescent female brain? The adolescent brain is undergoing profound maturation that relies on hormones, and many people begin taking hormonal contraceptives during adolescence. We use rodent models to investigate how hormonal contraceptives influence normal processes of adolescent brain maturation, including myelination, synaptic development, changes in neuroimmune function, and behavioral maturation, to better understand how hormonal contraceptives could influence human brain health. (Funded by NICHD; Co-PI with Dr. Benedetta Leuner, Ohio State Psychology Dept.).