Adverse events can occur and affect the brain at various stages, from gestation until adulthood. Such adverse events can affect the brain in many ways, including alterations in neurotransmission, brain structure, endocrinology, among others, all of which may interact. Given the important role of serotonin in brain development, alterations in the serotonin system as a result of early adverse events may be particularly relevant. My research program examines how early adversity, in combination with genetic factors, could affect the serotonin system in humans. The overarching hypothesis of my research program is that an early disruption in serotonin homeostasis could lower the vulnerability threshold in brain circuits involved in emotion regulation, thereby predisposing the individual to psychopathology when exposed to stressful events.
In my studies I use a combination of brain imaging, genetic, epigenetic (i.e. DNA methylation) and emotional-cognitive assessments. For instance, in ongoing projects, I investigate in prospectively followed community samples how early stressors could alter the expression of serotonin genes through epigenetic processes and impact the neural regulation of emotions. I am extending this line of research to clinical populations, in particular to individuals with mood disorders and to individuals with aggression problems.