Meaney, a pioneer in behavioural epigenetics, was the first to show that maternal care directly influences the expression of genes that modify brain development and function of offspring

Michael Meaney, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, has been elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. As announced on April 24. Prof. Meaney is among the newly elected 250 new members of the Academy, and one of only 25 new International Honorary Members.

Founded in 1780, the American Academy is one of the oldest and most prestigious learned societies in the United States. The current membership includes more than 300 Nobel laureates, some 100 Pulitzer Prize winners and many of the world’s most celebrated artists and performers.

“McGill congratulates Professor Emeritus Michael Meaney on this prestigious honour, which recognizes the profound impact of his life’s work on science, including in neuroepigenetics, the field of study he launched, and on public health policy,” said Martha Crago, Vice-President, Research and Innovation. “His exceptional, interdisciplinary research has helped us better understand the biological imprint of early life adversity, and to address the resulting social challenges through improved clinical practice and social support programs.”

Seminal work in epigenetics

Despite earning emeritus status in December, Prof. Meaney chuckles at the suggestion he has retired. “I collaborated on 43 published papers last year, so I’m anything but retired,” says Prof. Meaney. For the past 15 years, he has been shuttling back and forth from his lab and “home base” at the Douglas Research Centre to the Singapore Institute of Clinical Sciences, where he is head of the Translational Neurosciences Program.

Prof. Meaney’s work explores the intersection of stress, maternal care, and gene expression. His team was the first to show that maternal care directly influences the expression of genes that modify brain development and function of offspring.

His collaboration with Moshe Szyf, a biochemist and a professor in the Department of Pharmacology & Therapeutics in the School of Biomedical Sciences, led to their seminal epigenetics work in the early 2000s.

Profs. Meaney and Szyf showed that rat pups that received significant maternal grooming as pups developed into adults much less reactive to stress than their less-groomed brethren. Prof. Meaney’s team was then able to demonstrate the chemical change in a well-groomed pup’s brain, and to then directly manipulate the expression of the genes that control the production of stress hormones.

The core finding of the Profs. Meaney and Szyf teams was the effect of maternal care on the epigenetic states of genes that affected stress reactivity. The pair are credited with have pioneered the field of behavioral epigenetics.  “The two of us bonded around an idea that Moshe developed showing that the epigenetic signals of cancer cells could be directly modified,” says Prof. Meaney. “In his case, for the sake of diagnosis and therapeutics. In my case, for the sake of understanding environmental regulation of brain development.”

Power of collaboration

Profs. Meaney and Szyf subsequently partnered with clinical researchers, notably Gustavo Turecki at the Douglas, to provide evidence for an effect of childhood trauma on the same genes identified in the rat studies. Subsequent collaborations with Rachel Yehuda of Mount Sinai Medical School in New York showed that these epigenetic signals could predict vulnerability for post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

For Prof. Meaney, the work he did with Prof. Szyf and Dr. Turecki is indicative of the creative power of collaboration.

“That speaks to the enormous benefits of being at a place like McGill where there’s just so much great science, that you can dialogue with people who have such different perspectives and so much expertise,” he says. “As a scientist, you want to be at an institution where you have those opportunities. The only limiting factor is your own imagination. I’ve been blessed that McGill has given me those opportunities.”

Not afraid to fail

Election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is Prof. Meaney’s most recent honour. A member of both the Order of Canada and the Royal Society of Canada, Prof. Meaney has won a number of awards, including the Margolese Brain Disorder Prize (2016); the Wilder-Penfield Award (2014); the Klaus J. Jacob Research Prize (2014); and the CIHR Senior Scientist Career Award (1997). He was also named Most Highly Cited Scientist in neuroscience by the Institute for Scientific Information in 2007.

The secret, he says, is failure.

“I’m exceptionally good at being wrong,” he says, noting that many funding agencies “are obsessed with the idea that you create a hypothesis and then confirm it. To me this has always been absurd, because if you started off with a hypothesis and confirm it, you’ve learned nothing.

“The best thing is you find out that it’s not as simple as you thought – or it’s not at all what you thought. So, you go back to the drawing board,” he says. “For me it’s this dialogue with biology. You go back and forth querying and you get an answer that depends on the cleverness of your question. I’ve always hoped that the outcome of any good analysis would be a much better question.

“The truth is there. The question is how do you unearth it?”