Dr. Annie Vogel Ciernia’s lab to look at immunological underpinnings of neurodevelopmental disorders

Dr. Annie Vogel Ciernia.

Dr. Annie Vogel Ciernia opened her lab at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health today; she joins the University of British Columbia as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, having completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California–Davis (UC Davis). Dr. Ciernia’s research program will focus on how genes control development in the brain, and the mechanisms by which disruptions in gene regulation can negatively impact brain function.

“I’m very interested in how the immune system interacts with the developing brain, and how the two systems regulate gene expression to coordinate normal brain developmental and in neurodevelopmental disorders,” says Dr. Ciernia, who was mentored in the Autism Training Program at UC Davis. Her work at UC Davis centered on understanding the mechanisms for regulating genes in development and neuroplasticity in Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Dr. Ciernia’s most recent paper, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex last week, found an epigenetic “signature” in the cerebral cortex—the part of the brain where functions such as speech and decision-making take place—and that epigenetic modifications can amplify genetic and immune system risk factors for neurodevelopmental disorders. Epigenetics refers to a process by which non-genetic, environmental factors influence gene expression; these findings represent progress toward understanding the ways in which external influences and microglia—the brain’s immune cells—can alter brain development.

The study, the first of its kind, looked at DNA methylation in post-mortem human samples from several neurodevelopmental disorders compared to healthy controls. They found an overlap between epigenetic changes in the brain and genes known to be critical for both early brain function and the immune system, including microglia.

“We found that changes in the DNA methylation from human brain matched genes identified in several mouse models of neurodevelopmental disorders. We found both that both neuronal and microglial genes were impacted by these changes, suggesting a role for the immune system in mediating epigenetic influences on neuronal development.”

Prior to her arrival in Vancouver, Dr. Ciernia was appointed to a Canada Research Chair in Understanding Gene Expression in the Brain, which will enable her to build a lab in the DMCBH to study how early life experience shapes the epigenome and influences an individual across the lifespan.

“I’m excited to be joining an incredible community of brain researchers at UBC, and in particular am looking forward to sharing the environment with clinical teams,” said Dr. Ciernia. “It will be a big motivator to be reminded on a daily basis of how our work can ultimately impact patients and families.”

Dr. Ciernia’s lab will be located on the fourth floor of the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, and while she has two graduate students and three undergraduate students beginning work with her in the fall, she may have additional opportunities for postdoctoral fellows or research associates. To learn more about Dr. Ciernia’s lab and upcoming opportunities, visit ciernialab.com.

Outside of the lab, Dr. Ciernia looks forward to exploring the trails of the Pacific Northwest, including Pacific Spirit Park and Stanley Park.