Department Genes and Environment

Elisabeth Binder

The main focus of the department lies on stress- and adverse life event-related psychiatric disorders. Exposure to adverse life events, including trauma and chronic stress, is the most robust risk factor for mood and anxiety disorders but also other psychiatric and medical disorders. In our research we aim to gain a better understanding of the adaptive as well as mal-adaptive molecular, cellular and circuit level factors influencing our response to stress. This will be important to identify pathomechanisms of stress-related psychiatric disorders. For this, we follow a strategy in which we first identify molecular and cellular consequences of gene-environment interplay and then map these signatures to systemic and behavioral changes that associate with risk or resilience to psychiatric symptoms following exposure to adverse life events:

Importantly, we are focusing on how this interplay influences developmental trajectories towards health and disease, starting prenatally.

To address this we combine a large range of tools including omics with a focus on epigenetics, molecular manipulations, induced pluripotent stem cell derived models systems, large collaborative prospective cohorts with access to different tissues, starting as early as during pregnancy (Predo-Study, Study on child maltreatment) , as well as deeply phenotyped transdiagnostic cohorts (BeCOME-Study).

The overarching aim of our department research is to contribute to a new, biology-based taxonomy of psychiatric disease that will allow to develop treatments and preventive strategies targeted at the underlying biological trajectories. Our main current projects include the following interlinked topics:

  • Mapping genetic factors that moderate the molecular consequences of stress hormone exposure and their relationship to psychiatric disorders

  • Understanding the consequences of prenatal exposure to stress hormone on brain development and developmental trajectories

  • Mechanisms of lasting stress-hormone induced epigenetic changes

  • Development of biomarkers for early intervention and personalized medicine


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