The overarching goal of my work is to characterise age-specific and age-invariant neuroplasticity processes underpinning positive adjustment to environmental challenges and, thus, facilitate the development of more personalised interventions to enhance psychological resilience. To this end, I use behavioural, neuroimaging, transcriptomic and polygenic risk methods with neurologically intact and clinical populations. Many of my investigations draw on longitudinal and cross-sectional neuroimaging and genetic population datasets of typically and atypically developing individuals.
Early life adversity exposure, genetic risk and adolescent brain development
The objective is to shed light on how (epi)genetic factors interact with different dimensions of adversity (e.g., poverty, malnutrition, maltreatment, neglect, exposure to crime) to predict altered trajectories of neurocognitive maturation and vulnerability/resilience to mood disorders in childhood and adolescence. For instance, using a longitudinal population dataset, we showed that exposure to family conflict in childhood is associated with cognitive control-relevant alterations in functional neurodevelopment and gene expression patterns predictive of psychopathology in adolescence (Petrican, Miles, Rudd, Wasiewska, Graham, & Lawrence, 2021). Complementarily, a comparison of adoptees, a group generally exposed to substantial early life adversity, and youths raised by their birth parents revealed that stressors may interact with genetic risk for dementia and depression to predict brain maturation patterns surprisingly related to better cognitive control in late childhood (Petrican, Paine, Escott-Price, & Shelton, 2023).
Early life mood pathology and cognitive decline in older adulthood
The objective is to elucidate the potential overlap in the neurobiological substrates of vulnerability/resilience to mood pathology in early life and cognitive decline, including dementia onset, in older adulthood. This work investigates whether similar gene-environment interactions underpinning susceptibility/resilience to stressors may be related to the onset of both mood disorders and dementias, particularly, Major Depressive Disorder and Alzheimer’s Disease. It also seeks to determine the neurobiological mechanisms that confer resilience to stress in the short-term, but that could incur significant long-term cognitive costs (e.g., Petrican, Fornito, & Jones, 2022).
The neuroprotective role of social environments
The objective is to determine whether the neurocognitive damage incurred by adverse life events can be alleviated through ongoing and/or subsequent exposure to positive social environments. This work focuses on the typical patterns of co-adaptation in the brain architecture relevant to episodic memory and cognitive control which may occur in members of long-term biologically related and unrelated dyads. The goal is to elucidate the specificity of such neural adaptations by comparing different clinical profiles, as well as characterise their relevance to psychological resilience. This line of inquiry has grown out of my doctoral work on the distinguishable episodic memory and social perceptual patterns suggestive of resilience among neurologically intact older couples versus Parkinson’s Disease patients and their spouses (Petrican, Burris, Bielak, Schimmack, & Moscovitch, 2011; Petrican, Moscovitch, & Grady, 2014). In the future, this work will be extended to include child/adolescent-caregiver dyads.