Alice Graham: Linking maternal inflammation and psychiatric disorders in children

Alice Graham

Early brain development is influenced by the environment—including conflict and stress levels. Understanding the mechanisms of this influence might lead to a more nuanced understanding of the neural bases of mental health disorders. That is the goal of Alice Graham, Ph.D., featured in this month’s OHSU series In the Lab. Graham is a postdoc in the Department of Behavioral Neuroscience and conducts research in the Fair Neuroimaging Lab. She recently published a paper demonstrating a link between maternal inflammation during pregnancy and risks for psychiatric disorders in children.

What do you work on and why is it important?

I study how environmental conditions relate to early brain development and risk for mental health problems. In research with my collaborators, we’ve found that we can see the emergence of complex brain systems already by the time of birth. These systems are later very important for mental health, and for cognitive and emotional functioning more generally. We’ve also demonstrated that conditions during pregnancy are linked to the newborn brain in ways that are relevant to psychiatric disorders. If we have a better understanding of these early, foundational processes of brain development and key environmental influences, we may be able to prevent brain based disorders which are very difficult to treat. 
From another angle, my research on early brain development and mental health is fundamentally about how humans come to be able to regulate emotions and make decisions — and these things are relevant to the current political climate. I used to study history and saw that people seem to do the same things over and over again. I thought, “Can we change something here — can we look into the brain and try to figure out how and why we repeat these patterns?” That was one of the reasons I got into psychology.
What’s been your most exciting moment of discovery?
When I looked at the results of my first brain imaging study, I was able to see that the response to a stressor in infants’ brains looked similar to what we would expect in an adult brain. So something that we thought of as a brain system that didn’t develop until much later was already visible in the first year of life. That was important and exciting, because it really changed our thinking on when and how we should take care of people’s brains, and influenced the way we think about long-term outcomes. 
What’s your day-to-day life as a researcher look like?
A part of my day is spent looking at images of brains and brain systems, doing analyses and writing papers and grants. I also spend a lot of time talking with collaborators, because the research I work on is a huge team effort that involves many people with different types of expertise. Within the lab we have psychologists, neuroscientists, computer scientists and biomedical engineers. I also Skype with collaborators around the country and the world. So I get to talk to a lot of really interesting people from different disciplines who are all committed to understanding the brain and helping prevent or treat mental illness.

About In the Lab

In the Lab looks at the people in the laboratories who help make OHSU such a vibrant research institution. In each post, researchers describe their current work and answer the same three questions.