Dr. Dunn is a social and psychiatric epidemiologist with expertise in genetics.  Her research lab uses a developmental lens to understand the mechanisms that influence risk for mood disorders, with an emphasis on depression among women, children, and adolescents.  Her primary focus is on the role of early environmental exposures, especially childhood adversity.  She uses her post-doctoral training in genetics to study the role of genetic variation as well as gene-environment interplay (GxE).  Having started her career in early childhood and elementary education, she also studies the role of schools and other social contexts, such as neighborhoods, where youth spend the majority of their time outside of the family.  Her work adopts a translational epidemiology perspective, seeking to bridge the “micro” with the “macro.”  The long-term goal of her work is to reduce the population-burden of depression by developing population-based prevention strategies and targeting these strategies to specific life stages in development when they could have greatest impact.  

Questions being addressed in the lab

  1. How do genes and experience work in concert to shape risk for depression across the lifespan?
  2. Why are people exposed to childhood adversity more likely than their unexposed peers to develop depression?
  3. Are there life stages when childhood adversity is most harmful and when interventions could be most effective?

Projects underway to answer these questions

  1. We use data from large, population-based birth cohorts in the United States and throughout the world to identify the genetic and environmental determinants of depression.

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  3. We study the predictors of depression and the cognitive, social, and biological pathways through which experience can shape risk for depression.

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  5. Throughout out work, we seek to identify sensitive periods, or the “high-risk, high-reward” stages of human development when childhood adversity is most harmful, but when enriching exposures and interventions can offer greatest benefit.

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Answers Found

  1. Through conducting the first genome-wide environment interaction study (GWEIS) of depression, we identified genetic variants that modify the effect of stressful life events on risk for depression.

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  3. Our work suggests that the developmental timing of exposure to adversity is an important determinant of depression.

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  5. Memory, and other executive functioning deficits, are common among people exposed to adversity.

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