Dr. Erin C. Dunn is a social and psychiatric epidemiologist with expertise in genetics and epigenetics.  Her research laboratory uses interdisciplinary approaches to better understand the social and biological factors that influence the etiology of depression among women, children, and adolescents.  The goal of her work is to identify the causal mechanisms underlying risk for depression, translate that knowledge to population-based strategies for prevention, and target those strategies to “sensitive periods” in development.  Sensitive periods are high-risk/high-reward stages in the course of the lifespan when experience, whether exposure to adversity on the one hand or health-promoting interventions on the other, can have lasting impacts on brain health. Through her efforts to determine when these sensitive periods occur, her goal is to design interventions that not only promote brain health across the lifespan, but are also uniquely timed to minimize the consequences of stress exposure, prevent depression before it onsets, and make the most efficient use of limited public health dollars.  Dr. Dunn is currently an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an Associate Investigator at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and is affiliated with the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard, and the Henry and Allison McCance Center for Brain Health at MGH.  She has led several genetic association studies and gene-environment interaction studies that were the first of their kind, including publishing some of the first genome-wide association studies of depression risk in non-European ancestry populations and the first genome-wide environment interaction study of depression.  Her research has been recognized by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America through the Donald F. Klein Early Career Investigator Award and the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation through the Gerald R. Klerman Award, Honorable Mention.  She is a 2017 recipient of a National Institute of Mental Health-funded Biobehavioral Research Award for Innovative New Scientists (BRAINS).  In 2018, she was awarded a Rising Star award from One Mind.  In 2020, Dr. Dunn received a research mentoring award from the Department of Psychiatry at MGH. Dr. Dunn is a first-generation college student.

 

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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