ECR journeys: from teaching English to exploring the impact of childhood traumas
17 February 2020
Dr Delia Gheorghe is a postdoctoral research assistant and trials manager in Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry. Dr Gheorghe makes use of cohort data hosted on the DPUK Data Portal to explore links between adverse childhood experiences and the structure and function of the brain.
I moved to the UK for a master’s in clinical psychology after completing my undergraduate degree in Romania. At that stage I didn’t think I would be interested in a PhD – instead I taught English for a while and worked as a data analyst for a startup, while envisioning that I would eventually pursue a career in the creative arts. However, while working in data I realised that I really enjoyed uncovering meaning in numbers and solving problems for a living. Because I was engrossed with how much more there was to learn, I went back to my previous area of study with the aim of pursuing a career in research.
I found a PhD at UEA that was initially designed to look at various neuropsychological functions in adolescents from low-income communities. As time went on, this project developed into an investigation of acute stress and how it might affect the cerebellum. Looking back, my PhD topic turned out better than I could have imagined. The cerebellum is fascinating: it has over half of all brain cells despite only making up 10% of the brain’s volume, and it has a beautifully regular cellular structure.
We carried out experimental studies with human subjects, looking at the impact of acute stress on cerebellar function (in particular, very quick eye movements known as saccades). Acute stress was measured through changing levels of the hormone cortisol. We used experimental paradigms of stress induction and a non-invasive brain stimulation technique called transcranial direct current stimulation to modulate cerebellar function and help us understand how the cerebellum works in relation to stress.
While writing up my thesis I applied for my current job in Oxford. It’s a unique position because I have a dual role here: I am a trial manager for the European Prevention of Alzheimer’s Dementia (EPAD) project, which gives me a great opportunity to learn more about the workings of clinical trials, and I’m also able to develop my own research projects as part of DPUK within the Data Portal.
Childhood experience and brain structure in later life
So far I’ve worked on two research projects primarily. The first used data from UK Biobank to explore associations between adverse events in childhood and adulthood – that is, experiences that might be described as traumatic, such as physical or emotional abuse – and brain structure measured later in life. We found associations between changes in brain structure and adverse events that took place in childhood – and the cerebellum, among other structures, emerged as an affected region. This could suggest that some structures are more vulnerable than others during the period of their development, probably because they perform a regulatory function on our emotions.
Right now I’m working with data from the Insight 46 project, which is a sub-study of the MRC National Survey of Health and Development. This is a really interesting cohort: everyone in it was born in March 1946 and was therefore conceived at the end of the Second World War. I’m looking at parental bonding, as measured by a questionnaire called the Parental Bonding Instrument. We know from theories of parental attachment and emotion regulation that parenting practices influence various aspects of child development. I’m interested in understanding whether parental bonding is related to brain structure at age 70, making use of MRI scans available in the cohort. I’m also investigating whether this relationship might be influenced by the presence of a genetic polymorphism associated with a high risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and whether males and females are affected differently. For example, is our brain more sensitive to change due to our experiences growing up, when we are also genetically vulnerable to those changes?
Nature vs nurture
I think it’s really interesting to understand how environmental factors might affect our biology. To what extent do our experiences and how we perceive those experiences combine with our genetic makeup to influence who we are? There’s still lots to learn, and using bio-psycho-social approaches is key to tapping into potential causes for psychiatric disease.
In the future I’d like to carry out more research using secondary data – such as the cohort data available through the DPUK Data Portal – as well as designing my own experimental studies to dig into the mechanisms of adversity.