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Neigh studies adolescent stress as a means to inform improved therapeutics and guide personalized treatment plans for cancer patients

Jun 04, 2019


VCU Massey Cancer Center researcher Gretchen Neigh, Ph.D., studies how early life exposures to stress impact the development or progression of disease as a means to inform the development of improved therapeutics or guide personalized treatment plans for cancer patients.

Neigh joined Massey as a member of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program in 2019. She is also an associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the VCU School of Medicine.

Neigh’s research focuses on stress in adolescent development and how that exposure at a young age changes the physiological response to the onset of cancer or other health disorders later in life, as well as how those responses occur differently in males and females.

“Cancer is a challenge to the body, and early life exposures, including chronic psychological stressors, poor diet or environmental pollutants, years or decades before a diagnosis can affect the way someone will respond physiologically and psychologically and ultimately how the disease progresses,” Neigh said. “Something that we perceive that’s not necessarily a physical force on us, but something that we’re experiencing psychologically, can translate into a biological change. I want to determine how that biological change has very real repercussions for cancer and other health challenges that are completely physical.”  

Neigh ultimately hopes that her joint background in the fields of psychology and biology can help shape the understanding of how adolescent experiences are impacting response to medical treatment years later.

Previous studies have suggested that an individual who has experienced early life trauma likely needs a different antidepressant regiment and treatment path than someone who has acute adult onset depression. Neigh is using this model created within the field of biological psychiatry and applying it toward other systemic diseases and disorders like cancer.

“Until we can stop people from getting cancer, asking questions about early life exposures when treatment begins can help improve therapy and guide a personalized treatment plan,” Neigh said.

For a long time, adolescence wasn’t considered a period of high risk; therefore, it has largely been ignored in research revolving around the human stress response, but Neigh is working to reverse that perception.

“Because the hormones that are part of the stress response and the hormones involved in sexual maturation interact with each other, stress during adolescence will have a longer lasting effect on the system,” Neigh said. “You can see ramifications from that far removed from adolescent incident. In rodents, that is months. In humans, that would be years or decades.”

Neigh currently holds an R01 grant from the National Institute of Nursing Research to investigate the molecular mediators that carry adolescent stress forward into adulthood and how they differ by sex.

She also has ongoing research, including an R01 from the National Institute of Mental Health, focused on the bidirectional relationship between stress and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and psychological responses to diagnosis. Cancer is one of the highest comorbidities for people living with HIV.

As the director of translational research for the VCU Institute for Women’s Health, Neigh is available to help guide researchers who are trying to incorporate sex and gender differences into their studies.

Neigh has been published in 80 peer-reviewed journals, including Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, Clinical Infectious Diseases and Stroke. She also is an associate editor of Neuropsychopharmacology, and she serves on the editorial boards for Hormones & Behavior and Physiology & Behavior.

Neigh grew up in a small town outside of Pittsburgh. Originally, she had a strong interest in working with animals and held aspirations for a career as a veterinarian. However, by her senior year in college, Neigh chased her passion for biology and the biology of behavior and pivoted to a future in research and neuroscience. She received her bachelor’s degree in biology from Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from The Ohio State University in 2004 and completed postdoctoral fellowships in developmental neuroscience and neuropsychopharmacology at Emory University.

Based on preclinical studies, Neigh’s thesis in graduate school focused on the effects of chronic stress and their repercussions in the face of cardiac arrest and resuscitation.

At Emory, she focused more on development and developmental stress, and how that could change health risks over the course of a lifespan. Specifically, she worked on a grant-funded project that focused on the inner-city population of Atlanta and examined the factors that lead to risk and resilience when people were exposed to trauma.

Neigh lives in Midlothian with her husband and two sons where she spends a lot of time watching their soccer and baseball games. Neigh also volunteers with the Richmond Animal League and enjoys the outdoors and hiking.

Written by: Blake Belden

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