Dr. Deborah Dewey, PhD, RPsych (AB)
Cumming School of Medicine
Hotchkiss Brain Institute
Child Health & Wellness Researcher
Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute, Owerko Centre
Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education
RPsych, College of Alberta Psychologists, 1982
Fellow, Canadian Psychological Association, 2006
Fellow, Association for Psychological Science, 2018
BA. Psychology, University of Saskatchewan, 1977
MA. Psychology, University of Saskatchewan, 1981
MSc. Kines/Kinetic/Kinnthrply, University of Waterloo, 1986
CPsych Psychology, College of Alberta Psychologists, 1982
PhD. Psychology, University of Calgary, 1990
Dr. Deborah Dewey is a Professor of Pediatrics and Community Health Sciences at the University of Calgary and the co-lead on the Alberta Pregnancy and Nutrition (APrON) study. From 2006 to 2018, she was the Director of the Behavioural Research Unit, Alberta Children’s Hospital. Her innovative and interdisciplinary research program examines maternal and child health issues in Canada and Sub-Saharan Africa. Dr. Dewey’s research interests focus on the effects of the prenatal environment on children’s brains and behaviour, the impact of co-morbid neurodevelopmental disorders on children’s brain structure and function, the effects of genetics and epigenetics on neurodevelopment, and behaviour and mental health outcomes in children with various health conditions. She has published over 200 peer-reviewed papers, and is sought after locally, nationally, and internationally as a collaborator on various research projects. She co-edited the book Developmental Motor Disorders: A Neuropsychological Perspective, the pre-eminent text in the field and is an elected Fellow of the prestigious Association for Psychological Science and Canadian Psychological Association. Dr. Dewey’s research on the APrON study cohort focuses on investigating the effects of prenatal and early childhood exposures, including endocrine disrupting chemicals, heavy metals, maternal nutrition and maternal mental health, on children’s brains, cognitive development, behaviour, and mental health. In addition, she is examining the influence of prenatal exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals and maternal nutrients on the developing epigenetic profile and the regulation of key genes involved in neurodevelopment.
Areas of Research
My research program is examining the associations between prenatal and early childhood exposure to endocrine disrupting chemical and heavy metals and children's long term health and neurodevelopment. It is also investigating the association between prenatal exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals, changes in DNA methylation and neurodevelopmental outcomes of children.
My research program is examining the associations between prenatal exposures including maternal mental health, maternal nutrition, maternal obesity and maternal physical activity and children's neurodevelopmental outcomes in infancy through to school-age.
My research focuses on the co-morbidity of neurodevelopmental disorders including Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Reading Disorders and Developmental Coordination Disorder and their brain basis.
I am involved in a number of research projects conducted in Sub-Saharan Africa that are examining environmental influences including maternal nutrition, maternal mental health and environmental exposures on maternal and child health.
My research is investigating the early predictors of child mental health including genomic and exposomic (i.e., all non genetic factors) factors and their interaction.
My research focuses on neurobiological, genetics and epigenetic factors associated with neurodevelopmental. I am particularly interested in the role that the prenatal environment plays in children’s physical health and neurodevelopment.
My research program is examining:
- brain structure and function in typically developing children and children with neurodevelopmental disorders including developmental coordination disorder, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and autsim spectrum disorder.
- the genetic basis genes of developmental coordination disorder and co-occurring disorders including attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
- the effects of prenatal and early childood exposures (i.e., neurotoxicants, maternal nutrition, maternal mental health) on children’s brains, cognitive development, behaviour and mental health in Canada and Tanzania.
- the role of prenatal and perinatal events such as being born too early on neurodevelopment and brain structure and function.
- the associations between early environmental exposures (i.e., neurotoxicants, parental mental health, maternal nutrition) and children's brain, cognitive, and behavioural development.
The World Health Organization recommends that increasing global understanding of chemical exposures during pregnancy and childhood and their effects on human health and development be considered an international research priority. The National Academy of Sciences implicates early neurotoxicant exposure in the etiology of 3% of neurodevelopmental disorders, and an environmental factor that interacts with genetic susceptibility in another 25% of neurodevelopmental disorders. Phthalates are synthetic endocrine disrupting chemicals. They are ubiquitous in our environment and found in polyvinyl chloride plastics, food packaging, children’s toys, the plastic coating of certain medications and personal care products such as shampoos and deodorants. Because of their widespread use, it is difficult to not be exposed to these chemicals every day. Prenatal exposure is of increasing concern. Phthalates are detectable in over 90% of pregnant women, cross the placenta and the fetal blood brain barrier, and have been associated with poorer cognitive, behavioural and motor outcomes in children. Due to their endocrine disrupting nature, these effects could be different for girls and boys and could contribute to the higher proportion of boys with neurodevelopmental disorders and the increased prevalence of mood disorders in girls.
Mounting evidence in animals and humans implicates epigenetic variation as mediating the link between prenatal exposures and offspring neurodevelopment. Prenatal exposure to phthalates in rodents is associated with variation in DNA methylation (DNAm) of a key neurodevelopmental gene (i.e., brain –derived neurotropic factor; BDNF) in the hippocampus of immature offspring. In humans, the effects of phthalates on the developing epigenome are poorly understood and only one study has reported an association between prenatal exposure, DNAm in DRD4, a leading candidate gene associated in attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and performance on a measure of attention (i.e., continuous performance test).29 The Alberta Pregnancy Outcomes and Nutrition Study (APrON; http://www.apronstudy.ca) and the Barwon Infant Study (BIS; http://www.barwoninfantstudy.org.au) are two of the largest cohort studies in the world in which phthalates have been measured in pregnant women. They were designed to investigate pathways through which prenatal exposure affects children’s neurodevelopment. Both have biosamples available for analysis and detailed data on prenatal neurotoxicant exposure and child neurodevelopment, as well as maternal health, mental health, and nutrition. These samples and data allow us to investigate whether previously reported links between prenatal phthalate exposure and cognitive, behavioural ,and motor development are mediated by DNAm variation in genes critical to neurodevelopment. We hypothesize that prenatal exposure to phthalates influences the developing epigenetic profile and regulation of key genes involved in neurodevelopment, thereby adversely impacting children’s cognitive, behavioural and motor development.
To test this, we are examining changes in genome wide DNAm utilizing data and samples from APrON and BIS. These pregnancy cohorts give us sufficient power to conduct the proposed epigenome-wide associations studies (EWAS). The proposed approach is a very cost-effective way to investigate the evidence of specific candidate genes in proposed causal pathways while also discovering novel genes and gene networks sensitive to DNAm variation following phthalate exposure.
AIMS, HYPOTHESIS AND SIGNIFICANCE TO PUBLIC HEALTH
The overarching aim of our proposal is to provide evidence that adverse effects of prenatal phthalate exposure on children’s cognition, behavioural and motor abilities are mediated by epigenetic variation.
Aim 1: To explore the association between prenatal exposure to phthalates and DNAm variation in genes involved in neurodevelopment.
Hypothesis 1: Higher prenatal phthalate exposure will be associated with instances of both increased and decreased methylation in key regulatory regions of genes (i.e., DRD4, BDNF, HES1, NR4A2, ETS1, TCF4) previously associated with neurodevelopment in children29,32–36.
Aim 2: To explore if the observed associations between prenatal phthalate exposure and adverse cognitive, behavioural and motor development are mediated by DNAm, potentially in a sex-specific manner.
Hypothesis 2: The observed associations between higher prenatal phthalate exposure and poorer cognitive, behavioural and motor outcomes in preschool aged children are mediated by DNAm variation in genes associated with neurodevelopment in children. Based on previous literature (see below), we anticipate that these associations will be moderated by sex.
Significance to Public Health: Evidence from animal models and one human study show that epigenetic modifications caused by in utero exposure to phthalates can change expression of genes linked to inflammatory response, endocrine function, male fertility and neurodevelopment. Consistent with previous research, we have confirmed the link between prenatal phthalate exposure, and alterations in brain structure and poorer neurodevelopmental in the children in APrON and BIS. However, only one study to date has examined whether this is mediated via epigenetic variation in genes previously found to play key role in neurodevelopment.29 Given the growing need for early intervention to modify developmental trajectories of children with neurodevelopmental problems, the recognition of specific DNAm markers as clinical tools to monitor disease progression, and the ongoing development of specific drugs to modify epigenetic marks, our work has tremendous potential to both identify and change the outcomes of at risk children
- e2i Principal Investigator, Innovates Calgary. 2021
- Invited Keynote, 2021 Symposium on Metabolism and Disease, Institute of Life Science, Chongqing Medical University. 2021
- Invited Keynots, North American Society for Sport and Physical Activity. 2021
- Postdoctoral Recruitment Award, Owerko Centre, University of Calgary. 2018
- Invited Keynote, Developmental Neuroimaging Workshop, Australian Catholic University, Melbourne. 2017
- Invited Public Lecture , Move Grow Engage, Notre Dame University, Fremantle, Australia, . 2016
- Innovation Award,, Department of Pediatrics, University of Calgary,. 2016
- Invited speaker , NeuroDevNet Conference on Brain Development. 2015
- Invited Keynote, 11th International Conference on Developmental Coordination Disorder. 2015
- Owerko Family Endowed Lecture in Developmental Neurosciences, Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, Jun 2015. 2015
- Neurodevelopmental Postdoctoral Fellowship, Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute . 2014
- Eyes High Postdoctoral Scholars Award, University of Calgary. 2013
- Global Health Champion, Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary. 2013
- Mentorship Award, Department of Paedatrics, University of Calgary. 2013
- Academic Leadership Award , Department of Paedatrics, University of Calgary. 2012
- Robin K. Gray Fellowship, Department of Human Movement and Exercise Science, University of Western Australia. 2001
- CIHR/SSHRC/NHRDP Health Career Award, CIHR. 2000
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