Psychology Professor Recognized by the National Institutes of Health for Research in Environmental Enrichment
MCPHS Professor of Psychology Amanda Kentner, PhD, was awarded a grant by the National Institutes of Health for her research in Environmental Enrichment as an intervention of cognitive and social impairments caused by early infection.
For the last eight to nine years, Professor of Psychology Amanda Kentner, PhD, and a succession of students in her laboratory from multidisciplinary programs (i.e., premedical studies, PharmD, nursing, psychology, pharmacology and toxicology, etc.) have been studying the impact of early life infection and stress on long-term social and cognitive development in laboratory rodents. They have found that negative effects on long-term social and cognitive development occur when animals are exposed to inflammation caused by a bacterial or viral infection during either gestation or in the neonatal period. Exposure to infection during these critical periods of development is a risk factor for schizophrenia and autism in humans. As Dr. Kentner’s team discusses in their paper titled, “Poly (I:C)-induced maternal immune activation modifies ventral hippocampal regulation of stress reactivity: prevention by environmental enrichment,” the consequence of these kinds of early inflammatory challenges is a disruption to the stress-relieving oxytocin system, which is what leads to reduced social interactions and cognitive impairments in the laboratory animals—symptoms that are seen in patients with schizophrenia and autism. In April 2021, as part of a seminar series by the PsychoNeuroImmunology Research Society (PNIRS), Dr. Kentner gave a virtual presentation on the possibility of preventing or mitigating the negative effects of inflammation during these early life periods of development through Environmental Enrichment (EE).
According to Dr. Kentner, EE is defined as “physical, sensory, cognitive, and/or social stimulation which provides an enhanced living experience to laboratory animals, relative to standard housing conditions.” Examples of EE include more opportunities for social interactions, toys, or an increased living space. By using EE as an intervention, Dr. Kentner says she hopes to “remediate or prevent some of those changes in social behavior as well as cognitive functioning.” For their work, Dr. Kentner and her team of undergraduates received the Research Enhancement Award, which is an R15 grant by the National Institutes of Health, a medical research agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. R15 grants are intended to support small-scale research projects at educational institutions that encourage students’ involvement in research. Dr. Kentner’s laboratory was funded by this research grant for three years. In February 2022, the grant was renewed and the lab was awarded $383,000 for another three years.
Dr. Kentner has been furthering her research by investigating the most impactful time in an animal’s life to introduce EE—whether that be in utero, neonatally, or later. The results of such a study in animals could have implications for EE as a therapeutic treatment for people with infection-caused social and cognitive impairments. For example, a study shows that EE in the form of sensorimotor stimulation is already being used to help children with autism to improve their social interactions, sensory processing, and cognitive functioning. The model used in Dr. Kentner’s laboratory includes a group of pregnant mice in a limited living space and a group of pregnant mice in an environmentally enriched or increased living space. Both groups receive maternal immune activation (MIA), which in this case is either a viral (poly I:C) or bacterial (lipopolysaccharide) mimetic to make the pregnant mice sick. The purpose of the MIA is to affect the social and cognitive development of the offspring; however, Dr. Kentner’s team have observed that social deficits were in fact prevented in the offspring of mice exposed to EE while pregnant. From a cognitive standpoint, these offspring did better on some tasks than the control group, but they did worse on others, as Dr. Kenter et al. illustrate in their paper titled, “Hidden talents: Poly (I:C)-induced maternal immune activation improves mouse visual discrimination performance and reversal learning in a sex-dependent manner”. Dr. Kentner finds these results interesting, because their implications can be applied to a broader scale. “If we look at the science in terms of [someone having] a bad experience, or [growing] up in a poor environment with low access to resources, and we have this frame of mind that these children and young adults are going to be at a disadvantage, then we have a bias towards them—As opposed to recognizing that they’ve adapted and changed through those experiences. And so, there are some things that they may be better at and some things that they might be less adept at,” she says. The takeaway of this comparison is that by recognizing where it is needed, EE can and should be used to help provide support for people with social or cognitive impairments and their best learning outcomes.
Dr. Kentner’s research is especially relevant in the climate of the COVID-19 pandemic where pregnant mothers face a heightened risk of contracting an infection that may hurt their unborn child. Dr. Kentner emphasizes that “we don’t know what all of those outcomes are” but that one could see how those “immune activation pathways can program and change behavior and health overall in the offspring.” It is important to note that Dr. Kentner’s study involved rodents; however, some aspects of her research relate to a randomized clinical trial underway in Australia, which is using EE to support parent-child interactions for infants at high risk of autism. Similarly, a study performed during the COVID-19 pandemic showed that increased social support from friends (i.e., via text messaging, video calls, and phone calls) was more beneficial to pregnant women in terms of reducing stress—which is known to affect fetal development—than support from family or significant others. The benefits of social support to pregnant women’s stress levels resemble Dr. Kentner’s findings with EE-housed rodent mothers and offspring that were housed with more animals or “friends” in their cages. When designing clinical trials to translate EE to humans, Dr. Kentner says it will be important to consider the potential impact of EE loss when the study ends, or whether it is possible to create a sense of sustainability or maintain the enrichment support systems longer-term.