My desire to understand how the brain develops from in the womb until adulthood is what got me into research. I believe that the role of the placenta in foetal brain development, and how devastating the outcomes can be following an early loss of the placenta, is an important area for us to focus on. If the placental steroid environment can be mimicked following birth in babies that are born preterm, can we put brain development back on the right track? This is the question that I aim to answer in my research.
The number of children affected by pregnancy compromises, such as preterm birth and postnatal stress, is increasing and the adverse consequences for the child are becoming more recognised. My goal is to determine the links between these compromises and consequences, and to develop approaches for reducing the impact. The potential of my group's proposed novel neurosteroid-replacement therapy to ameliorate the vulnerability these offspring face and enable them to reach their full potential, and experience a high quality of life, is what drives my day-to-day research.
Dr Julia Shaw is a postdoctoral researcher working in the Pregnancy Compromise and Neuroprotection group with the Mothers and Babies Research Centre. Her research examines the role of endocrine disruption following preterm birth on brain development of the offspring, and in particular, focuses on the long-term consequences into childhood and beyond.
She has recently been awarded her PhD in Experimental Pharmacology from the University of Newcastle in 2017. During her PhD, Dr Shaw focused on how a premature loss of placental neurosteroids results in diffuse white matter injury and impairments of the GABAergic system in the juvenile brain following preterm birth. She identified that the hippocampus and cerebellum are particularly vulnerable to these disturbances in brain development and may play a contributing role in the increased rate of behavioural disorders, such as ADHD and anxiety, that are more common following preterm birth.
Dr Shaw is currently investigating the use of a neurosteroid-replacement therapy to prevent these adverse outcomes of preterm birth on brain development.
My long-term career vision is to develop therapies to prevent the adverse behavioural and neurodevelopmental outcomes that children face when they are born preterm, and therefore ensure that every baby has the best start to life possible.