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Karen Mifsud Reddit Ask Me Anything

24 April 2017

Posted by: UAR news team

Category: Communications & media

To mark Stress Awareness Month (1st April to 30th April), Understanding Animal Research collaborated with The Physiological Society to organise a Reddit ‘Ask Me Anything’ (AMA) with Dr Karen Mifsud on Thursday, 13th April.

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Karen is a Senior Research Associate at the University of Bristol in the Neuro-Epigenetic Research Group. Using rats, the group investigate how the brain copes with stress. Karen is specifically interested in the molecular changes that occur in the brain to facilitate adaptive behavioural responses, as a mechanism for coping with stressful situations. This research is important for understanding how impairments in these processes may mediate the development of stress-related diseases such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depression and Anxiety.

Nearly 500 questions were submitted by Reddit users throughout the hour long session, including general questions about stress, in-depth queries about Karen’s research and how animals play a role in this type of work. Karen responded to 13 questions during the session, including a question about the reversibility of environmental stress that had been up-voted by Reddit users nearly 600 times. Karen stated that thanks to research in rodents, we know that it is possible to reverse these effects”.

Karen also discussed the impact stress has on mental health and how more funding is required for this area of research.

“Stress both turns on and turns off a variety of genes by probably a wide variety of mechanisms but the links to prevalence of mental health disorders which are indeed more prevalent (although some may argue part of this prevalence is increased awareness of these disorders) are still for the large part unclear. To tackle this increasing trend of mental health disorders I think there should be better investment in mental health research since funding accounts for only ~5% of UK budget but mental disease makes up almost 25% of UK disease burden. There also needs to be a focus on early intervention as these seems to have the best outcomes for preventing lifelong illness.”

On the subject of animal research, Karen mentioned numerous times that her research involves the use of rats and states that rodents exhibit similar stress coping behaviours to humans.

“We see a range of stress coping behaviours in our rodents, for example when exposed to the fear conditioning paradigm some rats freeze, some become aggressive and some just run around so even in our inbred strain there appears to be individual differences.”

She also talked about rats being used to detect stress hormones in blood after the animals are exposed to an external stressor.

“To determine the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal response to the stressor we can measure the level of stress hormone directly in the blood of individual animals. We use a technique called chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP) to measure how much receptor is binding to the DNA and Quantitative Polymerase Change Reaction (qPCR) to determine how gene expression is changing in response to stress.”

The AMA gave insight into Karen’s work and how rodents play an important role in stress research. The AMA was well received by the Reddit community having gained nearly 6,000 up-votes.

Speaking after the event, Karen commented how she “really enjoyed the AMA and was amazed at how much interest there was in the area of stress-related research”. She praised the support she received and highlighted how an AMA can help you reach new audiences.

“People were really interested in finding out how they could reduce the negative impact stress has on their lives, which highlights how far we need to go in terms of improving awareness of self-help treatment in order to reach the number of people who are crying out for advice.“

This AMA follows successful sessions with Sir Professor Colin Blakemore, following his Paget Lecture in December 2015, and with UAR Chief Executive Wendy Jarrett, following the launch of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research in May 2014. If you would like to take part in an AMA yourself then please get in touch with Hannah Hobson (hhobson@uar.org.uk) as UAR can offer support and guidance throughout the entire process.

To read all of Karen’s AMA, click here.

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