“The field of neuroscience has been very male-centric. Most studies were historically done on males, and there wasn’t enough information on the female brain in general. This grant is not only a testament to the excellence of the project proposal, but also to the importance of this topic,” said Kundakovic, who learned she received the grant on Jan. 29.
Kundakovic studies cellular changes in the brain on a molecular level using a mouse model. Her lab specializes in researching the molecular mechanisms behind hormonal changes during the ovarian cycle and how they can change female brain and behavior. Her research results could lead to the development of sex-specific treatments for mental disorders like anxiety and depression—disorders that are more prevalent in women than in men.
In recent years, Kundakovic and her team discovered that chromatin, a microscopic cell component, changes its shape during the ovarian cycle, which also changes the way genes are expressed. Over the next five years of grant funding from the NIMH, they will build on their research and try to better understand how chromatin changes in brain cells can impact anxiety-related behavior, especially for female mice, in her project “Epigenetic regulation of brain and behavior by the estrous cycle.”
“We are trying to understand how chromatin changes within brain cells affect cellular function and contribute to changes in behavior and which specific cells are really critical for changing behavior,” said Kundakovic. “With this new grant, we will be able to identify the specific brain cells that are really responsive to hormonal changes and reveal epigenetic regulators that are possible targets for drug treatment.”
Kundakovic said her research has taken on new meaning during the pandemic, an unprecedented period where more people than usual are struggling with their mental health, especially anxiety and depression.
“The pandemic may widen the gender gap that we are already seeing in anxiety and depression,” Kundakovic said. “We will have even more women who are affected by these disorders.”