Associate Professor Rebecca Campbell’s work focuses on the neural circuits that control fertility. “We examine how these circuits work normally, and also try to define whether problems in these circuits contribute to infertility.”
The primary focus of her lab is polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which is a very common form of female infertility. While much of the public perception of infertility is on the reproductive organs themselves, Rebecca and her team are working to understand the regions in the brain that can cause these organs to be dysfunctional; examining the source rather than the symptoms. “We’re trying to dissect out the specific circuits that might be wired up differently to result in this syndrome,” Rebecca says, “to do this, we work with a model of PCOS and compare it against a healthy model.”
One specific neuronal population that has been identified as “different” in a pre-clinical models of PCOS is located in the arcuate nucleus at the base of the brain and signals with the neurotransmitter GABA. Current projects in the lab are focused on examining the function of these GABA neurons and how they impact the secretion of central and peripheral hormone secretion in normal and PCOS-like animal models. On the other side of the spectrum, the lab is investigating the behavioural effects of prenatal androgen exposure, which is one of the core environmental causes of PCOS, on both female and male offspring. These projects use a combination of powerful neuroscience tools, including optogenetics, chemogenetics, immunohistochemistry, behavioural testing, along with a veritable sea of other techniques.
The lab is diverse, in that they’re not just examining the underlying circuitry, but also trying to identify possible therapeutics. One such therapeutic is an androgen receptor blocker that, when administered long term in adulthood, is able to reverse identified circuit abnormalities and restore reproductive cycling. While the research is still very much constrained to pre-clinical models, this kind of result suggests that the circuits that are dysfunctional in PCOS may not be hardwired. “The reason we’re so excited about it,” Rebecca says, “is because there are so few developmental events that are programmed by hormones that then can be altered.” This has illuminated the way for Rebecca’s lab and their collaborators to examine the effect of therapeutics at different developmental windows, and determine when exactly is the best time to treat PCOS to achieve the best outcome.
Rebecca has carved out a specific niche for herself and her team within the Centre for Neuroendocrinology, by remaining very focused on PCOS and the neural systems that drive it. “One of the real benefits of the CNE,” she says, “is that there are a lot of questions we can answer in a really collective way.” By having both, the collective neuroendocrinology connection and the niche focus, Rebecca and her lab have been able to make real strides in unravelling the secrets of PCOS and will continue to work toward understanding the intricacies of the brain’s impact on fertility.