2019 Sterling Clarren Research Award Winner- Tamara Bodnar

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TB photo.pngThe 2019 recipient of the CanFASD Sterling Clarren Research Award is Dr. Tamara Bodnar. Dr. Tamara Bodnar is a Research Associate in the Department of Cellular and Physiological Sciences at The University of British Columbia (UBC), supervised by Dr. Joanne Weinberg. Her research examines the impact of prenatal alcohol exposure and other early-life environmental manipulations on immune function across development. Her research involves animal models of prenatal alcohol exposure, as well as human studies examining the impact of in utero alcohol exposure. The overall goal of her research is to identify both immune-related biomarkers and targets for possible immune-based intervention strategies for individuals with FASD.

Summary of research:
Dr. Bodnar’s project, entitled Impact of prenatal alcohol exposure on immune function throughout the life course, involves examining how the immune system is impacted by prenatal alcohol exposure and identifying possible consequences of altered immune function. Importantly, while the immune system protects the body against disease, it is also critically important for brain development and is involved in key processes including neurogenesis and synaptic pruning. Thus, changes in the immune system, particularly within the brain (the neuroimmune system) during the early postnatal period, will likely result in consequences for brain development.

Using an animal model of prenatal alcohol exposure, we showed that alcohol-exposed animals display increased activity of the immune system/inflammation both centrally (in the brain, specifically the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex) and peripherally (in the body, specifically the blood). This increase in immune system activity was detected during the early-postnatal period on postnatal day 8, which is a critical period of brain development.

Building on these data, and with the NIAAA-funded Collaborative Initiative on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (CIFASD), we collaborated with Dr. Christina Chambers, UC San Diego, utilizing her ongoing longitudinal cohort study in Ukraine to examine whether the immune environment is altered when alcohol is consumed during pregnancy. Specifically, we measured cytokines, the immune system messengers, in blood samples collected through the OMNI-Net Ukraine Birth Defects Prevention Program, from pregnant women reporting low/no or heavy alcohol consumption during pregnancy. We identified that maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy results in a specific “immune signature”, or pattern of activated and inhibited cytokines. In addition, we were able to identify maternal immune changes that were predictive of child neurodevelopmental outcome. For example, alcohol-consuming women who went on to have a child with neurodevelopmental delay (identified through assessment at 6 and 12 months) had a different “immune signature” from that of alcohol-consuming women of children without neurodevelopmental delay. These findings suggest that the maternal immune environment during pregnancy may be predictive of child risk vs. resilience.

Finally, as an extension of these data, and inspired by an informal health survey conducted by individuals with FASD, we have initiated a new ongoing project to examine health and immune outcomes in adults with FASD. Importantly, this study (also funded through CIFASD) is designed to characterize the health status of adults with FASD, as well as to specifically probe for immune system alterations that may be predictive of altered cognitive, behavioral and adaptive function, and the risk for a range of immune/autoimmune disorders in later-life.


If you have any questions about the research or would like to get in contact with Tamara, she can be reached at tamara.bodnar@ubc.ca or please visit the Weinberg lab website!

If you are interested in learning more about this work, please see the links below:

Bodnar TS, Hill LA, Weinberg J. Evidence for an immune signature of prenatal alcohol exposure in female rats. Brain Behav Immun. 2016;58:130-141.

Bodnar TS, Raineki C, Wertelecki W, Yevtushok L, Plotka L, Zymak-Zakutnya N, Honerkamp-Smith G, Wells A, Rolland M, Woodward TS, Coles CD, Kable JA, Chambers CD, Weinberg J, Collaborative Initiative on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum D. Altered maternal immune networks are associated with adverse child neurodevelopment: Impact of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Brain Behav Immun. 2018;73:205-215.

Tamara’s Google Scholar profile is also available here.


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