The Anna Penn laboratory studies the role of placental function in fetal brain damage, a cross-disciplinary research area Dr. Penn has dubbed “neuroplacentology”. This work started with a 2009 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award focused on the development of genetic models to assess the impact of placental hormones in fetal brain development. Successful development of this model system has launched several lines of investigation into hormones that change cortical development. The lab also pioneered the use of sex comparisons in a preterm injury model, focusing again on the role of steroid hormones.
The laboratory’s goal is to understand the hormonal factors that contribute to normal neurodevelopment and the impact of their loss following premature birth or placental compromise so that we can develop novel neuroprotective replacement therapies.
Many events including infection, malnutrition, and genetic abnormalities can disrupt the placenta’s function, or – as in preterm birth – can abruptly change the brain’s hormonal environment. Such changes may directly damage the developing brain or increase its susceptibility to the damage that leads to cerebral palsy or developmental delay. The laboratory has taken a multi-faceted approach to understanding these hormonal mechanisms and developing systems in which we can test potential interventions.