Honours Profile: Alyssa James

Alyssa James is a fourth-year psychology honours student working with professor Rima Azar. James was first introduced to psychology through an AP psychology course in high school. The subject matter proved very interesting to her.

“I’ve always been interested in what makes people tick,” James said.

It wasn’t until she started taking second-year psychology courses that focused on more in-depth topics that she realized that psychology was the subject for her.

James is currently writing her thesis under the scope of Azar’s ongoing research concerning the psychoneuroimmunology of pregnancy.

Approximately ten to twelve per cent of Canadian women suffer from prenatal depression. Prenatal depression may have a detrimental impact on fetal growth—low birth weight, which is correlated with increased illness and developmental issues, places a burden on our health care system. James’s project seeks to investigate whether prenatal depressive symptoms are associated with increased inflammation during early to mid pregnancy.

James’s thesis is entitled “Serum levels of pro-inflammatory biomarkers as a function of the severity of depressive symptoms in nulliparous expectant women during early-to-mid-pregnancy.” James’s research involves examining levels of three pro-inflammatory biomarkers in nulliparous (have not given live birth before) women: C-reactive protein, Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha, and Interleukin-6.

Blood samples are collected from participating pregnant women during their first prenatal hospital visit (seven to ten weeks gestation). Samples are collected again during mid-gestation (twenty-four to twenty-eight weeks). These samples are then centrifuged to separate the serum from the red blood cells and debris. The blood serum is analyzed for levels of the three pro-inflammatory biomarkers. During blood sample collection, participants are given both a demographic questionnaire as well as a depressive symptoms questionnaire to complete. The demographic questionnaire will be used to determine potential confounding variables such as age, smoking, and BMI. James hypothesizes that there will be a dose-related response between pro-inflammatory biomarkers and maternal depressive symptoms (meaning that higher levels of pro-inflammatory biomarkers will be associated with more severe depressive symptoms).

C-reactive protein, Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha, and Interleukin-6 are signals of inflammation. Previous research has found a relationship between inflammation and depressive symptoms, that higher levels of inflammation show more severe depressive symptoms. There has been some research conducted looking at depressive symptoms and inflammation, but not in pregnant samples. “It is really exciting to be researching a topic that only a few people have ever studied,” James said.

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