As specializations go, Dr. Jacqueline Blundell’s specialization sounds like something directly off of the résumé of a Batman villain. “I’m interested in how we process fear,” she says.
It is Blundell’s work in the field of Psychology that has earned the Memorial professor a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), allowing one of Canada’s best researchers to pursue some of her most promising ideas.
Blundell’s grant research focuses on neural mechanisms underlying associative and non-associative fear memories, which are linked to how we remember fearful moments, and why some fearful moments lead to psychopathology and others don’t. In some cases, psychopathology could mean the onset of a mental illness like post-traumatic stress disorder.
Originally from St. John’s, Blundell is married to fellow Psych professor, Dr. James Drover, and is mother to three young children (aged 7, 5, and 2). Extracurriculars like yoga (“I made it to half the classes”) have been pushed to the wayside for the time being. It’s tough being the doctor of terror.
“I’ve always been interested in mental health, but knew I couldn’t be a medical doctor… not a fan of dealing with death,” says Blundell. While completing clinical psychology courses, she met Dr. Robert Adamec, a behavioural neuroscience professor at Memorial.
“I was fascinated with his work. He was interested in trying to understand the neural mechanisms underlying fear and anxiety. And that’s when I realized I could contribute (or try to contribute) [to medicine], either through the development of treatments or identifying the causes of the disorders. I immediately joined his lab and completed both my MSc and PhD with him.”
Her work with Adamec has helped bring her to this point, working in a field that could help thousands of individuals suffering in the wake of trauma.
“Ultimately, my lab and I are trying to understand the cascade of events in the brain that occur following a traumatic experience, and ways to prevent those experiences from causing a disorder,” she says.
“Right now, we are developing an animal model of PTSD in which we expose a mouse to a rat… natural predator of a mouse. We then look at the behavioural changes that occur in the mouse, which are similar to those changes that occur in people that develop PTSD.”
“We have identified particular chemicals — let’s call them substrates — in the brain that are activated during stressful events, and we are looking at ways to inhibit these substrates, as well as specific areas of the brain where they are released. All in an attempt to design better treatments for PTSD, or help understand the cause of the disorder.”
“Of course, we are at the beginning, and understanding human disease is extremely complex, but we must start somewhere.”