Edinburgh Research Explorer

Dr Paula Brunton

Academic Track Senior Lecturer (Zhejiang)

Profile photo

Willingness to take PhD students: Yes

Education/Academic qualification

Doctor in Philosophy, University of Edinburgh
Central Mechanisms of Reduced Neuroendocrine Stress Responses in Pregnancy
Bachelor of Science, University of Edinburgh

Area of Expertise

Research expertiseStress Neurobiology


Current Research Interests

The impact of early life stress on the brain and behaviour

Research Interests

It is widely accepted that an individual is shaped by a combination of nature and nurture. The implication is that the way in which an individual responds to stress is not solely a consequence of their genetic make-up; rather, it is defined by how their genes interact with their pre- and post-natal environment. The perinatal period (the time before and after birth) is a time of marked neural plasticity; hence, the development of brain systems, is susceptible to re-modelling. Adverse experiences in early life (such as stress exposure) can permanently ‘programme’ physiological systems and behaviours in later life. Often this programming of the brain is maladaptive, increasing the susceptibility of the offspring to various diseases (including cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus type 2, obesity, cognitive decline and mood disorders). Maternal stress has permanent and often profound effects on the offspring. Our research has demonstrated that maternal exposure to social stress during pregnancy is linked with low birth weight, anxious behaviour, hyperactive stress axis activity, insulin resistance, cognitive deficits and abnormal social and behaviours in the offspring. We investigate the mechanisms in the brain that underpin these changes and whether the impact of stress exposure during development can be prevented or reversed. 

Current projects investigate:

  • Brain mechanisms involved in programming of the neuroendocrine stress system and behaviour following early life stress exposure.
  • Mechanisms involved in transmission of maternal stress effects to the fetus
  • A role for the gut microbiota in stress axis dysfunction and anxiety behaviour in prenatally stressed rats
  • The short and long term impact of painful/stressful husbandry practices in early life in pigs (e.g. tail docking, tooth resection) on the brain and behaviour
  • The effects of prenatal stress on subsequent generations
  • Stress exposure during pregnancy and preterm birth risks

Research students


  • Rebecca Madden (PhD student; 2018-)
  • Anna Sinclair (PhD student; 2015-)
  • Daniela Schnitzler (PhD student; 2017-)
  • Ying Sze (PhD student; 2015-2020)


  • Maria Banqueri-Lopez (visiting PhD student, University of Oveido, Spain; 2017)
  • Diana Benítez Jiménez  (MSc student; 2015)
  • Alemselam Birhanu Mekonnin (MSc student; 2012)
  • Jenna Dennis (MSc student; 2017)
  • Joana Fernandes (MSc student; 2017)
  • Natalia Grundwald (PhD student; 2011-2016)
  • Zofia Kołodziejczyk (MSc student; 2019)
  • Yu-Ting Lai (PhD student; 2011-2016)
  • Polina Oberst (visiting MSc student, Karolinska Institute, Sweden; 2014)
  • Susan Omuboba Dan-Jumbo (MSc student; 2013-2014)
  • Joanne Palsma (visiting MD/MSc student from University of Maastrict, Netherlands; 2016)
  • Stefanie Klampfl (visiting PhD student, University of Regensburg, Germany; 2011 & 2012)
  • Milena Schramm (visiting MSc student, University of Regensburg, Germany; 2015)
  • Madhavi Vijayan (MSc student, 2011)


Awards and Prizes

The American Physiological Society Research Recognition Award 2005

Armin Ermisch Memorial Award 2005

The Luciano Martini Young Investigator in Neuroendocrinology Prize 2013  

Administrative Roles

Senior Editor, Journal of Neuroendocrinology (2017-present)

Senior Editor, Experimental Physiology (2015-present)

Review Editorial Board Member, Frontiers in Neuroscience and Nutrition (2014-present)

Editorial Board Member, Journal of Neuroendocrinology (2012-2016)

Senior Guest Editor, Journal of Neuroendocrinology (2011)

Co-convenor of ISPG5 'Livestock Neurobiology' (2012-2017)

Member of the Roslin Institute Small Animal User Committee (2011-present)

Chair of the Easter Bush Research Consortium Seminar Programme Committee (2013-2016)



Course organiser:

Endocrine & Reproductive Biology 3; Zhejiang-Edinburgh Integrative Biomedical Sciences Integrative Biomedical Sciences dual degree programme (2019-)

Stress and the Brain elective; Medical Biology BSc Hons programme (UoE 2008-2010)


Integrative Biomedical Sciences 1 (ZJE 2018-)

Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology 1 (ZJE 2019-)

Applied Biomedical Sciences 2 (ZJE 2018-)

Integrated Functions of Body Systems 2  (ZJE 2018-)

Integrative Biomedical Sciences 3 (ZJE 2018-)

Molecular Biology and Epigenetics 3 (ZJE 2019-)

Genetic and Environmental Influences on Behaviour and Mental Health (UoE 2014-)

Stress and the Brain elective; Medical Biology BSc Hons programme (UoE 2003-2013)

Hormones, Emotionality and Behaviour elective; Medical Biology BSc Hons programme (UoE 2006-2010)

Neuroendocrinology module; Physiology BSc Hons programme (UoE 2006-2009)

MSc Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare programme (Scotland’s Rural College 2003-2004, 2008, 2011-2017)

My research in a nutshell

If a mum experiences stress during pregnancy, it can be harmful to the unborn baby. When the baby reaches adulthood there is an increased chance of them developing certain diseases (such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes) and mental health disorders (e.g. anxiety and depression). My group are investigating how this happens and how it can be prevented or reversed. A baby’s brain develops during pregnancy and continues to develop after birth. We study the effects that stressful events during pregnancy have on how the offspring’s brain develops and the consequences of stress to the mother for the future health of the offspring.


I graduated with a BSc in Biomedical Sciences with Honours in Physiology from the University of Edinburgh in 1998. I was then awarded a Goodsir Memorial Scholarship by the University of Edinburgh’s Faculty of Medicine to study for my PhD in the Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology under Professor John Russell. My PhD focussed on understanding the central mechanisms that underlie reduced neuroendocrine responses to stress in pregnancy.

I then undertook two post-doctoral research projects, both with Prof. John Russell at the University of Edinburgh. The first was a 3 year BBSRC-funded project investigating a role for neurosteroids in restraining neuroendocrine stress responses in pregnancy. This was followed by a 5 year project investigating perinatal programming of stress responsivity and nociception in prenatally stressed offspring using rat and pig models, funded by an Animal Welfare Programme grant from the BBSRC.

In 2010 I became a Career Track Fellow in the Division of Neurobiology at the Roslin Institute, where I established a research group focussed on investigating the effects of stress exposure during development on the brain and behaviour. I was appointed to a Group Leader position at the Roslin Institute in 2015. Our group's research continues to focus on the long term impact early life stress, the underlying mechanisms involved and whether the adverse effects can be prevented or reversed.


Collaborative Activity


Dr Amanda Drake (UoE)

Dr Dale Sandercock (SRUC)

United Kingdom

Prof Patrick Case (University of Bristol)

Dr Tom Phillips and Dr Hannah Scott (University of Cardiff)


Dr Oliver Bosch (University of Regensburg, Germany)

Dr Marcio Donadio (Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil)

Dr Simone Motta & Prof Newton Canteras (University of São Paulo, Brazil)

Prof Armelle Prunier & Dr Celine Tallet (INRA, France)

Research activities & awards

  1. Experimental physiology (Journal)

    Activity: Publication peer-review and editorial work typesEditorial activity

  2. Journal of Neuroendocrinology (Journal)

    Activity: Publication peer-review and editorial work typesEditorial activity

  3. Sex-specific programming of the brain & behaviour by prenatal stress

    Activity: Academic talk or presentation typesInvited talk

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