Neuroscience and Psychology student Cayley Fleischman is spending her summer vacation shedding some light on how nicotine can alter the development of offspring before conception. Working with Dr. Robbin Gibb in her lab, Cayley is studying the effects of pre-conception nicotine exposure and environmental enrichment on offspring development.

In 2019, a study from Statistics Canada found that the prevalence of nicotine consumption in people aged 15 and older was 14%, or roughly 4.3 million people. Cayley says with this increase in nicotine consumption, now more than ever, there is a need for research that analyzes the cross-generational effects of nicotine.
Previous studies on paternal nicotine consumption prior to conception have found that the subsequent offspring had hyperactivity, attention deficits, and cognitive inflexibility. However, there is a gap in understanding how maternal consumption of nicotine impacts offspring.

“This project aims to investigate if chronic maternal exposure to nicotine prior to conception impacts the development of brain and behaviour in offspring,” Cayley says. She adds that the project also looks at the environments in which drug use occurs to see if it can moderate the effects of the drug.

“We predict that preconception nicotine will negatively impact brain and behaviour whereas preconception exposure to an enriched environment will benefit behaviour and brain development.”

With the support of a Chinook Summer Research Award, Cayley’s role in the project is to assist with animal behaviour testing and the subsequent data scoring and analysis. She will also be learning how to analyze Golgi-Cox stained brain tissue, and will be presenting her findings from her research to her peers and colleagues at the U of L.

Cayley’s work on this project comes as a result of her desire to work with Dr. Gibb. After giving a guest lecture in her Neuroscience 2600 class, Cayley says she became enthralled with Robbin’s research, particularly due to the enthusiasm and passion she has for her work, and that inspired Cayley to become involved in her lab. Cayley is primarily working under PhD student Serena Jenkins, who she has worked with since her first year and is her mentor in the lab.

This experience has been incredibly valuable to my education to say the least! Due to the research opportunities I’ve had over the past three years, I’ve found clarity regarding the direction I want to take both my degree and my career. During my first year of university, I had intentions of going to medical school after I graduated; now I have my sights set on graduate school and academia as a career. With this summer studentship specifically, I’ve come to learn that I hope to focus my future studies on community outreach and engagement.

Cayley is continuing in her family’s footsteps at the University of Lethbridge. Cayley is a third generation U of L student and moved to Lethbridge from the United States for her studies in 2018. What drew Cayley to uLethbridge is the Neuroscience program, where she is able to help with the research being conducted here, something that is deeply meaningful to her.

While I’ll be taking the practical lab skills and knowledge of the research process with me into the future, I think the most important experience will be that of the sense of community and support that has been created for students. I believe it is incredibly important to have welcoming and supportive working conditions so that students feel supported in their education, so experiencing this environment firsthand has allowed me to examine what I can do moving forward to help contribute to this sense of community.