Behind the Science: The Bidirectional Relationship of Behaviour and Stress

Women's Health Blog
5 min readNov 17, 2023

Authors: Romina Garcia de leon and Shayda Swann, Women’s Health Blog Coordinators | Interviewee: Dr. Annie Duchesne, Ph.D., University of Northern British Columbia

Published: Nov 17th, 2023

Can you give us a brief explanation of your research?

I’m particularly interested in understanding how variations in hormones influence or regulate our behaviour, but also how our behaviour may regulate our hormonal processes.

Over the years, I’ve been interested in understanding how contexts such as stressful situations might be influencing ovarian hormones (estrogens and progesterone). There’s a lot of interplay between the stress and endocrine systems. They often tend to regulate the same or similar affective and cognitive processes, but they’re often studied independently. I have a lot of interest in understanding the two systems together, and I’ve developed various approaches.

The first approach involves measuring hormone levels and exposing people to different tasks. The second approach is to use observational studies where we take advantage of already accessible databases to try to answer these questions. These studies allow us to add a bit more complexity, given the larger sample sizes.

Studying this interplay is also relevant when we’re interested in questions of sex and gender. The sociocultural constructions of sex-related traits is a central dimension of gender. These constructions inform the way in which people are expected to behave in general and with respect to sex-related traits and situations. And often, our gendered constructions transform sex-related phenomena into specific sources of stress. So I do believe there’s a lot of relevance in studying the handover between stress and the gonadal system, particularly when interested in understanding the ramifications of sex and gender.

How did you get into the field of women’s health?

My undergraduate degree was in molecular biology. From these studies, the question that remained was how do people adapt to their environments. My first foray into this question was through conducting research materno-fetal physiology within Dr. Julie Lafond’s laboratory. Specifically, understanding the metabolic physiology of the placenta. At that time Dr. Lafond’ laboratory was interested in how maternal variation in lipidic and toxicological profile could influence the fetal development through placental physiology. This research experience allowed me to realize the central role that the endocrine system plays in communicating what’s going on in the environment and relaying this information in an adaptive manner to all other physiological systems so that the organism is best prepared for a variety of upcoming situations.

During my Masters’ degree I channel my interest in endocrinology, development and adaptation to investigate the development of the biobehavioural stress processes. Fascinated by Michael Meaney’s research — which transformed our neurobiological understanding of the interplay between the environment, maternal behaviour and the development of the hormonal stress response, I went to work with Dr. Ron Sullivan who was one of the few researchers who looked at the sex difference in the role that maternal behavior could have in the development of the stress responses. There, I discovered that variation in the environment can differently impact male and female rats, but also realized how we systematically excluded female animals from most behavioural neuroscience research. I continued to research the interplay between the stress and sex-related variables during my PhD which I conducted in humans under the supervision of Dr. Jens Pruessner where I studied the interplay between stress and the menstrual cycle on affective processes. Finally, during my postdoctoral research, I continued to investigate neurobehavioural underpinnings of reproductive phenomena by investigating the cognitive correlates of menopause related endocrine changes in Dr. Gillian Einstein lab’. Findings from this project support that the type of menopause, in particular whether you have had a spontaneous or surgical menopause moderate the neurocognitive correlates related to menopause.

Could you highlight some of your most important findings or highlights from your research?

One central idea that has been highlighted by several findings of my research in behavioural neuroendocrinology is that the relationship between hormones and behaviour is context contingent. For instance, during my PhD, I demonstrated that the relationship between cortisol levels and participants’ reported levels of stress changed completely depending on which menstrual cycle they were in. These are crucial findings! Once you have recognized that the ways in which hormones can influence brain and behaviour is contingent on context, the second important question is what are the contextual dimensions that are relevant?

What has been an increasingly important field of investigation in behavioural neuroendocrinology, particularly in relation to women’s health, is the use of feminist theory and feminist research to articulate and operationalize aspect of women’s experiences as relevant contextual dimensions, to then investigate how those particular context may moderate the interplay between hormones, brain and behaviour.

For example, the menstrual cycle is best characterized as a biosocial phenomenon. Seminal work by feminist scholars have demonstrated how sociocultural attributions about women’s bodies inform how menstruating people feel and behave when menstruating, for example, feeling pressured to conceal one’s menstruation. By understanding women’s endocrine phenomenon as biosocial, relevant, yet often overlooked, contextual dimensions can be incorporated in our understanding the neuroendocrine underpinnings of reproductive phenomena such as the menstrual cycle.

Such an approach allows for the necessary resolution to advance biobehavioural understandings of women’s health that avoids biological essentialist biases and prevent the belief that women are determined by their sex-related biology.

What impact do you hope to see with your work 10 years from now?

I hope I continue to complexify and nuance my understanding and investigation on behavioural neuroendocrinology, stress and reproductive phenomena. I wish that my ideas allow for a more refined and inclusive perspective. We all come to our object of study from a specific perspective or standpoint and therefore carry biases. I hope that more researchers within women’s health and behavioral neuroendocrinology (including myself here!) continue to critically engage and self-reflect on their own biases as well as the ones carried by their fields of research.

I hope that approaching reproductive phenomena as biosocially entangled become more of the norm than the exception in biobehavioural research particularly with respect to sex and gender. More generally, I hope that culture is no longer pinpoint against nature but rather that an organism’s biology, culture and environment are embraced as constitutive, dynamic and interdependent.

Lastly, I really hope for a continued diversification of the research in behavioral neuroendocrinology and women’s health. This includes, but is not restricted to, who is conducting the research, the geographical locations from where the research is being conducted, the participants being included in the research, and the questions, methods and epistemologies used to advance understanding.

If you’re interested in joining the NeuroGenderings Book Club, check it out here.

Check out more of Dr. Duchense’s work here and here.

If you’re interested in more about the processes and impact of racism and whiteness within the Canadian acacdemic context, check out this collective.



Women's Health Blog

The Women's Health Blog brings you content to demystify women’s health while reflecting the multifaceted nature of women and gender-diverse people.