ON THE SPRAWLING lawn of Montreal’s Douglas Hospital, an elderly patient is feeding birds, declaring loudly to an invisible audience: “These are ravens, not crows. They are not mean, just hungry.” The Douglas is a psychiatric hospital affiliated with McGill University. Sonia Lupien works and teaches there.
A Ph.D. in neuroscience from the Université de Montréal, followed by three years post-doc at the University of California (San Diego) and New York’s Rockefeller University has landed her only a sparsely furnished tiny office, but vast freedom to launch cutting-edge research into how the human brain works. There are just 300, maybe even fewer, other such specialists in the worldable to meet Lupien at eye level when discussing the effect of stress hormones on the hippocampus, the region of the brain that involves memory.
After her studies, Lupien, 37, a fluently bilingual francophone, was a prime braindrain candidate. Instead, she returned home. “I was born in the Laurentians, so I guess I need the water and the trees to be happy.” Lupien turned down a prestigious job offer in New York City: the job interview, she says, made the lab “feel like an insurance company.” Lupien adds: “We have much more creative freedom here. New York was powerfully attractive when I was single, but I would not have been happy raising a family there.” Happiness for her is life with two pre-schoolers and her husband, a network communications specialist. And her research lab. “I was born to do this. I never had a doubt.”
In the rarefied circles of research on how hormones can affect the brain and influence our behaviour, health and happiness—
that’s psycho-neuro-endocrinology—Lupien is a star. She has established clinically to international acclaim what many of us know intuitively: stress can make us sick. Stressed people develop a hormone called cortisol. And Lupien discovered that cortisol is also linked to memory loss.
Ostensibly, Lupien is studying the impact of stress on the human body and mind. “That is what brings in the subsidies,” she chuckles. This research could lead to a drug that might delay the symptoms of Alzheimer’s—and, no doubt, to fortune and glory for its discoverer. But what drives Lupien is way more subversive. “We know that stress can damage memory,” she says. “But we also found that poor kids show a higher level of cortisol than rich kids. So, are the poor kids of today the dementia sufferers of tomorrow?”
Her genius does not stop there. From studying the impact of stress hormones on memory, Lupien takes the leap to wondering about the effect of thoughts and emotions on our health. Such speculation is beyond scientific experiments and closer to the realm of poets and grandmothers. “Stress is subjective,” she explains. “Stressful to me can be stimulating for someone else. But since stress can damage the brain, it follows that if I could alter my thinking and attitude, I should improve my health.”
She stops there, bursts out laughing, and says: “I must be careful—saying things like that is heresy in some scientific circles.” Colleagues already call her a “New Age guru.” But she says research must step back from hyperspecialization and adopt a broader view. “We don’t know how life works, do we?”
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