Susan Schantz is well-known at the University of Illinois for her research in the area of environmental toxicology, with her lab based in a south campus location at the College of Veterinary Medicine. That is changing, however, as Schantz is moving her lab north and getting a second-floor Beckman Institute office as the newest member of the NeuroTech group.
Schantz is a professor in the Department of Comparative Biosciences. She originally was a member of the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University but when it was shuttered in the mid-1990’s, Schantz joined VetMed as a professor in Comparative Biosciences and relocated her lab.
Schantz’s work includes human studies, as well as using animal models, in looking at the effects of environmental toxicants on human cognitive development and behavior. It's a new research area for the Institute. Joining Beckman, known for both interdisciplinary research and as a leader in neuroscience research, is a natural move for her, Schantz said.
“I am really a neuroscientist,” she said. “I do a lot of behavioral work and I’m interested in cognition and prefrontal function. The main focus of my lab since the beginning has been studying how prenatal exposure to chemicals affects brain development and cognition. In both animal models and humans we look at prenatal exposures to chemicals and effects on cognitive development.”
Schantz got an undergraduate degree in psychology and a Ph.D. in environmental toxicology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her initial interest in psychology took a different turn after a stint in a lab focusing on reproductive toxicology led her to combine the two disciplines in an interdisciplinary graduate training program at Wisconsin.
“I was able to work with a psychology professor who was looking at the effects of environmental contaminants on brain development and cognition,” Schantz said. “So I just melded those two interests.”
– Sue Schantz
In her current research, she employs animal models and parallel human studies of exposed populations to investigate prenatal exposure and how it affects cognitive development.
“We can use what we learned in our animal studies to guide what we do in our human epidemiological research,” Schantz said. “Once we see what a behavioral effect is, we try to get at the mechanism in our animal studies.
“For example, if we see an effect on working memory, then we might use drug challenges to try and see what neurotransmitter systems are involved and also look at receptor expression in the brain areas that seem to be involved in that task. So we try to understand the effect and know what to look for in humans, and also try to understand what the mechanisms for the effect might be from working with animal models.”
In 2010 Schantz was named director of a new, NIH- and USEPA-funded, Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Center at Illinois. The center was funded for research looking at whether chemicals in plastics and personal care products alter child development (including reproductive system development), cognition, or other behaviors. The research targets two chemicals commonly used in plastics and other products, bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates.
While studies have shown that BPA is likely not harmful to adults, there are questions about its effects on children. One key project of the center involves a collaboration with Carle Physicians Group studying pregnant women and their babies. Schantz said BPA and phthalates are endocrine disrupters.
“BPA is estrogenic and phthalates are anti-androgenic, so both are expected to disrupt sex hormones in the body,” she said.
Schantz said that another class of chemicals she works with, PCBs, are what are known as legacy contaminants.
“They have been around forever and they were actually banned in the 1970s,” she said. “But they are extremely stable and lipophilic. They are in the environment and they’re not going away.”
Schantz said her recent studies have shown that early exposure to PCBs is linked to audiogenic seizures in rats, a finding that led to new research endeavors for her, including a collaboration with Beckman’s Daniel Llano.
“A lot of seizures in humans are idiopathic, where we don’t know what’s causing them,” she said. “It may be environmental exposures are playing a role in this. This research will hopefully help tell us that.”
The research began with studies showing that developmental exposure to PCBs causes hearing loss and that this is due to functional changes in the outer hair cells of the cochlea.
“Then, because the outer hair cells help to protect the inner ear from loud noises, we felt it was important to do a study looking at whether early developmental exposure to PCBs would exacerbate noise induced hearing loss during adulthood,” Schantz said. “To our surprise, when we exposed the developmentally PCB-exposed rats to loud noise as adults, they experienced seizures.
“This led us to the collaboration with Dan Llano where we are exploiting techniques used in his research to see if there is an excitatory/inhibitory imbalance in auditory brain regions that could explain the increased incidence of audiogenic seizures in PCB-exposed rats.”
Schantz also has interdisciplinary collaborations with researchers in the University’s Botanical Estrogen Research Center, including Director Bill Helferich from Food Science and Human Nutrition, and faculty from the departments of Chemistry and Molecular and Integrative Physiology.
“My role is to serve as associate director and to investigate the impact of estrogenic dietary supplements on cognition,” Schantz said. “We have developed a rat model of the perimenopausal female and are using this model to study the impact of botanical estrogens on cognition.”
The chance to develop even more collaborations is just one example of why Schantz is happy about her opportunities on the north side of campus.
“That’s one of the things about moving to Beckman that is exciting for me,” she said. “I have a lot of collaborations on campus, but Beckman is so big there are people there I don’t even know yet. And you are right down the hall from them instead of all the way across campus.”