Identifying strategies to prevent depression and anxiety across the lifespan


Identifying strategies to prevent depression and anxiety across the lifespan

In the Dunn Lab, we use the tools of developmental and translational epidemiology to identify strategies for reducing the burden of mental illness throughout the lifespan.

Our research seeks to understand the mechanisms that influence risk for mental illness across the lifespan, with a special emphasis on depression and anxiety among women, children, adolescents, and other vulnerable populations (e.g. racial/ethnic minorities; individuals of low socioeconomic status). 

Our long-term goal is to translate discoveries about causal mechanisms into effective preventive strategies that reduce the onset of mood disorders and eliminate disparities. 

Our primary focus is on the role of early environmental exposures, especially childhood adversity, and the social contexts where youth spend the majority of their time outside of the family (e.g., schools, neighborhoods).  

Recognizing that interdisciplinary approaches can lead to breakthrough discoveries, we bring a multilevel or "genes to society" perspective to our work, including by studying gene-environment interplay (GxE).

Our work has been supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.


Current Studies


Current Studies

Current work in our group focuses on two primary areas.  

The first seeks to identify sensitive periods, or the “high-risk/high-reward” stages of human development when deleterious exposures are most harmful and when enriching exposures and interventions can offer greatest benefit.  We use data from large-scale epidemiological surveys to identify these periods of heightened plasticity.  Ongoing research is studying sensitive periods corresponding to domains of cognitive (e.g., memory, attention, and other aspects of executive functioning) and social-emotional development (e.g., emotion recognition skills; social cognition).  We are also examining the extent to which timing of exposure to childhood adversity and variation in sensitive period-relevant genes predicts these “intermediate domains” and subsequent depressive and anxiety symptoms.  With collaborators in neurology, recent extensions of our work on sensitive periods have been centered on examining predictors of incident depression in the period following a stroke event.

The second area of our research focuses on disentangling the role of schools and neighborhoods on adolescent risk for mood disorders and related health concerns.  With our close collaborator Tracy Richmond at Boston Children’s Hospital, we have been applying novel statistical methods, including cross-classified multilevel modeling, to study the unique contribution of each context after controlling for the other.  The main questions that drive our work are:  
•    How different are schools from neighborhoods in the risks and protections they confer?  
•    Are schools or neighborhoods more salient for certain types of youth?  
•    What are the mental health outcomes of youth embedded in disparate settings (i.e. youth who learn in a “healthy” school, but live in an “unhealthy” neighborhood)?  

Currently, our emphasis is on testing these questions using large epidemiological samples and conducting a qualitative study to develop a working theoretical model to describe the unique role of schools and neighborhoods on adolescents.


Our team


Our team

We are a multidisciplinary team of researchers from a range of fields, including epidemiology, public health, genetics, education, neurology, psychiatry, and psychology.


Erin C. Dunn is a social and psychiatric epidemiologist with expertise in genetics.  She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). She also holds an appointment in the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT.  Dr. Dunn’s research is centered on using cross-disciplinary approaches to better understand the social and genetic factors that influence the etiology of mental health problems.  She focuses mainly on depression and anxiety among women, children, adolescents and other vulnerable populations (i.e., racial/ethnic minorities; individuals of low socioeconomic status).  The long-term goal of her work is to identify the causal mechanisms underlying risk for depression, develop population-based strategies for prevention, and target these strategies to periods in development when they could have greatest impact.  Dr. Dunn received a Doctor of Science in 2011 from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.  She trained under Drs. Karestan Koenen, Subu Subramanian, Felton Earls, and Katherine Masyn. Dr. Dunn also completed post-doctoral research training at MGH under Drs. Jordan Smoller and Jonathan Rosand.  Dr. Dunn’s work has been funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. 


I was born and grew-up in Pistoia, Italy, where I’ve done most of my studies, including high school, where my strong interest in science began. Following my university studies, I graduated from medical school cum laude with a thesis on the genetics of memory at the University of Florence in 2009. I started the neurology residency right after at the same University, graduating cum laude last year. I was trained in the stroke Unit and I was responsible for clinical assessment, neuroimaging and neuropsychological evaluation in a study on the risk factors of cognitive disorders in the elderly. More recently, I spent one semester at the University of Genève, Switzerland, where I dedicated myself to advanced computational neuroimaging, studying functional and structural connectivity measures in vascular cognitive impairment. Finally, I spent six months in Albuquerque (NM) where I had the opportunity to become more familiar with molecular mechanisms of the white matter injuries, commonly seen in elderly patients. Cerebrovascular disease, genetics and aging brain are definitely my main interests that I would like to explore from different point of view.

 Tom Soare

Tom has a BA in environmental science from Boston University and a PhD in ecological genetics from the University of Washington. At UW, Tom examined how the physical environment influenced the distribution of genetic variation in space and time in a keystone species: the army ant Eciton burchellii. Most recently, Tom joined the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to translate research findings (evidence-based interventions) into practice and to leverage large, secondary datasets to gain insights about the effectiveness of those interventions in reducing chronic disease. In the Dunn lab, Tom is analyzing DNA methylation data for evidence of epigenetic modification due to “sensitive periods,” and the effect of those modifications on the development of depression in adolescence. 


Jenny graduated from SUNY Binghamton in 2014 with a B.A. in Chemistry and is currently a master’s student in Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Her research interests include upstream interventions in public health, particularly social determinants of cardiovascular disease. She is currently involved in projects on timing of childhood adversities and psychiatric disorder outcomes. 


Kristen Nishimi


Kristen graduated from UC Berkeley in 2012 with a B.A. in Psychology and is currently pursuing an M.Sc. at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Social and Behavioral Science. Her research examines the impact of behavior and chronic stress on the physical and mental health of disparate populations. Past work in psychology and immunology research in the veteran community has led her to investigate how stress impacts the development of disease and where possibilities for prevention or intervention might lie. In the lab, she hopes to apply an interdisciplinary focus to identify differences related to developmental timing of adversity exposure over the life course.


Meg Min-Jung Wang

Meg graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2011 with a B.A. in the Biological Basis of Behavior, and received a M.Sc. in Epidemiology from Imperial College London in 2012. She is currently a doctoral student in Epidemiology at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Her prior work includes research on the genetics of nicotine addiction and social risk factors on workplace mental health, which prompted her interest in both genetic and environmental risk factors and how their interplay leads to psychopathology. Meg is now using data from the Nurses’ Health Study II to determine how childhood adversity and the developmental timing of the exposure moderates the impact of genetic risk variants on mental disorders.


Zheng Kuang

Zheng Kuang gained his dual degree in Urban and Rural Planning & Resource Management and Economics at Peking University in 2015. He is currently a pursuing his MS in environmental health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In his undergraduate school, Zheng’s research interest was modeling of fine particle concentration using metrological data, and he is furthering his study high-dimensional spatial extrapolation of pollutants concentration at HSPH. As an unneglectable complement to environmental exposure, association between genetic factors and diseases has also drawn his interest. In the Dunn Lab, Zheng is studying the genes and gene-sets that are involved in regulating sensitive period, and their implication on psychological well-being.

Virginia Fisher

Virginia is a part time data analyst with the Dunn Lab. She is a PhD candidate in biostatistics at Boston University, specializing in statistical genetics. Her research focuses on gene-environment interaction and post-GWAS methodology. She has two children and lives in Somerville. 


Emily is a rising sophomore at Harvard College. She plans on concentrating in Cognitive Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychology with a secondary field in Economics. Her main research interest is the way in which early adversity affects the development of children, as well as how resilience plays a role in this. 


Katherine is a Clinical Research Coordinator for the Center for Human Genetic Research at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Katherine graduated with a B.S. in Biology with a concentration in Genetics, Genomics, and Development from Cornell University in 2015. While at school Katherine developed a keen interest in working with large scale genomic data as well as a budding curiosity for neurological diseases. Her previous research experience includes work with Equine Genetics as well as RNA editing in Arabidopsis. Katherine is assisting in analysis of data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). 


David Steefel-Moore Former Masters student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

David Steefel-Moore

Former Masters student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Jenna Kiely Former Research Assistant at the Psychiatric and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit.   

Jenna Kiely

Former Research Assistant at the Psychiatric and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit. 


Miriam Raffeld Former Research Technician at the Center for Human Genetic Research

Miriam Raffeld

Former Research Technician at the Center for Human Genetic Research

Yael Dai Former Clinical Research Coordinator at the Psychiatric and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit

Yael Dai

Former Clinical Research Coordinator at the Psychiatric and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit

Sandy Li Former Research Assistant at the Psychiatric and   Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit.  

Sandy Li

Former Research Assistant at the Psychiatric and   Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit.  

Yan Wang Former Masters student at the Boston University School of Public Health

Yan Wang

Former Masters student at the Boston University School of Public Health

Daniel Busso Former Doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  

Daniel Busso

Former Doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


Stephanie Gomez Former Research Assistant at the Psychiatric and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit 

Stephanie Gomez

Former Research Assistant at the Psychiatric and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit 





2016 AND IN PRESS   

Carliner, H., Keyes, K.M., McLaughlin, K.A., Meyers, J.L., Dunn, E.C., & Martins, S.S.  (in press).  Childhood trauma and illicit drug use in adolescence: A population-based NNational Comorbidity Survey Replication-Adolescent Supplement Study.  Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Dunn, E.C., Sofer, T., Gallo, L.C., Gogarten, S.M., Kerr, K. F., Chen, C., Stein, M.B., Ursano, R.J., Guo, X., Jia, Y., Qi, Q., Rotter, J.I., Argos, M., Cai, J., Penedo, F.J., Perreira, K., WassertheilSmoller, S., & Smoller, J.W. (in press). Genome-wide association study (GWAS) of generalized anxiety symptoms in the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos (HCHS/SOL). American Journal of Medical Genetics Part B: Neuropsychiatric Genetics. 

Wang, Y., Raffeld, M.R., Slopen, N., Hale, L., & Dunn, E.C. (2016). Childhood adversity and insomnia in adolescence. Sleep Medicine, 21(2016), 12-18. 

Salinas, J., Ray, R.M., Nassir, R., Lakshminaraya, K., Dording, C., Smoller, J.W., WassertheilSmoller, S., Rosand, J., Dunn, E.C. (in press). Factors associated with new-onset depression after stroke. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences.

Pabayo, R., Dunn, E.C., Gilman, S.E., Kawachi, I., Molnar, B.E. (in press). Income inequality within urban settings and depressive symptoms among adolescents. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Dunn E.C., Wiste A., Radmanesh F., Almli L.M., Gogarten S.M., Sofer T., Faul J.D., Kardia S.L.R., Smith, J.A., Weir D.R., Zhao W., Mirza S.S., Hek K., Tiemier H.W., Goveas J.S., Sarto G.E., Snively B.M., Cornelis M., Koenen K.C., Kraft P., Purcell S., Kessler K.J., Rosand J., Wassertheil-Smoller S., & Smoller J.W. (2016) Genome-wide association study (GWAS) and genome-wide environment interaction study (GWEIS) of depressive symptoms in African American and Hispanic women. Depression and Anxiety, 33(4), 265-280. Supplemental Materials.

Dunn, E.C., Busso, D.S., Raffeld, M.R., Smoller, J.W., Nelson, C.A., Doyle, A.E., & Luk, G. (2016) Does developmental timing of exposure to child maltreatment predict memory performance in adulthood? Results from a large, population-based sample. Child Abuse and Neglect, 51, 181-191.


Dunn, E.C., Masyn, K.E., Jones, S.M., Subramanian, S.V., & Koenen, K.C.  (2015).  Measuring psychosocial climates using individual responses: An application of multilevel factor analysis to examining students in schools.  Prevention Science. PMID: 25421872.

Dunn, E.C., Masyn, K.E., Johnston, W.R., & Subramanian, S.V. (2015). Modeling contextual effects using individual-level data and without aggregation: An illustration of multilevel factor analysis (MLFA) with collective efficacy. Population Health Metrics. PMID: 26019691.

Dunn, E.C., Brown, R.C., Dai, Y., Rosand, J., Nugent, N.R., Amstadter, A.B., & Smoller, J.W.  (2015).  Genetic determinants of depression: Recent findings and future directions.  Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 23 (1), 1-18. PMC4309382. PMID: 25563565.
Dunn, E.C., Milliren, C.E., Evans, C.R., Subramanian, S.V., & Richmond, T.K.  (2015).  Disentangling the relative influence of schools and neighborhoods on adolescents' risk for depressive symptoms.  American Journal of Public Health, 105 (4), 732-40. PMC4358201. PMID: 25713969.

Dunn, E.C., Richmond, T.K., Milliren, C.E., & Subramanian, S.V. (2015). Using cross-classified multilevel models to disentangle school and neighborhood effects: An example focusing on smoking behaviors among adolescents in the United States. Health & Place, 31, 224-232. PMC4443928. PMID: 25579227.
Gilman, S.E., Ni, M.Y., Dunn, E.C., Breslau, J., McLaughlin, K.A., Smoller, J.W., & Perlis, R.  (2015).  Contributions of the social environment to first-onset and recurrent mania. Molecular Psychiatry, 20, 329-336. PMC4206672. PMID: 24751965.
Murphy, J.M., Guzman, J., McCarthy, A., Squicciarini, A.M., George, M., Canenguez, K., Dunn, E.C., Baer, L., Simonsohn, A., Smoller, J.W., & Jellinek, M.  (2015). Mental health predicts better academic outcomes: A longitudinal study of elementary school students in Chile.  Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 46 (2), 245-256. PMID: PMC4443903. PMID: 24771270.

Germine, L., Dunn, E.C., McLaughlin, K.A., & Smoller, J.W. (2015). Childhood adversity is associated with adult theory of mind and social affiliation, but not face processing. Plos One. PMC4466913. PMID: 26068107


Dunn, E.C., Masyn, K.E., Yudron, M., Jones, S.M., & Subramanian, S.V. (2014). Translating multilevel theory into multilevel research: Challenges and opportunities for understanding the social determinants of psychiatric disorders. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 49, 859–872. PMC4067412. PMID: 24469555.

Dunn, E.C., Solovieff, N., Lowe, S. R., Gallagher, P. J., Chaponis, J., Rosand, J., Koenen, K.C., Waters, M., Rhodes, J., & Smoller, J. W. (2014). Interaction between genetic variants and exposure to Hurricane Katrina on post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic growth: A prospective analysis of low income adults. Journal of Affective Disorders, 152-154, 243-249. PMC3873605. PMID: 24161451.

Pearson-Fuhrhop, K.M., Dunn, E.C., Mortero, S., Devan, W.J., Falcone, G.J., Holmes, A.J., Hollinshead, M.O., Roffman, J.L., Smoller, J.W., Rosand, J., & Cramer, S.C. (2014). Dopamine gene score predicts depressive symptoms in healthy adults and adults with depression. Plos One, 9 (5), e93772. PMC4023941. PMID: 24834916.

Dunn, E.C., Winning, A., & Subramanian, S.V. (2014). Does poor health predict moving, move quality, and desire to move?: A study examining neighborhood selection in US adolescents and adults. Health & Place, 30, 154-164. PMID: 25282124.

Green, J.G., Johnson, R.M., Dunn, E.C., Lindsey, M.A., Xuan, Z., & Zaslavsky, A.M. (2014). Mental health service use among high school students exposed to interpersonal violence. Journal of School Health, 84 (2), 141-149. PMC4126199. PMID: 25099429.


Dunn, E.C., McLaughlin, K.A., Slopen, N., Rosand, J., & Smoller, J.W. (2013). Developmental timing of child maltreatment and symptoms of depression and suicidal ideation in young adulthood: Results from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Depression and Anxiety, 30, 955-964. PMC3873604. PMID: 23592532.

Slopen, N., McLaughlin, K.A., Dunn, E.C., & Koenen, K.C. (2013). Childhood adversity and cell-mediated immunity in young adulthood: Does type and timing matter? Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 28, 63-71. PMC4180230. PMID: 23108062.

Duncan, D.T., Piras, G., Dunn, E.C., Johnson, R.M., Melly, S.J., & Molnar, B.E. (2013). The built environment and depressive symptoms among urban youth: A spatial regression study. Spatial and Spatio-Temporal Epidemiology, 5, 11-25. PMC3734378. PMID: 23725884

Theall, K.P., Brett, Z.H., Shirtcliff, E.A., Dunn, E.C., & Drury, S.S. (2013). Neighborhood disorder and telomeres: Connecting children’s exposure to community level stress and cellular response. Social Science and Medicine, 85, 50-58. PMC3615150. PMID: 23540366


Dunn, E.C., Gilman, S., Slopen, N.B., Willett, J.B. & Molnar, B.E. (2012). The impact of exposure to interpersonal violence on gender differences in adolescent-onset major depression. Depression and Anxiety, 29, 392-399. PMC4136968. PMID: 22447513.

Dunn, E.C., Johnson, R.M, & Green, J. G. (2012). The modified depression scale (MDS): A brief, no-cost tool to estimate the level of depressive symptoms in students and schools. School Mental Health, 4 (1), 34-45. PMC3359067. PMID: 22639697

Tendulkar, S.A, Koenen, K.C., Dunn, E.C., Buka, S., & Subramanian, S.V. (2012). Neighborhood influences on perceived social support among parents: Findings from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods. Plos One, 9 (4), e34235. PMC3320905. PMID: 22493683


Dunn, E.C., Uddin, M., Subramanian, S.V., Smoller, J.W., Galea, S., & Koenen, K.C. (2011). Gene environment (GxE) interaction research in youth depression: A systematic review with recommendations for future research. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52 (12), 1223-1238. PMC3202044. PMID: 21954964

Johnson, R.M., Kidd, J.D., Dunn, E.C., Green, J.G., Corliss, H.L, & Bowen, D. (2011). Associations between caregiver support, bully victimization, and depressive symptomatology among sexual minority and heterosexual girls: Results from the 2008 Boston Youth Survey. Journal of School Violence, 10 (2), 185-200. PMC3375119. PMID: 22707917

Green, J.G., Dunn, E.C., Johnson, R.M., & Molnar, B.E. (2011). A multi-level investigation of the association between school context and adolescent non-physical bully victimization. Journal of School Violence, 10 (2), 133-149. PMC3083921. PMID: 21532943


Dunn, E.C., Wewiorski, N.J., & Rogers, E.S. (2010). A qualitative investigation of individual and contextual factors associated with vocational recovery among people with serious mental illness. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 80 (2), 185-194. PMID: 20553512 

McLaughlin, K.A., Kubzansky, L., Dunn, E.C., Waldinger, R., Vaillant, G., & Koenen, K.C. (2010). Developmental origins of emotional reactivity to stress and life course associations with mood and anxiety disorders. Depression and Anxiety, 27, 1087-1094. PMID: 21132844

Tendulkar, S.A, Buka, S., Dunn, E.C., Subramanian, S.V., & Koenen, K.C. (2010). A multi-level investigation of neighborhood effects on parental warmth. Journal of Community Psychology, 38 (5), 557-573.

2009 and before

Azrael, D., Johnson, R.M., Molnar, B.E., Vriniotis, M., Dunn, E.C., Duncan, D.T., & Hemenway, D. (2009). Creating a youth violence data system for Boston, Massachusetts. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 42 (3), 406-421. 

McCorkle, B.M., Dunn, E.C., Wan, Y.M., & Gagne, C. (2009). Compeer Friends: A qualitative study of a volunteer friendship programme for people with serious mental illness. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 55 (4), 291-305. PMID: 19553360 

McCorkle, B.M., Rogers, E.S., Dunn, E.C., Wan, Y.M., & Lyass, A. (2008). Increasing social support for individuals with serious mental illness: Evaluating the Compeer model of intentional friendship.  Community Mental Health Journal, 44 (5), 359–366. PMID: 18481176

Dunn, E.C., Rogers, E.S., Hutchinson, D.S., Lyass, A., MacDonald Wilson, K.L., Wallace, L.R., & Furlong-Norman, K. (2008). Results of an innovative university-based recovery education program for adults with psychiatric disabilities. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 35 (5), 357-369. PMID: 18553131

Dunn, E.C., Wewiorski, N.J., & Rogers, E.S. (2008). The meaning and importance of employment to people in recovery from serious mental illness: Results of a qualitative study. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 32 (1), 59-62. PMID: 18614451

Ellison, M.L., & Dunn, E.C. (2006). Empowering and demedicalized case management practices: Perspectives of mental health consumer leaders and professionals. Journal of Social Work in Disability and Rehabilitation, 5 (2), 1-17.

Hutchinson, D.S., Anthony, W.A, Ashcroft, L., Johnson, E., Dunn, E.C., Lyass, A, & Rogers, E.S. (2006). The personal and vocational impact of training and employing people with psychiatric disabilities as providers. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal 29, (3) 205-213. PMID: 16450932

Webster, D., & Dunn, E.C. (2005). Feminist perspectives on trauma. Women and Therapy, 28 (3/4), 111-142.





We are always open to inquiries from individuals wishing to join the lab. In general, we are looking for people who have strong statistical skills and capacity to work with large epidemiological datasets. We are also open to working with those who have a good quantitative background, are highly motivated, and able to quickly learn new statistical techniques. Most importantly, we are looking for team players who are curious, interested in interdisciplinary approaches, and deeply passionate about finding ways to prevent mental illness. 

To apply, email your CV and a brief letter of interest to Dr. Dunn