Dr Maria Isabel CorderoLecturer

My research focus is to understand how early-life exposure to stress and violence (e.g. maltreatment and interpersonal violence) increases the risk to develop mental disorders.

My research profits from my expertise and knowledge in two scientific fields, Psychology and Neuroscience, and involves both animal and human studies. One of my important breakthroughs has been to develop an animal model that parallels the social human phenomenon of 'Domestic Violence', and therefore allows further investigation of neurobiological correlates and the development of behavioral and pharmacological treatments. This work has been published in the high impact-factor journals of the Nature Publishing Group, and widely divulged to the general public by press coverage.

The current projects I am working on are performed within the Swiss National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) Synapsy, involving a network of 20 excellence-laboratories aiming to understand the synaptic bases of mental disorders. My personal research goals are to understand the psycho-socio-neurobiological mechanisms of early-life stress associated mental disorders and to develop effective psychological and pharmacological strategies to prevent and treat them.

Research Interests

Research Projects

Understanding the effects of prenatal stress on later stress reactivity and brain development

We study the influence of prenatal stress and early parental care on the developmental programming of the brain and infant stress reactivity and psychosocial development. In this longitudinal prospective study we are enrolling pregnant women recruited at the Geneva Obstetric Clinic of the Geneva University Hospital (HUG) and followed from 10-12 weeks of gestation until 6 month after birth. These women are followed at each trimester of pregnancy, respectively at 12-14, 20-24 and 30-34 weeks of gestational age; and two postnatal visits, one at the 4th day after birth for MRI/fMRI during the "Guthrie test" and neurobehavioral assessment of the infant, and the other at 6 months to evaluate the infant's reactivity to the "Still Face" procedure, the infant's psychomotor and emotional development and adjustment of early parental care. This study includes measures of psychological distress (STAI, EPDS, Geneva Prenatal Questionnaire with probe for interpersonal violence), neurobiological stress (cortisol, oxytocin, mother/fetus cardiac rythm), epigenitic modifications (DNA methylation of amniotic liquid and ombilical cord), brain alterations at birth (IRM and f IRM during heel-stick test), Infant behavioral reactivity (NBAS at birth, « still face » situation at 6 months-old) and of parental care adjustment to infant (assessed with a procedure called the "Lausanne Trilogue Play" LTP during the 2nd trimester of pregnancy and at 6 months postpartum).

Understanding how interpersonal violent trauma affects mutual psychobiological regulation of mothers and very young children

We integrate multiple scientific methods towards the testing of our main hypothesis that normative distress in infancy and early childhood poses a formidable stress to traumatized parents, thereby leading to problems of psychophysiological regulation within the parent-child relationship during sensitive periods in very young children's social-emotional development. Mothers and their toddlers are recruited via posted advertisements at the University of Geneva Hospital Clinics and community agencies serving women who have experienced domestic violence. Following a screening visit, psychopathology and violence exposure and other life events are explored via the Traumatic Life Events Interview, PTSD with the Clinician Administered PTSD Scale and Posttraumatic Symptom Checklist-Short Version, Symptom Checklist 90 revised and Beck Depression Inventory. Additionally mother-child interactions of free-play separation and reunion are videotaped and scored.

The cycle of violence. Translational research

Intimate partner violence is a ubiquitous and devastating phenomenon for which effective interventions and a clear etiological understanding are still lacking. A major risk factor for violence perpetration is childhood exposure to violence, prompting the proposal that social learning is a major contributor to the transgenerational transmission of violence. Using an animal model devoid of human cultural factors, we showed that male rats became highly aggressive against their female partners as adults after exposure to non-social stressful experiences in their youth. Their offspring also showed increased aggression toward females in the absence of postnatal father-offspring interaction or any other exposure to violence. Both the females that cohabited with the stressed males and those that cohabited with their male offspring showed behavioral (including anxiety- and depression-like behaviors), physiological (decreased body weight and basal corticosterone levels) and neurobiological symptoms (increased activity in dorsal raphe serotonergic neurons in response to an unfamiliar male) resembling the alterations described in abused and depressed women. With the caution required when translating animal work to humans, our findings extend current psychosocial explanations of the transgenerational transmission of intimate partner violence by strongly suggesting an important role for biological factors.

Research Outputs

Journal Articles

Moser DA, Aue T, Suardi F, Kutlikova H, Cordero MI, Rossignol AS, Favez N, Rusconi S, Schechter DS (2014) “Violence-related PTSD and neural activation when seeing emotionally charged male-female interactions”, Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. Jul 25. pii: nsu099. PMID:25062841

Schechter DS, Suardi F, Manini A, Cordero MI, Rossignol AS, Merminod G, Gex-Fabry M, Moser DA, Serpa SR (2014) “How do Maternal PTSD and Alexithymia Interact to Impact Maternal Behavior?”, Child Psychiatry Hum Dev. Jul 10.PMID: 25008189

Cordero MI, Ansermet F and Sandi C. (2013) “Long-term programming of enhanced aggression by peripuberty stress in female rats”, Psychoneuroendocrinology Aug 10.
doi:pii: S0306-4530(13)00255-2. 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2013.07.005.

Poirier GL, Cordero MI, Sandi C. (2013) “Female vulnerability to the development of depression-like behavior in a rat model of intimate partner violence is related to anxious temperament, coping responses, and amygdala vasopressin receptor 1a expression”, Front Behav Neurosci May 1;7:35.
doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00035.

Veenit V, Cordero MI, Tzanoulinou S and Sandi C. (2013) “Increased corticosterone in peripubertal rats leads to long-lasting alterations in social exploration and aggression”, Front Behav Neurosci ; 7:26.
doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00026. Epub 2013 Apr 4.

Marquez C, Poirier GL, Cordero MI, Larsen MH, Groner A, Marquis J, Magistretti PJ, Trono D and Sandi C (2013) “Regulation of MAOA gene in the prefrontal cortex on the link between juvenile fear and adult aggression”, Transl Psychiatry Jan 15;3:e216.
doi: 10.1038/tp.2012.144.

Cordero MI, Poirier GL, Márquez C, Veenit V, Fontana X, Salehi B, Ansermet F and Sandi C. (2012) “Evidence for biological roots in the transgenerational transmission of intimate partner violence”, Transl Psychiatry Apr 24;2:e106.
doi: 10.1038/tp.2012.32.

Castro JE, Diessler S, Varea E, Márquez C, Larsen MH, Cordero MI, Sandi C. (2012) “Personality traits in rats predict vulnerability and resilience to developing stress-induced depression-like behaviors, HPA axis hyper-reactivity and brain changes in pERK1/2 activity”, Psychoneuroendocrinology Jan 10.

Timmer M, Cordero MI, Sevelinges Y, Sandi C. (2011) “Evidence for a role of oxytocin receptors in the long-term establishment of dominance hierarchies”, Neuropsychoph Oct; 36(11):2349-56.

Marroquin Belaunzaran O, Cordero MI, Setola V, Bianchi S, Galli C, Bouche N, Mlynarik V, Gruetter R, Sandi C, Bensadoun JC, Molinari M, Aebischer P. (2011) “Chronic delivery of antibody fragments using immunoisolated cell implants as a passive vaccination tool”, PLoS One Apr 20;6(4):e18268.

Salehi B, Cordero MI, Sandi C. (2010) “Learning under stress: the inverted-U-shape function revisited”, Learn Mem Sep 30; 17(10): 522-30.

Castro JE, Varea E, Márquez C, Cordero MI, Poirier G, Sandi C. (2010) “Role of the amygdala in antidepressant effects on hippocampal cell proliferation and survival and on depression-like behavior in the rat”, PLoS One Jan 8;5(1): e8618.

Research Centre

Health, Rehabilitation and Psychology


Department of Psychology
Birley Building
Birley Fields Campus
53 Bonsall Street
M15 6GX

Tel: 0161 247 2588

Email: m.cordero@mmu.ac.uk