You may have seen Vance Trudeau playing the Irish whistle as part of St. Patrick’s Day entertainment in Vankleek Hill this past year. This story isn’t about that. It is about what you couldn’t know about him as you watched him play that day. And it’s about what we don’t know about the lasting effects of some of the drugs that we take.

In contrast to the light-hearted music he was playing that day, the University of Ottawa researcher is involved in serious work to learn about the effects that the drugs we take today may have on future generations. Yes, you read that right: on future generations.

When Vankleek Hill resident Shirley Howes told us about the involvement of Trudeau, his son-in-law, in this research project, he thought it was worth sharing with a local audience. So we spoke with Trudeau to talk about his work.

Trudeau holds the University of Ottawa Research Chair in Neuroendocrinology and studies hormonal control of reproduction and development and how this can be disrupted by pollutants in fish and frogs. Earlier this year, a study that he and researcher Marilyn Vera-Chang (this work was the focus of her PhD study) were working on made big news when their study of zebra fish exposed to Prozac — and the effects the drug had on the children and grandchildren of those zebra fish — revealed that the levels of a stress hormone (cortisol) were lower than they should be and that fish that were still eggs when they were exposed to Prozac did not explore as much. Instead of regular exploration, these fish swam to the bottom of the tank and for the most part, stayed there. In the wild, the urge to explore would help fish look for food and enable them to hide from predators.

The research team spent three years working with about 6,000 zebra fish, which are described as having a generation time of approximately two to four months.

Prozac, (its generic name is fluoxetine) is an anti-depressant which became available in 1987. Trudeau emphasizes that he is not advocating for those using the medication to stop taking it.

“We are not telling people to panic,” Trudeau reiterated, saying people should speak to their physicians. There are cases where taking antidepressants has saved lives, Trudeau says.

While anti-depressants can be beneficial, Trudeau says that the zebra fish study, published in a top scientific journal called PNAS, (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) late last year, points to the need for more research. The big question remains: what effect could anti-depressants taken today have on future generations?

“What we take might last longer than you think,” Trudeau said.

In the case of a pregnant mom, how much do you want your kid to be exposed to? Most people would answer: nothing, Trudeau contends.

Finding out what is passed on — and whether it is beneficial or not helpful — is the focus of the field called epigenetics.

In the case of the zebra fish, even though the genes are normal, something is creating a transgenerational effect.

How are the drugs we take today changing our chromosomes and having an effect on our children and our grandchildren? That, says Trudeau, is an all-important frontier.

Another angle Trudeau discussed is that fish are exposed to all kinds of chemicals due to the treated effluent from sewage treatment plants ending up in lakes and rivers which are often drinking water sources. Even if humans are flushing out the chemicals in their urine, sewage treatment plants are not removing pharmaceuticals as part of routine treatment.

Here is the story posted on the University of Ottawa website.