Stress is a reaction to life events that trigger change. The events that drive stress can sometimes be positive--for example, a new job might also bring increased income. However, some stressful events can largely be a negative experience--for example, heavy traffic during a commute, or waiting for the results of a medical test. Trauma is the experience of severe negative stress, and can be induced by many different experiences, including the loss of a home, job, or relationship or a threat to physical safety.
Chronic stress and trauma both increase the risk of many health problems, ranging from psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, to cardiovascular problems and inflammatory conditions. It also worsens the symptoms of these disorders. Despite the clear links between chronic stress and disease, we are still learning why the effects of stress and trauma are so persistent, and why some individuals, but not others, are adversely affected by stress or trauma. There are also no FDA-approved treatments designed to prevent or lessen disease by weakening the effects of stress on the brain and body.
Our scientists are working together to discover how stress produces long-lasting changes in the body, and leverage this information to develop new strategies for preventing and treating disease.
Areas of Research
Our research on stress and trauma includes the following areas:
Individual Susceptibility or Resilience to Stress
Most people experience some form of trauma over the course of their life, yet not everyone develops stress-associated disease. Other stressed individuals develop multiple health problems. We study the biological underpinnings of this stress resilience and susceptibility. Developing novel therapies to promote resilience, especially in stress-susceptible individuals, is a promising way to reduce stress-associated disease burden.
Endocrine Contributions to Stress
Because the effects of stress affect nearly every system in the body, it is likely that hormones carried to the brain and body in the blood mediate many stress-induced changes. We work to understand how hormones, including acyl-ghrelin, neuropeptide Y, and cortisol, are changed by chronic stress, and to link these changes to dysregulation of different biological systems.
Neural Circuit Regulation of Aversive Learning and Memory
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety are two conditions that are commonly triggered by stress. It is likely that stress induces these disorders by dysregulating the neural circuits that process unpleasant experiences. We study these circuits in both animals and humans using the latest approaches, including in vivo calcium imaging of single cells and whole-brain imaging.
Neuroinflammatory and Metabolic Consequences of Stress
Stress can trigger and worsen autoimmune diseases, as well as driving metabolic syndrome and diabetes. We seek to understand the brain changes that contribute to these diseases, as well as how these diseases feedback to drive changes in the brain.