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Stressed?
Campus researchers are discovering how and why stress manifests across the life span

"The life-span approach is what makes our work unique and its promise of offering new and exciting breakthroughs so strong."
—Sally Powers

From childhood to old age, stress affects us. Our bodies and minds respond to it with a variety of physiological mechanisms that affect both hormone and immune function. Stress responses are not always healthy: if unchecked over time, they can contribute to disease. UMass Amherst’s Center for Research on Families' (CRF) Stress Research Group takes a holistic approach to studying stress’s causes and effects. Its findings about how and why stress manifests in the body throughout life and what to do about it hold the promise of providing a prescription for better health.

Formed in 2009 with input from the Center for Neuroendocrine Studies and the Psychology Department, the group combines the expertise of 12 interdisciplinary researchers from UMass Amherst and the Five College System to examine the impact of stress on mental and physical health across the life span. According to Sally Powers, professor of psychology, director of CRF, and co-director of the Stress Research Group, the life-span approach is what makes their work unique and its promise of offering new and exciting breakthroughs so strong.

Group members come from all across campus: psychologists (clinical, developmental, and social), neuroendocrinologists, epidemiologists, and anthropologists. They collectively achieve a holistic approach to researching stress effects that no single researcher could match.

“Some researchers,” says Powers, “look at cognitive-function and brain development in early-childhood life events. Some study issues of puberty and adolescence, others focus on postpartum stress, menopause, and aging.” In studying each of these life stages, the group pools its expertise to arrive at answers about how the physiological processes of stress effect development in mental and physical health.

“A distinguishing feature of the group is that we’ve taken the time to develop the common languages we need to work together,” says Powers’s codirector, Jeffrey Blaustein, professor of psychology and director of UMass Amherst’s Neuroscience and Behavior Graduate Program. In a recent Distinguished Faculty Lecture, Blaustein outlined how to use animal results to predict the impact of stress on the human brain and mental health. Neuroscientists have made discoveries of how hormonal and environmental influences on the brain influence depression-like behaviors in rodents. “And,” Blaustein adds, “by working with colleagues in the group who do clinical or epidemiological studies, we’ve come up with ways to test whether any of these are factors in depression in adolescent girls—something I could never have done had I only been talking to folks in my field.”

When the group was first established, its members found themselves working from different methodologies but often having strikingly overlapping interest areas, including many related to women’s health. For example, Elizabeth Bertone-Johnson of the School of Public Health and Health Sciences investigates Vitamin D and its role in women’s health conditions including premenstrual syndrome, depression, and breast cancer. Biological anthropologist Lynnette Leidy Sievert’s research focuses on age at menopause. In a partnership forged within the group, Bertone-Johnson and Sievert are looking at associations between the occurrence of premenstrual symptoms and menopausal symptoms in Mexican women. Bertone-Johnson thinks of the cluster as “a structured but informal and comfortable environment where I can brainstorm with people such as Lynnette who are working on distinct but interrelated questions.”

Because researchers trained in various methods rarely collaborate this way, researchers in different fields sometimes feel like they speak different languages. “At the Stress Research Group,” says Powers, “we recognize that we’re often trying to answer similar questions, and we’ve taken the time over the past three years to develop a fruitful shared language that will lead to more collaborative work.”

Another example of the group’s collaboration: a human study by Sally Powers and Paula Pietromonaco of the psychology department and a rodent study by Blaustein are focused on how physiological mechanisms of stress might lead to depression. As Pietromonaco and Powers jointly work on a longitudinal study of biophysical factors on depression in family members from the first few years of marriage, Blaustein and the other researchers in the group are serving as a sounding board for their work.

What’s next for this dynamic group? They hope to expand the successful "Stress lecture Series" that brought nationally renowned researchers to campus with funding and organizational support from the Center for Research on Families in 2011. They’re also developing the groundwork for a training grant for a specialized, interdisciplinary graduate program centered on stress across the life span. Some members already collaborate; others are turning their new common languages into joint-research proposals. The group also hopes to use the research cluster as a foundation to build faculty to fill out the full scope of the group’s interest.

David Bartone '12G