National Cancer Institute Grants $2.29 Million to Study Depression Risk Predictors
Social psychologist Paula Pietromonaco, who has been a faculty member at UMass Amherst since 1986, studies how people think, feel, and behave in the context of their closest relationships. Her particular interest lies in how individual functioning in these relationships is connected to emotional and physical health. “Some of my past research,” Pietromonaco says, “has shown that how women think about their close relationships predicts their risk for depression.”
Pietromonaco has demonstrated, for example, that individuals’ expectations and beliefs about their romantic relationships, as well as those of their partners, forecast their physiological stress reactions, specifically by increasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol when discussing areas of disagreement. Greater cortisol reactivity is associated with clinical depression, and disruptions in cortisol are related to a variety of physical health consequences such as impaired immune functioning, an increased risk of breast and colon cancers, and poorer survival among breast cancer victims.
Now, funded by a $2.29 million, five-year grant from the National Cancer Institute (part of the National Institutes of Health), Pietromonaco, along with developmental psychopathologist Sally Powers, director of the Center for Research on Families at UMass Amherst and an expert in causes of depression, will extend this earlier work. By following healthy couples over the first three to four years of marriage, they will determine how spouses’ expectations and beliefs about relationships (as evidenced by their attachment style), together with their physiological stress reactions and behavior patterns when discussing disagreements, predict later risks for depression and anxiety. Pietromonaco and Powers will integrate multiple variables into a theoretically meaningful framework to predict depression and anxiety symptoms in a marital context.
“From a cancer perspective,” says Pietromonaco, “it is important to understand the biobehavioral mechanisms underlying the link between attachment and depression. Depression is prevalent among cancer patients—up to four times higher in cancer patients than in the general population. It predicts faster tumor growth, and contributes to adjustment to cancer diagnosis, treatment and survivorship. To investigate these processes in a marital context is critical because social support in marriage has been linked repeatedly to mental and physical outcomes, including adjustment to cancer. And psychosocial factors (social support, coping and depression) can impact biological processes, including neuroendocrine functioning, which in turn can affect biological risk factors for the development and growth of tumors. Suzanne Miller, a renowned cancer control researcher with the Fox Chase Cancer Center, is a co-investigator on the project. She will facilitate the extension and application of our findings to the domain of cancer.”
This research will study several questions. Does an insecure attachment style increase risks for depression and anxiety through physiological stress responses and behavioral patterns? Do life event changes, like the transition to parenthood, raise or lower this risk? Do one spouse’s characteristics predict the other’s responses and symptoms? Do processes differ for husbands and wives? Does the quality of one spouse’s responses over time lead to changes in the other’s patterns of cortisol reactivity and recovery, which in turn may increase or decrease vulnerability to depression and anxiety? Says Pietromonaco, “This study will help us understand the basic processes through which spouses may influence each other’s health. It also will provide a strong foundation for examining these processes in couples in which one partner is at high risk for cancer or has been diagnosed with cancer. Research results will allow us to build and test new intervention strategies to enhance couples’ adjustment.”
“As with all of my research, graduate students will be heavily involved as collaborators throughout the process,” Pietromonaco explains. “Their intellectual contributions, as well as their energy, enthusiasm, and persistence are critical to the success of the research.”
Undergraduate research assistants too will play a critical role. “They will be actively involved in our longitudinal study of newlywed couples,” says Pietromonaco. “Typically, they’ll participate in lab meetings, learning about and participating in the development of research, and they’ll assist with a variety of tasks, including preparing research materials, recruiting participants, collecting data, coding and computer programming.”
This type of experience for undergraduates can be life altering, says Pietromonaco. “Some become passionate about research. Often, they’ll complete an honors project, which gives them even more practice in the lab. Whether they attend graduate school—which many do—or go into the workforce, such hands-on opportunities are invaluable.”
Pietromonaco also teaches several courses. “The students in my social psychology honors seminar this semester are very bright, enthusiastic, highly motivated,” she says, and her graduate seminar on close relationships is “particularly exciting because much of what we discuss is so relevant to our research.” Next semester Pietromonaco’s schedule includes a social psychology class for about 300 undergraduates.
Pietromonaco is finishing a term as associate editor for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal and Group Processes, and in May she’ll begin as associate editor for Psychological Science. The American Psychological Association named Pietromonaco a fellow in 2007, and in 2004 she was selected to participate in the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Training Institute on Immersive Virtual Environment Technology and Social Psychology (2004). Pietromonaco’s publications fill several pages of her C.V.
“Throughout my career,” Pietromonaco says, “I have worked with outstanding collaborators, mentors, colleagues and students. Any successes are attributable to them. I really enjoy collaborative work, and have had longstanding collaborative relationships with Lisa Feldman Barrett (Boston College) and Sally Powers. The Center for Research on Families at UMass Amherst has greatly facilitated my efforts with support and advice as I developed and wrote the grant proposal for our current project. Beginning this new research is thrilling, and I look forward to working with the entire team.”
March 26, 2008