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Storm Season (con't)

Illustration by Dung Hoang

Storm Season (continued)

Douglas Granger shakes a plastic vial filled with spit. A psycho-neuroendocrinologist, Granger has much-sought-after expertise in collecting and analyzing saliva. He’s the go-to guy for behavioral researchers across the country who want to incorporate the biology of stress into their studies.

Spit, it so happens, contains a lovely assortment of chemicals, some of which serve as important biomarkers related to stress.

“Stress happens when the environment requires a person to adjust—something adolescents have to do all the time,” says Granger, PhD, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Salivary Bioscience Research at the School of Nursing. “Adolescents have a ton of biological changes going on as they transition through puberty and at that same time, all these contextual changes. Sometimes those changes cause a person to alter how he behaves or thinks; other times, they activate his physiology.”

The body reacts in complex ways to new or challenging exposures or experiences—by activating the stress hormone cortisol, for instance—in order to help a person adjust. But if stress signals occur too often, at improper times, in great quantities, or over a prolonged period, they can wear and tear down minds and bodies.

To assess the psychobiological stress response, spit makes good clean sense. Saliva can be collected painlessly anywhere and anytime a stressful event or stress-reduction intervention is happening; in context, as scientists say, such as before and after taking an SAT test or yoga class, or discussing problems with a counselor or best friend.

Although the focus in the field traditionally was on measuring cortisol, known as the “stress hormone,” researchers increasingly are considering new biomarkers of stress reactivity; notably, the enzyme alpha amylase—a marker of the fight-or-flight response.

Jacinda Dariotis is investigating a “black box problem.” What’s happening in the gap between adolescents’ intentions and their behaviors?

Because people respond to stress behaviorally and biologically, investigators who consider only one kind of stress measurement may miss a vital part of the story. Whether an adolescent is aware of being stressed and how well he can coordinate behavioral and biological responses to stress are important bits of information that might have enormous therapeutic potential, adds Granger, a professor of Nursing, Medicine and PFRH.

As an example, he points to a research paper on which he recently collaborated. It challenges the popular opinion that it’s always a good thing for adolescents to discuss problems, revealing that biologically measured stress actually worsened when adolescents talked over their problems with co-ruminating peers. “There is real treasure in being able to assess the efficacy of interventions, to know what works best for whom and when,” he says.

The Bloomberg School’s Jacinda Dariotis couldn’t agree more. That’s why she’s turning to Granger’s spit lab for help investigating a “black box problem” among adolescents.

“There are intentions on one side and behaviors on the other and we don’t really know what’s going on between them; there’s a real disconnect for some,” says Dariotis, PhD, MAS, MA, MS, a PFRH assistant professor. “I’m looking for that missing link.”

She’s gearing up for a yearlong project in which she’ll be monitoring the risk-taking and substance-abuse behaviors among a sample of 100 inner-city 18- to 24-year-old males and females who are at risk for acquiring or transmitting sexually transmitted diseases. She’ll be collecting spit samples at four time points at the beginning of the study, and then again a year later, as well as using surveys, taking fMRIs (images) of brains and issuing random text messages that will query her subjects: Did you have sex in the past 24 hours? Use a condom? Take any illegal substances? Her neuroscience–social science perspective will incorporate aspects of her subjects’ biology, endocrinology, brain activity, attitudes, perceptions, behaviors, planfulness and goals.

“I don’t think the brain is all there is to it,” Dariotis says. “I’m really interested to see if testosterone levels are somehow predictive of sexual risk-taking behaviors.”

Testosterone and the stress hormone cortisol tend to be inversely related, but there are exceptions, she explains: Individuals chronically under stress may be high in cortisol and high in testosterone.

Curious about how a person’s perception of stress relates to his actual biology, Dariotis and Granger want to understand the mechanisms of stress—the biological processes underlying outcomes. “It’s all about finding out who’s at risk and who would benefit from intervention,” Dariotis says. “I’m planning more projects to look earlier in the lifespan, but I had to start somewhere, so I started with the riskiest time.”


This forum is closed
  • Rosalind Delisser

    Abu Dhabi, UAE 09/22/2011 04:09:31 AM

    Excellent article. The US Army would be an excellent place to find severe stress, rampant h/o of abuse, PTSD, serious substance abuse issues, and risky sexual behaviors....all in young people 18-24. A captive cohort?

    I look forward to the results of the link between cortisol and testosterone. Thank you!

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