Pew Scholars Explore How the Human Body Responds to Stress

Cognitive and molecular mechanisms help people adapt to changing environments

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Pew Scholars Explore How the Human Body Responds to Stress

The global spread of COVID-19 has created circumstances that have led to increased levels of stress or anxiety for people everywhere. About one-third of Americans say they have experienced high levels of psychological distress while following social distancing guidelines, while data from other countries shows similar trends.

The jarring shift to working and educating children from home, short- or long-term unemployment, increased social isolation, and concern over contracting the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus can all be significant sources of stress—which can take a toll on physical and mental health.

To better understand how stress affects people, several members of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences are exploring the cognitive and physical processes that help everyone adapt, cope, and thrive in ever-evolving environments. Their work began well before the coronavirus pandemic but could produce important insights at a time of high stress around the world.

Coping with stress—mind and body

People’s expectations, or predictions based on past experience, affect how they perceive and interact with the environment around them. However, when expectations are not met, the brain must contend with conflicting information that overrides those assumptions. In the case of the pandemic, normal expectations—such as the ability to maintain stable work or visit regularly with friends—have been altered dramatically, leading to changes in the way individuals think and make decisions.

To better understand how these cognitive changes unfold, Erin L. Rich, M.D., Ph.D., a 2018 Pew biomedical scholar and assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, investigates how the human brain processes changing circumstances and adjusts behavior, depending on whether expectations are fulfilled. For example, how does the brain allow conflicting information from new social and economic conditions to override expectations and help people cope with the pandemic?

Using state-of-the-art techniques, Rich’s lab aims to uncover how key areas of the brain generate and update expectations. This work could provide new insights on disorders associated with inaccurate or inflexible expectations such as anxiety, depression, and substance misuse. It also could pave the way for therapies to help people manage these conditions.

Researchers are also looking at the physical manifestations of stress. Animals and humans alike exhibit varying inflammatory responses and health outcomes when exposed to bacterial and viral infections, and part of that may be linked to stress. The COVID-19 pandemic affects each person differently, as mortality rates fluctuate among age groups, demographics, and those with underlying health conditions.

In his previous work, Andrew Wang, M.D., Ph.D., a 2020 Pew biomedical scholar and assistant professor at Yale University in New Haven, discovered that when animals are placed under stress or unfavorable conditions, they are less resistant to and less likely to recover from infections. To determine how stress affects survival, Wang’s lab is exploring how stress factors from fasting, diet, and even social isolation influence how animals manage inflammatory challenges. Through his research, Wang hopes to pinpoint the molecules and uncover the unique biology that help animals resist disease and boost their chance of survival.

The COVID-19 pandemic will inevitably change the way people perceive and experience the world, affecting how everyone behaves and copes. To understand how a significant event or stimulus is processed by the brain, Mazen Kheirbek, Ph.D., a 2019 Pew biomedical scholar and assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco, is examining how the brain tags these incidents and retrieves information from past experiences to influence future behavior. His work has the potential to find better solutions for treating post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety and could offer a more hopeful outlook for coping during and after a global pandemic.  

The work by these scholars could have important implications for people today. Each effort emphasizes the need to prioritize physical and mental health while helping people cope with shifts in their environments. Based on what researchers already know, organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization offer guidance to help people manage pandemic-related stress.

Kara Coleman directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ biomedical programs, including the biomedical scholars, Pew-Stewart Scholars for Cancer Research, and Latin American fellows programs, and Jennifer Villa is a principal associate supporting the programs.

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