According to the Mayo Clinic, stress can cause a number of health issues including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. A new University of Georgia, Athens (UGA) study is being funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to show how stress affects children’s immune system. This $2.3 million, Director’s New Innovator Award, will allow researchers to correlate acute stress with how children’s immune systems respond to vaccination.
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The recipient the award and primary investigator if the study is Katherine Ehrich, assistant professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of psychology. In an article for UGA Today, she states, “This paradigm will allow us to evaluate the extent to which children’s social worlds ‘get under the skin’ and influence their bodies’ response to vaccination.”
One of the difficulties in studying the impact of stress on children is that the means used to measure health in adults—blood pressure, inflammation, pre-disease markers, cardio-metabolic function—often show little variability in children. So this study seeks to analyze immune function to better understand the near term effects of social and environmental stress on physical health.
In the first study of the project, the research team will administer the influenza vaccine to 150 youths. Participants will also undergo a blood draw as well as an assessment of chronic and acute stress. They will return 28 days later for a second lab visit, where they will undergo a blood draw to examine antibody levels.
In the same article Ehrlich explained “We will look at their baseline antibodies before they get the vaccine, and then a month later we’ll look at how many antibodies they have produced. Most kids will have a robust antibody response because they have a healthy immune system, but there are indications that some of the stressors we’re studying—low socio-economic status, social isolation, chronic family conflict—might dampen their body’s response to the vaccine, even though they’re otherwise healthy.”
The study focuses on children's responses to influenza vaccination because thousands of children are hospitalized due to complications from the flu each year. Further, some individuals do not have a sufficient antibody response to the influenza vaccination and remain at risk for infection despite vaccination. While research on adult has demonstrated that stressful experiences are associated with lower production of antibodies following vaccination, no studies have explored a similar connection in children. Findings from this research could be used to help identify children who may be susceptible to infectious disease despite vaccination.
The second study will examine the stressful experiences and antibody response of both parents and youths. They analyze how parents' psychosocial stress affects children's antibody responses, and in turn how children's ongoing stressors affect parents' response to vaccination.
Next, Ehrich plans on capitalizing on an ongoing longitudinal study of rural African Americans. These participants joined the study at age 11 and are currently in their late 20s. They have had annual assessments of exposure to socioeconomic disadvantage, parental depression and substance abuse, all of which may affect a young adults' antibody production following vaccination.
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