People are much more likely to stick their hand in a cookie jar, smoke a cigarette, or gulp cocktails when they’re overworked, ensnared in family conflict, or having trouble balancing the inordinate number of responsibilities thrown at them. According to Rajita Sinha, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, stress has been clearly linked to disease outcomes, but the complex effects of stress on self-control and addictive behaviors have not been fully elucidated. Now, an interdisciplinary team of 16 Yale researchers and collaborators, led by Sinha, has won a $23.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how and why stress fuels addictions.
The research group—known as the Interdisciplinary Research Consortium on Stress, Self-Control and Addiction—includes psychiatrists, neuroscientists, social psychologists and communications and policy experts working on 14 projects aimed at finding new ways to combat the powerful cravings that make treating food and drug addictions so difficult. The Yale team is one of only nine nationwide to receive the grants, from a pool of more than 100 applicants.
“Stress is the kind of topic that really begs for being studied in an interdisciplinary way, because it affects every organ system in some way or another,” says Sinha.
Some studies will use neuroimaging to illuminate how the brain changes when it’s under stress. Others will explore the effectiveness of pharmacological agents to ease stress and improve self-control. Additionally, the consortium will organize large surveys and genetic studies to determine who is most likely to be vulnerable to stress. “We know that there are gene/environment interactions,” explains Sinha. “So some people might be vulnerable even before stresses have hit them, based on their genotypes.”
One key research project will analyze how events early in life affect the developing brain and how that shapes a person’s ability to deal with stress later on, and its relationship to addictive behaviors. “There’s growing evidence that early life stress shapes our responses to later stress,” says Sinha. “So when we think about stress we really have to go back and think about childhood maltreatment and childhood exposure to stress.”
Carolyn W. Slayman, Ph.D., the medical school’s deputy dean for academic and scientific affairs, says the new grant is exciting not only because of the intriguing research projects it will fund (see the sidebar), but also because of its collaborative, interdisciplinary nature. “Yale already has a wonderful institutional tradition of low barriers across departments,” says Slayman. “And this grant is going to be supporting a lot of research in a lot of different groups around the university. What one group finds will spur on others in the project to think in new ways about their own work.”
In all, the researchers expect more than 1,300 patients to be involved in the consortium’s studies. However, through collaborations with community centers and an interactive website, the researchers hope their work will reach many more people. To help put their research in the spotlight at Yale, the group will arrange an ongoing lecture series as well as an annual meeting on the topic of stress and addiction.
“We’re moving into a period of individualized medicine,” says Sinha. “By providing specific information on new ways to improve one’s sense of control in the face of stress, the hope is that people can learn how best to address the stress in their lives and make lifestyle choices that promote health.”