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What is the Decoding Stress Study?

The Decoding Stress Study is a groundbreaking project led by two of PNRI’s internationally renowned geneticists, Dr. Lisa Stubbs and Dr. David Galas. It aims to answer some of the biggest questions about the role of people’s genes in determining how they respond to chronic stress.

Chronic stress is linked to chronic conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease and it contributes to anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. Living with these illnesses causes even more stress, creating a vicious cycle that is nearly impossible to break.

Although stress affects the whole body, the brain is the central driver of our response.  Uncovering how genes control the brain’s response to chronic stress and how that response can alter metabolism and mood will lead to powerful new medical tools that will help everyone experiencing stress.

The economic, medical, and psychological burdens created by the COVID-19 pandemic have escalated stress to alarming levels across the country.  According to a recent report from the American Psychological Association, the impact of the last 20 months of stressful events on long-term physical and mental health could create a second pandemic — one that would persist even after the physical threat of the virus has been addressed.

Life history, especially early experience, plays an important role in stress response, but the ability to manage stress also has a clear and deep genetic component. Although valuable and tantalizing clues have been uncovered, many questions remain regarding individual susceptibility to specific downstream effects of chronic stress.

In collaboration with medical clinics around the country, our scientists will study the genetic mechanisms at work in several hundred people living under highly stressful conditions. The medical and genetic information from these patients, combined with genetic analysis of more than 500,000 individuals now available through international data banks, will help us decode the genes, pathways, and molecular networks involved in response to stress.

Once genes and pathways are identified, we will use mouse models to investigate the role of genes in stress response at different levels of behavior and particular functions in the brain.  We will pay special attention to social stressors since these are so widespread and strongly linked to the most devastating stress-related illnesses.  Our findings will help the treatment of study participants while ultimately providing the basis for new genetics screenings and future interventions that will help identify those most at risk for developing stress-related diseases.

Since its founding in 1956, PNRI has performed groundbreaking research that has led to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and genetics advances. With the Decoding Stress Study, PNRI scientists are now tackling one of the biggest public health crises our nation faces. Imagine the benefits to our families, friends, and communities who will no longer struggle with the devastating impact of chronic stress on their health. That vision of tomorrow is what drives our scientists to pursue this critical work today.

With the Decoding Stress Study Campaign, we have a goal to raise $400,000. The funds raised in this campaign will allow us to conduct a small study with several hundred patients to demonstrate the feasibility of our work. The results of this initial study will open doors to securing federal government funding for necessary subsequent studies and the longer journey ahead.

Your generosity accelerates our quest to find the answers in our genes that will lead to better disease prevention and personalized care. Please consider making a gift to PNRI that will help deliver hope to millions who struggle with stress-related disease.

Watch this video to learn more about the Decoding Stress Study and how you can help advance this critical work.




PNRI is supported by

The SwedishTryskUSIPerkins CoieKnobbe MartensK L GatesLee & HayesAdaptive BiotechFirst PullSpecificaMatthew and Alayna Gagnier

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