Love and Resiliency

Love and Resiliency

The Love Hormone

If parents bond more closely with their kids, is it possible those children will eat less? That's the question behind a study by SPH Assistant Research Professor Alison Miller, who's testing oxytocin levels in low-income moms and their preschool children to see if the so-called "love" hormone may have an impact on eating behaviors.

Scientists know there's a link between high levels of the hormone oxytocin in humans and lower levels of stress, and they also know that less sensitive parenting has been associated with higher levels of obesity. In animals, higher oxytocin levels are associated with a lower intake of high-carbohydrate and sugary foods. So what Miller and her colleagues want to learn is whether oxytocin—a hormone that increases when we connect with people we love—may have an impact on a child's chances of becoming obese.

Using what they call a "cuddle-promoting" study protocol, Miller and her colleagues are trying to find out whether oxytocin levels increase when mothers and their children play games that foster positive physical contact like high-fives and hugs. And if oxytocin levels increase in those children, will they eat less when offered unlimited snacks for a short period of time?

The researchers hope to have results by this fall. Miller, a psychologist, believes the study may shed light on the potential for behavioral interventions to help reduce childhood obesity, especially in populations with higher-than-average levels of stress, such as low-income groups.

Tales of Resiliency

Economically disadvantaged cities like Flint, Michigan, with high unemployment and restricted mobility, often provide a backdrop for personal struggle. People in such settings must often do much more to succeed than those from more affluent areas. And yet many young residents in Flint manage to thrive. In an effort to understand why, U-M SPH researchers are actively listening to their stories.

Emily Pingel, project director of the Flint Adolescent Study, part of the U-M SPH Prevention Research Center (PRC), has interviewed 15 young African-American adults who grew up in Flint and still live in the city. The interviews were designed to explore how structural factors shape their lives and health. Ideally, the study's qualitative approach will yield insights into residents' lives and health that complement existing quantitative research.

Pingel says she's struck by the fact that participants in the study have encountered so much adversity and have nevertheless remained focused on accomplishing what they set out to do—and on helping others at the same time. Participants have told her that to maintain their sense of individual resiliency and become successful, they've found it important to volunteer, strengthen community bonds, and support fellow members of their community. "Here are people who have challenging lives in terms of interpersonal struggles, barriers to access, and constraining structural inequalities, yet they never stop believing in their ability to succeed," she says.

This attitude may reflect the phenomenon of "John Henryism," commonly understood as a psychological strategy for coping with prolonged exposure to high levels of stress. Because such high-effort coping wears on people over time, John Henryism has been used to explain a variety of poor health outcomes among African Americans.

Research from the PRC and other studies makes it clear that structural inequalities can constrain people in ways that create significant stress and contribute to racial health disparities. Pingel and her colleagues hope that by developing a better appreciation of how people make sense of their lives and contend with struggle, the researchers can develop evidence-based structural interventions to improve individual health outcomes and reduce health disparities.
—Danielle Taubman, MPH '13

Two New U-M Centers

At the launch of the new U-M Momentum Center, a campus-wide research collaborative aimed at ending childhood obesity, chef, author, and National Geographic Fellow Barton Seaver told listeners, "Childhood obesity is a representation of a complete societal failure to create a human environment that is purposed to sustain life." Seaver also runs the Harvard School of Public Health's Healthy and Sustainable Food Program.

Directed by U-M SPH Professor Karen Peterson, U-M's Momentum Center has already forged partnerships with ten different U-M units spanning a range of disciplines—from health sciences to architecture, design, and business—and is expected to expand its reach. "Momentum is focused on the U.S., but clearly the long-range aim has to be global," says SPH Dean Martin Philbert.

In response to the growing complexity of cancer research—and the increasing need for advanced statistical analysis of data—U-M SPH has established a new Center for Cancer Biostatistics. Directed by Jeremy Taylor, the Pharmacia Research Professor of Biostatistics at SPH and professor of radiation oncology and professor of computational medicine and bioinformatics in the U-M Medical School, the center will foster collaborations between SPH faculty, staff, and students, and the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center.