Stressful life circumstances have long been associated with negative health outcomes, including type 2 diabetes (T2D), cardiovascular disease, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease. Susceptibility to these stress-linked disorders depends on both environmental and genetic components, and even family members living under the same stressful circumstances can vary widely in health outcomes.  

PNRI’s Decoding Stress Study aims to identify connections between human genes and stress response, including greater susceptibility or resistance to developing stress-related health conditions such as anxiety, depression, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Key to this study is not only assessing a person’s likelihood of developing a particular disease, but also examining the genes of people who appear less susceptible to stress-related conditions.  

At the helm of this endeavor are PNRI Senior Investigators Lisa Stubbs, PhD and David Galas, PhD, who know that important breakthroughs are often found at the intersection of multiple scientific disciplines. With the members of their labs, Drs. Stubbs and Galas are bringing together their respective expertise in computational biology and human genetics on the one hand, and the genetics of brain development and behavior on the other, to decipher what role our genes play in protecting us from disease when under stress. 

Dr. Galas and his team focus on developing and applying innovative mathematical methods, providing new computational tools to seek out and validate genetic interactions significant to this research. Staff Scientist Eugene Lin from the Galas Lab is working with Dr. Stubbs, examining genes associated with type 2 diabetes as an entry point of study in larger genetic databases. The next step is for the Stubbs Lab members to carry out experiments to test the genes and figure out how they influence a person’s likelihood of developing disease. 

The findings of the Decoding Stress Study will ultimately provide the basis for new genetic screens that identify people who are at the greatest risk of developing stress-related disease, as well as guide doctors in choosing the right treatment for each person. 

“Today, doctors have to wait until their patients start presenting with symptoms, often years after the stress has already damaged their physical and mental health,” says Dr. Galas. “We want to make a major step toward providing truly precision medicine, making sure that we know who is at risk and, if necessary, making sure that the interventions are right for each patient.”