Exposure to stressors can profoundly influence how individuals cope with future challenges, sometimes priming them for future stress and sometimes debilitating them. While social connectedness has emerged as a key predictor of the psychophysiological impact of stress, it's very difficult to test in a lab setting.
Awarded the DARPA Young Faculty Award, Maren N. Vitousek, assistant professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, who is featured in this Cornell Research story is approaching this challenge by working in the lab and field. Her team uses a nest-box breeding population of individually marked tree swallows. One key advantage of this model is that social interactions can be manipulated by changing feather color.
Using this population, Vitousek’s group is testing how stressful experiences and the social environment change an individual’s epigenetic code, neuroendocrine function, and gut microbial composition. Their findings will have implications for biological research across levels of organization, from molecular mechanisms to population distribution. The results could also have human health applications, enabling the development of sophisticated biomarkers of social cohesion or stress resistance, or even treatments to mimic or reverse these changes.
To continue reading, visit the Cornell Research website.