Slavich & Cole Reveal How Social Experiences Affect Our Genes and Health

Prevailing wisdom suggests that our genes remain largely fixed over time. But, an emerging field of research is beginning to prove this intuition wrong. Scientists are uncovering increasing evidence that changes in the expression of hundreds of genes can occur as a result of the social environments we inhabit. As a result of these dynamics, experiences we have today can affect our health for days and even months into the future.

Psychological researchers George Slavich and Steven Cole of the University of California, Los Angeles refer to this blossoming field as “human social genomics.” In an article published in Clinical Psychological Science, they assert that certain genes can be “turned on” and “turned off” by different social-environmental conditions — especially our subjective perceptions of those conditions.

Slavich and Cole point to a number of studies that have connected external conditions to our genomic profiles. For example, in 2007 Cole found that, compared to socially connected individuals, people who experience chronic social isolation show reduced antiviral immune response gene activity, which leaves them vulnerable to viral infections like the common cold. These individuals also showed increased expression of genes involved in inflammation, which underlies the progression of chronic diseases like metabolic syndrome, heart disease, certain cancers, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Other social conditions that have been found to influence human gene expression include being socially evaluated or rejected, which can have different consequences for different people depending on their sensitivity to social threat.

The researchers also point to social influences that may regulate gene expression at a collective group level. This suggests, they say, the existence of a metagenome, wherein the activity of one person’s genome is influenced by the genomic activity of surrounding individuals.

In their article, Slavich and Cole acknowledge that they focused on gene programs involved in innate immunity. They call for more research on other types of genes, as well as other social factors that may regulate human gene expression, such as culture, social attachment, prejudice, and social hierarchies.

Dr. Slavich is an assistant professor and Society in Science – Branco Weiss Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA. He is also a Research Scientist at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, where he directs the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research.

Dr. Cole is a professor in the Departments of Medicine and Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He is also a Research Scientist at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, where he directs the Social Genomics Core Laboratory.

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The Emerging Field of Human Social Genomics

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Immune Response May Link Social Rejection to Later Health Outcomes

CPS_LogoBy: Anna Mikulak, Association for Psychological Science

No matter which way you look at it, rejection hurts. Experiencing rejection from a boss, a friend, or a partner is difficult enough for many adults to handle. But adolescents, who are dealing with the one-two punch of biological and social change, may be the most vulnerable to its negative effects.

In a new study published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, researcher Michael Murphy and colleagues examine the human immune response as a potential link between social stressors like rejection and later mental and physical health outcomes.

There are many kinds of stressors that increase our risk for disease, but stressors that threaten our social standing, such as targeted rejection, seem to be particularly harmful.

Many people are probably familiar with targeted rejection from their school days, when a student was actively and intentionally rejected by another student or a group of students. It’s the kind of behavior that we see in so many cases of ostracism and bullying.

“Targeted rejection is central to some of life’s most distressing experiences – things like getting broken up with, getting fired, and being excluded from your peer group at school,” said Murphy. “In this study, we aimed to examine processes that may give these experiences the ability to affect health.”

Previous research has shown that people who are on the receiving end of this kind of rejection experience symptoms of depression three times faster than people who are faced with similarly severe life events. Researchers believe that certain inflammatory processes that are part of the immune response could be a link between targeted rejection and depression.

Murphy and colleagues decided to directly investigate whether rejection-related life events affect inflammatory activity by conducting a study that followed 147 healthy adolescent women over 2.5 years. The participants did not have a personal history of mental health problems but were all at risk for major depression due to family and other personal risk factors.

The participants were assessed for psychiatric diagnoses, incidences of targeted rejection, perceived social status, expression of inflammatory signaling molecules, and indicators of low-grade inflammation every 6 months over the course of the study.

The data collected suggest that recent exposure to targeted rejection does indeed activate the molecular signaling pathways that regulate inflammation. Participants had elevated levels of pro-inflammatory signaling molecules at visits when they had recently experienced an incidence of targeted rejection compared to visits when no targeted rejection had occurred.

Interestingly, the effect was more pronounced in those who perceived their social status to be higher.

Murphy and colleagues speculate that this inflammatory response might be adaptive for individuals at the top of a social hierarchy, giving them a survival advantage. The researchers note, however, that an overly productive immune response can be harmful to mental and physical health in the long run.

If substantiated in future research, these findings could have implications for understanding how social conditions increase risk for a variety of inflammation-related diseases, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and depression.

The study was co-authored by George M. Slavich, University of California, Los Angeles; Nicolas Rohleder, Brandeis University; and Gregory E. Miller, University of British Columbia.

The research was supported by grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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Targeted Rejection Triggers Differential Pro- and Anti-Inflammatory Gene Expression in Adolescents as a Function of Social Status

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Clinical Psychological Science — a new journal from APS — publishes advances in clinical science and provides a venue for cutting-edge research across a wide range of conceptual views, approaches, and topics. The journal encompasses many core domains that have defined clinical psychology, but also boundary-crossing advances that integrate and make contact with diverse disciplines and that may not easily be found in traditional clinical psychology journals. Among the key topics are research on the underlying mechanisms and etiologies of psychological health and dysfunction; basic and applied work on the diagnosis, assessment, treatment, and prevention of mental illness; service delivery; and promotion of well-being.

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Slavich & Zimbardo Define Transformational Teaching

Educational Psychology ReviewDr. George Slavich (UCLA) and Dr. Phil Zimbardo (Stanford University) have published a comprehensive review article on Transformational Teaching, an exciting new approach to classroom instruction. The article appears in the current online edition of the journal Educational Psychology Review.

According to Slavich and Zimbardo, transformational teaching involves creating dynamic relationships between teachers, students, and a shared body of knowledge to promote student learning and personal growth. From this perspective, instructors are intellectual coaches who create teams of students who collaborate with each other and with their teacher to master bodies of information. Teachers assume the traditional role of facilitating students’ acquisition of key course concepts, but do so while enhancing students’ personal development and attitudes toward learning. They accomplish these goals by establishing a shared vision for a course, providing modeling and mastery experiences, challenging and encouraging students, personalizing attention and feedback, creating experiential lessons that transcend the boundaries of the classroom, and promoting ample opportunities for preflection and reflection.

Dr. George Slavich is an assistant professor and Society in Science: Branco Weiss Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA. He is also a Research Scientist at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, where he directs the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research.

Dr. Phil Zimbardo is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University. He has published more than 400 professional articles and is generally recognized as the voice and face of modern psychology. He is best known for his award-winning textbook, Psychology and Life, PBS TV series, Discovering Psychology, and landmark studies including the Stanford Prison Experiment.

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Transformational Teaching: Theoretical Underpinnings, Basic Principles, and Core Methods

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Slavich wins Raymond D. Fowler Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Professional Development of Graduate Students

Dr. George M. Slavich, Ph.D., has been awarded the 2012 Raymond D. Fowler Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Professional Development of Graduate Students. The award is administered by the American Psychological Association and honors psychologists who have made significant contributions to the professional development of graduate students over the course of their careers. Criteria for selection include encouraging and facilitating academic and/or scientific excellence, encouraging broader socialization of students, and helping students to shape their own professional identity.

Dr. Slavich received the award for his landmark contributions to founding groups and forums that promote student development while advancing psychological science. These groups include the Stanford Undergraduate Psychology Conference, the Western Psychological Association Student Council, and the Society of Clinical Psychology’s Section on Graduate Students and Early Career Psychologists.

Previous recipients of the Raymond D. Fowler award include renowned psychologists Mitch Prinstein, John Dovidio, Rick Snyder, Mark Zanna, Patrick DeLeon, and Raymond Fowler, for whom the award is named.

Dr. Slavich is an assistant professor and Society in Science – Branco Weiss Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA. He is also a Research Scientist at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, where he directs the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research.

More information about the Raymond D. Fowler Award is available on the official website for the American Psychological Association.

Slavich wins Theodore H. Blau Early Career Award for Distinguished Professional Contributions to Clinical Psychology

Dr. George M. Slavich, Ph.D., has been awarded the 2012 Theodore H. Blau Early Career Award for Distinguished Professional Contributions to Clinical Psychology. The award is given jointly by the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Foundation, and the Society of Clinical Psychology, and honors outstanding contributions to clinical psychology by an early career psychologist. Accomplishments may include promoting the practice of clinical psychology through professional service; innovation in service delivery; novel application of applied research methodologies to professional practice; positive impact on health delivery systems; development of creative educational programs for practice; or other novel or creative activities advancing the service of the profession. Dr. Slavich received the award for his outstanding early career achievements in advancing the science, practice, and profession of clinical psychology.

Dr. Slavich is an assistant professor and Society in Science: Branco Weiss Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA. He is also a Research Scientist at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, where he directs the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research.

More information about the Theodore H. Blau Early Career Award is available on the official website for the American Psychological Association.

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Slavich Citation for Theodore H. Blau Early Career Award

Slavich wins WPA Early Career Research Award

George SlavichDr. George M. Slavich, Ph.D., has been awarded the 2012 Early Career Research Award from the Western Psychological Association. The Western Psychological Association is the largest regional psychological association in the United States, and the award recognizes outstanding scientific contributions by a member who received his or her PhD in the past 10 years. Dr. Slavich received the award for his work on linking social stress, inflammation, and depression.

Dr. Slavich is an assistant professor and Society in Science: Branco Weiss Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA. He is also a Research Scientist at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, where he directs the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research.

More information about the Western Psychological Association Early Career Research Award is available at the official website for the Western Psychological Association.

Study Finds Early Adversity, Prior Depression Sensitize People to Stress

A recent study has found that individuals who have lost a parent or have been separated from a parent for at least one year before the age of 18 and individuals who have prior episodes of depression are especially sensitive to the depressogenic effects of stress.

To examine the issue, Dr. George Slavich, along with collaborators Drs. Scott Monroe (University of Notre Dame) and Ian Gotlib (Stanford University), recruited 100 individuals with depression, and interviewed them extensively to determine what types of adversity they were exposed to when they were young, how many episodes of depression they had experienced and what types of life stress they had encountered recently. Consistent with prior research, results revealed that individuals with a history of parental loss or separation, and persons with more lifetime episodes of depression, became depressed more easily (i.e., following lower levels of stress) than their less vulnerable counterparts.

Additional analyses revealed for the first time that these effects may be unique to interpersonal loss.

The study appeared in a recent edition of the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

The study was funded by a Society in Science: Branco Weiss Fellowship and by the National Institutes of Health.

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Early Parental Loss and Depression History: Associations with Recent Life Stress in Major Depressive Disorder

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Slavich wins Neal E. Miller New Investigator Award

Dr. George M. Slavich, Ph.D., has been awarded the prestigious 2011 Neal E. Miller New Investigator Award from the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research. The Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research is the premier organization for health psychologists and behavioral medicine researchers, and the award recognizes outstanding early career research on “the interaction between behavior and biological mechanisms in homeostasis, the maintenance of health, the pathophysiology of disease, and susceptibility to illness.” Neal E. Miller, for whom the award is named, pioneered the application of learning theory to behavioral therapies, and the use of chemical and electrical stimulation to analyze the brain’s mechanisms of behavior, homeostasis, and reinforcement. He was the first psychologist to receive the United States National Medal of Science.

Dr. Slavich is an assistant professor and Society in Science: Branco Weiss Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA. He is also a Research Scientist at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, where he directs the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research.

More information about Neal E. Miller New Investigator Award is available at the official website for the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research.

Slavich wins Enrico E. Jones Early Career Award

George SlavichDr. George M. Slavich, Ph.D., has been awarded the 2011 Enrico E. Jones Early Career Award for Research in Psychotherapy and Clinical Psychology. The award honors the late Professor Enrico E. Jones of the University of California, Berkeley, and recognizes outstanding scientific contributions by a clinical psychologist who received his or her PhD in the past 10 years. Dr. Slavich received the award for his research demonstrating how social stress influences inflammation to affect psychological and physical health.

Dr. Slavich is an assistant professor and Society in Science – Branco Weiss Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA. He is also a Research Scientist at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, where he directs the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research.

More information about the Enrico E. Jones Early Career Award for Research in Psychotherapy and Clinical Psychology is available at the official website for the Western Psychological Association.

Study Identifies Neural Bases of Inflammatory Responses to Social Stress

A recent study has identified the neural pathways involved in inflammatory responding to acute social stress. Dr. George Slavich and colleagues recruited 124 young healthy adults, and had them to give an impromptu speech and perform difficult mental arithmetic in front of a socially rejecting panel of raters. A subset of these participants subsequently had their brains scanned (using fMRI) while they played a computerized ball-tossing game in which they were eventually excluded.

Dr. Slavich and colleagues found that participants who exhibited greater neural activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the anterior insula while being rejected during the ball-tossing game showed greater inflammatory responses to the laboratory-based social stress task.

These findings have important implications for understanding susceptibility to disease and are the first to elucidate the neurocognitive processes that underlie inflammatory responses to acute social stress.

The study appeared in a recent edition of the leading scientific journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A.

Other UCLA authors on the study were Balwin M. Way, Naomi I. Eisenberger, and Shelley E. Taylor. The study was funded by a Society in Science – Branco Weiss Fellowship and by the National Institutes of Health.

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Neural Sensitivity to Social Rejection is Associated with Inflammatory Responses to Social Stress

UCLA News Release

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