GRAD Alumni Research Award 2014 Recipient: James Taylor, PBS

James Taylor is a Cognitive Neuroscience graduate student in Prof. Paul Whalen’s Lab in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

Understanding the myriad ways stress can influence a number of cognitive processes and behaviors has been a topic of considerable scientific interest and research for years. Indeed, research demonstrates that stress is pervasive in nature and causes a number of reliable changes in the body regardless of the type of stress experienced (e.g. giving a speech or being exposed to cold temperatures). Given that stress can produce short as well as long-term effects on both the body and mind, examining exactly how an individual is able to cope with stress is important from a physical and mental health perspective.

Although much is known about the kinds of tasks and events that can lead to a stress response and the acute changes these can produce, what is less well known is why individuals can differ greatly on their ability to cope with stressful events, a concept referred to as stress-resiliency. Differences in stress-resiliency may be a critical factor in understanding how and why individuals develop or avoid stress-related disorders (e.g., posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD]). However, focusing research only on individuals with stress-related disorders makes it difficult to determine whether any cognitive or behavioral differences are a symptom of the disorder itself, or were a risk factor for development of the disorder.

With this in mind, my research aims to measure the behavioral and neural factors related to stress responses and resiliency present in participants who are psychiatrically healthy as well as subjects with a stress disorder. Specifically, my research examines the extent to which behavioral and cognitive differences that are present in individuals with stress-related disorders also vary in the general population with the hope that it may be possible to determine (1) if these factors can predict how an individual will respond to common, everyday stress and (2) whether these cognitive and behavioral differences serve as possible risk-factors for low stress-resiliency and later stress-related health outcomes.

Thanks to the generous Dartmouth Graduate Studies Graduate Alumni Research Award I have been able to collect preliminary data examining how specific aspects of learning, known to vary in individuals with PTSD, can contribute to stress-resiliency. This award has helped me better fine-tune these experiments and begin to assess just how informative these behavioral measures are in predicting how individuals respond to common stressors. Examining how these measures contribute to general stress-resiliency promises to be an important step in the attempt to offer early support to those most susceptible to the adverse effects of stress.  Further, thanks to this award, I was able to develop this line of research in collaboration with some of the field’s leading researchers on stress-related disorders such as PTSD (collaborators Lisa Shin of Tufts and Scott Orr of Mass. General Hospital. My aim is extend the data I have collected under this award to inform future studies that seek to find reliable markers of stress-resiliency.