Researcher Awarded $2.5 Million to Study Effects of Stress on Substance Abuse

Five-Year Study to Follow African-Americans in Nine Area Counties

Your body’s ability to effectively respond to stress may be an indicator of your vulnerability to use and abuse drugs. 

A five-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) / National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) will support research from the University of Houston College of Education to investigate mechanisms that influence drug-related health disparities in the African-American community. Obasi

Ezemenari M. Obasi, associate professor in counseling psychology and director of the Hwemudua Addictions and Health Disparities Lab (HAHDL) at UH, will lead research in Harris county and eight surrounding urban and rural counties.  He says the development of drug use and abuse in the African-American community is often informed by research that rarely include African-Americans or their social and cultural experiences. 

“It’s a longitudinal study that will include 350 participants between the ages of 18 and 25,” he said. “We’ll be partnering with the community to learn how a person’s social environment and related stressors can ‘get-under-the-skin’ and have a harmful impact on the body’s regulatory system or its capacity to effectively cope with day-to-day stressors across time.”

Those stressors, he says, could include exposure to violent crimes, experiences of discrimination, lack of green space, unemployment, substandard housing, substandard educational systems, pollution, high density of drug-retail outlets, and ability to pay bills and/or put food on the table.

A focal point of the research is measuring how the body reacts to environmental stressors. The body has a complex network between organs that control how we deal with stress, among other things, by regulating the production and elimination of stress-related hormones. However, chronic exposure to stressors may lead to “wear-and-tear” on this system and compromise the body’s ability to effectively cope with stress. Those who have fallen into substance abuse may produce too little – or too much – of these stress-related hormones, what Obasi calls a “dysregulated human stress response.”

“We are hypothesizing that people are finding ways of coping with stressors through other means as their natural human stress response begins to break down,” he said. “While seemingly effective in the short-term, substance use may accelerate the breakdown and increase one’s susceptibility to drug-related health disparities 20 or so years down the line.”

Five cohorts (70 participants each) will be assessed and monitored for two years.  While much of the research will be done in their communities and home, a great deal also will be conducted at his HAHDL. 

“We will bring them to UH and expose them to a controlled laboratory stressor,” he said. “Then we’ll monitor their hormone production, heart-rate variability and skin response to see how efficiently the body is able to react to stress and get back to a sense of equilibrium.”

Other evaluations will be conducted online and in the participants’ community across the two-year period. Obasi believes that, over time, he’ll be able to demonstrate a relationship between a dysregulated human stress response and drug-use vulnerability.

He is working with a diverse, national research team that includes investigators from UH, University of Georgia, Emory University, University of New Orleans and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.  The team also includes a post-doctoral fellow, graduate students and undergraduate students.

He is hopeful that data from this research will generate support to follow this cohort through the age of 35, when their health outcomes become more pronounced. His long-term goal is to expand this line of research to include other underserved communities so that culturally informed prevention and treatment programs can be designed to reduce drug-related health disparities.

“Houston is a very diverse city. It consists of a significant number of white, black, Latino/a and Asian populations. Furthermore, many of these communities have a significant international presence. That places investigators at UH in a unique environmental context to disentangle biological, social and cultural determinants of health. It opens up a floodgate of questions that we will be well positioned to investigate long-term,” he said. 

About UH Health

The University of Houston offers a wealth of health science programs that prepare students for health and medical careers, address health-related scientific, engineering and policy issues, and offer clinical programs directly involved in patient care. These and other programs in the health sciences are one of the primary drivers in UH’s move to Tier One status and behind President Khator’s UH Health initiative.

Enrolling nearly 11,000 students in 97 health-related degree programs, UH conferred more than 1,800 degrees in these fields in 2011. This represents 23 percent of the health degrees awarded in the region, which is more than any other single institution in Texas.

The university’s research awards in the health sciences currently, total $40.5 million, accounting for 38 percent of total UH research. Additionally, UH is ranked 17th nationally among public universities for royalty income and its clinical programs collectively treat more than 30,000 patients annually, generating more than $3 million in revenue.

As a member institute of the Texas Medical Center, UH is rising rapidly in the ranks of premier health research universities and offers many opportunities for both educational and research collaborations.