Depression research earns top national honors for UO psychology student


'Fight or flight' effects linger when depression follows severe stress

EUGENE, Ore. - Severe life stress may turn on a "fight or flight" response that's still evident months later in individuals who become depressed, according to a University of Oregon researcher whose work on mood disorders has won top national honors for the second year in a row.

George Slavich, who is working toward his doctorate in clinical psychology, has won the 2004-5 Edwin B. Newman Graduate Research Award, given annually by Psi Chi, the National Honor Society in Psychology, and by the American Psychological Association (APA) to the psychology student who submits the best research paper of the year.

He is the only person ever to win both the Newman award and the Albert Bandura Graduate Research Award, given by Psi Chi and the American Psychological Society (APS).

Slavich's winning paper is among the first to describe how severe life events may affect a depressed individual's body. He says the types of life stress that people experience can affect both the characteristics of depression and how it unfolds.

"People who become depressed within a year following a severe stressful life event - breaking up with their significant other, losing a job or developing a serious illness - have elevated heart rates and higher blood pressure compared to people who experience little or no stress prior to the onset of their depression," Slavich says.

Severe stress isn't necessarily required to trigger depression in individuals who have a high vulnerability or who are at elevated risk to develop depression, Slavich explains.

A key to ensuring the research is valid (that individuals are comparing their stress levels on an "apples to apples" basis) is using a sophisticated tool called the Life Events and Difficulties Schedule (LEDS) which compensates for differences in how people describe their stressful situations.

The study produced some intriguing tidbits:

  • While resting, heart rate was approximately six beats per minute faster (on average) among stressed depressed people than among depressed individuals who experienced little or no stress in the year prior to onset.

  • While resting, blood pressure was approximately 22 points higher (on average) for stressed depressed people than for depressed individuals who experienced little or no stress in the year prior to onset.

  • While resting, finger temperature was approximately four degrees lower (on average) for stressed depressed people than for depressed individuals who experienced little or no stress in the year prior to onset.

"This is important information because it suggests that disordered physiology may be related to severe life events within depressed persons and may represent one pathway through which life stress can cause depression," says UO psychology professor Scott Monroe, Slavich's adviser and a co-author on the study. Other co-authors include one of Slavich's advisees, UO psychology student Corrie Doyle; Jonathan Rottenberg of the University of South Florida; and James Gross and Ian Gotlib, both of Stanford.

This research is part of a five-year project involving a team of UO and Stanford psychologists who are working with a dataset so rich that it is funded by four grants from the National Institute of Mental Health. Slavich, who holds a bachelor's degree and two master's degrees from Stanford in addition to a master's in clinical psychology from the UO, began working with the team while at Stanford.

A devoted teacher and mentor, Slavich has taught more than 1,800 students in 19 different courses since 1996. While at Stanford, he founded the Stanford Undergraduate Psychology Conference in 2001, and in 2002 he developed and chaired the first-ever student council for the Western Psychological Association (WPA). At age 26, he is also the youngest person ever to serve on the WPA board of directors.

Slavich was voted UO Graduate Teaching Fellow of the Year in 2003 and received the WPA's Robert L. Solso Graduate Student Research Award in 2004.

The Edwin B. Newman Graduate Research Award was established in 1979 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Psi Chi and the 100th anniversary of psychology as a science. The award recognizes young researchers at the beginning of their professional lives. Newman, a prolific researcher and long-time chair of the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, served both Psi Chi and APA in a distinguished manner for half a century. Recipients receive an all-expense-paid trip to the APA-Psi Chi national convention, this year set for Aug. 18-21 in Washington, D.C.

Psi Chi, the National Honor Society in Psychology, was founded in 1929 for the purposes of encouraging, stimulating and maintaining excellence in scholarship and advancing the science of psychology.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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