Up the Hill – A Stressful Collaboration

The first time you walk into Professor Hilary Blumberg’s office, you don’t expect to see the print. It stops you in the doorway: a grey blob of matter springs forth from a black void, pinpricked with bright reds, yellows, and oranges. The print is a replica of a painting, created by Professor Blumberg’s father, of the first brain scan she completed: one of a bipolar patient suffering manic symptoms. The grey is the brain, while the colors represent areas of neural activity. Through delicate balance, Blumberg’s father welded art and science together and created a breath-taking painting of a devastating disorder.

The Yale Stress Consortium, where Professor Blumberg studies brains, is a project begun two years ago with a $23.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It follows the same interdisciplinary ethos that inspired the painting. While traditional research focuses on a specific question using approaches from one discipline, the Consortium consists of 14 different projects conducted across 20 fields — including neurobiology, genetics, psychology, and economics — to study stress, self-control, and addiction.

Hilary Blumberg, a professor of psychiatry and diagnostic radiology at the
interdisciplinary Yale Stress Consortium, stands next to a print of her first brainscan.
Kate Kraft
Hilary Blumberg, a professor of psychiatry and diagnostic radiology at the interdisciplinary Yale Stress Consortium, stands next to a print of her first brainscan.

“When we were formatting the Consortium,” said Blumberg, “it was really something to sit in a room with people from across the campus and come together with a common goal. It was like a composition, like a piece of art that brought together all the different disciplines. In science, [that’s] not always common.” As the principal investigator (PI) of one of the Consortium projects, Blumberg and her co-PI conduct brain scans on adolescents to determine the effects of stress on brain development. Alluding to the print hanging above her desk, Blumberg notes, “That same part of the brain [that] helps to regulate and control emotions and impulses is also the part of the brain that stress can alter and make it harder for teens to regulate behaviors.”

Professor Rajita Sinha, director of the Yale Research Program on Stress, Addiction and Psychopathology, came up with the idea for the Consortium. Having spent years researching neural regions involved in stress, she applied to the NIH two years ago for a five-year grant for the project. Sinha explained, “Complex disorders cannot be solved in disciplinary ways; it is not adequate to only examine the chemistry or the psychology.” Sitting in her quiet office, she paused to comment, “We absolutely think disciplinary training is very important. Having said that, you also need to be able to understand that whatever topic you’re working on may have implications in another area.”

Professor Jody Sindelar, PI of the “Stress, Self-Control and Addiction in Large Populations” project, is trying to find those interdisciplinary implications. Trained as a health economist, Professor Sindelar’s approach to the topic of stress differs from those of the other researchers. “My contribution to the Consortium is looking at large populations,” she said. “We’re using economic models to look at self-control as described by willingness to put off something desirable, like eating cake, for a long-term benefit, like health.” Her group looks at how family factors like divorce and marital strife, health factors like diabetes, and occupational difficulties affect the three target behaviors in the study’s title. Her body of work also includes studies that could be applied to the current financial crisis: for example, whether people are using cigarettes or food as a form of “self-medication.” “I look at it from the economic lens,” she said, “but I can call a Consortium neurologist and say, ‘tell me how the brain works.’”

Nonetheless, obstacles to interdisciplinary research still exist. “It’s good to say that everyone should be doing interdisciplinary science,” Sinha said, “but it has to be a topic that is relatable.” Sindelar agreed: “It’s hard to organize. Terminology is different, even for the same concepts. People come at it with underlying assumptions.”

Because the Consortium work is so recent, there are few definite outcomes as of now. But optimism prevails: Two years into the five-year grant, researchers are still delving into their original projects and receiving funding for new ones. One can only hope that the end result is as harmonious as the print that hangs in Professor Blumberg’s office. Just as its hues eloquently blend art and science, so the on-going studies at the Stress Center blur the lines between disciplines — the research and the researchers coming together with a greater goal in sight.