Feeling Stressed? UMass Boston Researchers Want to Study Your Hair
October 09, 2012
Office of Communications
Stress can reveal itself in a variety of ways – tense shoulders or a clenched jaw – but researchers at University of Massachusetts Boston are more interested in what your hair says about your stress level.
Psychology experts at the University of Massachusetts Boston are looking for students, faculty, and staff members to volunteer for a study of chronic stress on campus. Participants will be asked to give an hour of their time and 100 strands of their hair, which will be tested for cortisol – a hormone produced by stress. In exchange, participants will receive psychology course credit or $25.
Recent advances in testing have paved the way for this new approach to studying stress.
“Now, with about 100 strands of hair clipped from the scalp, we can get a biological indicator of stress over the past three months,” said Kymberlee O’Brien, a postdoctoral fellow at the Horizon Center for Social Equity at UMass Boston.
“Until recently, we have only been able to understand how stressed a person has been for about the past 20 minutes or the past day.”
Hair grows at a rate of about 1 centimeter per month, so taking just 3 centimeters of a subject’s hair can help researchers measure "chronic," or accumulated, stress.
UMass Boston psychology researchers first measured cortisol levels in hair during a summer 2011 study. Overall, subjects in that study had more hair cortisol than did participants from other studies. Men, minorities, and people aged 18-22 demonstrated the highest cortisol levels.
The researchers found a connection between hair cortisol and other key measures, such as resting blood pressure and the subject’s perception of stress.
“One important interpretation of this is that perceiving something as stressful, whether happening or not, can be just as meaningful on our biological reactions to stress,” O’Brien said.
For their second study, UMass Boston researchers are also examining other social factors that might contribute to stress – such as social identity with one's heritage, perceptions of social status, and negative stress experiences such as discrimination or social exclusion.
“We are also interested in those who are foreign-born, as well as native-born adults, because we want to understand the unique social and environmental stress experiences of both groups,” O’Brien said.
The study takes about 60-75 minutes. People who want to participate should contact O'Brien by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 617.287.5685.