Amherst Magazine

When the Mental is Physical

By Jenny Morgan

[Research] Stress is everywhere.

And while it doesn’t take a scientist to notice it, scientists across disciplines are asking questions about what all this stress might mean for our health. At Amherst, students in the course “Biochemical Principles of Life at the Molecular Level” have brought their own questions to bear on the relationship between human health and stress.

Amber Khan ’14 describes her team’s research on anorexia nervosa. She and classmates studied hypercortisolemia—the overproduction of cortisol—in anorexic patients.

Working in teams, 25 students in the upper-level course investigated how biochemical processes in the body affect and inform overall health. For example, one group studied yoga, concluding that it can reduce “pro-inflammatory cytokines,” which are immune regulators that are linked to many diseases. (“I’m now trying to incorporate sun salutations into my mornings,” says Julien Aoyama ’14, one student in that group.)

Others investigated social isolation in the elderly. “When my grandmother passed away,” says Alex Bernstein ’13, “my grandfather lived alone for several years. At the time, I thought my grandfather’s physical maladies were mostly in his head. I [now] realize the physical and biochemical effects of social isolation are very real.”

Yet another group studied anor­exia nervosa, focusing on hypercortisolemia—the overproduction of cortisol—in anorexic patients. “Cortisol,” says Allison Merz ’14, “plays a very substantial role in both development of and progression of anorexia.”

Professor of Chemistry Pat O’Hara co-taught the course with Health Professions Adviser Dick Aronson ’69. Its lessons hit close to home for Antoineen White ’13, who studied stress levels in Amherst students. “The amount of stress that students are under,” White says, “makes me wonder about the future of our generation.” But now that she’s taken the class, she’ll likely find it easier to reduce her own.

Photo by Eugene Lee ’16