Campus study shows what doesn’t kill you does make you stronger

Maddie Margioni, Contributing Writer

On Nov. 13, a study done by Professor of Biology Mark Haussmann with current and former students of the University’s biology department was published in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. According to its website, this journal is “[the] Royal Society’s flagship biological research journal, dedicated to the fast publication and worldwide dissemination of high-quality research.”

The study, entitled “Is there an oxidative cost of acute stress? Characterization, implication of glucocorticoids and modulation by prior stress experience,” measured the oxidative stress – otherwise known as the cellular damage caused by an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body — in Japanese quails that had been put through 20-minute periods of social isolation. The results found that birds that had not been exposed to acute stress and those that had been exposed to many stressful events both had high levels of oxidative stress. However, when those same birds had prior experience with isolation, their cells were able to protect themselves from the damage. 

Haussmann’s predictions asserted that “birds may be able to physiologically acclimate to the stressor, and thereby defend themselves on the cellular level.” The conclusions of the study revealed that when the birds with prior limited experience faced the stressor a second time, they had lower levels of oxidative stress, as they had an increase in antioxidant defense. “In other words, they had a defense system ready to go so that they could quickly respond to the stressor,” Haussmann said.

When asked what piqued his initial interest in this study, Haussmann said, “I’ve been interested in stress physiology for the past two decades. I actually got interested in stress in my undergraduate biology classes. The German philosopher Nietzsche once said, ‘From life’s school of war: what does not kill me makes me stronger.’ This idea plays out in how our bodies can acclimate to repeated challenges over time, and we wanted to see if that was the case for stressors.”

Haussmann also pointed out questions that he and his group of researchers would have for future research. “We’re curious how this influences the animals in the long-term. We saw that animals who had some prior experience had reduced levels of cellular damage. Whether or not this damage is transient, or accrues in the long-term, can help answer the questions of whether or not it causes animals to age more rapidly,” he said.

In relating this study on birds to human beings, which is simple because their hormones, stress biology and aging biology are very similar to humans, Haussmann announced that it could help to explain why highly-trained endurance athletes can overcome oxidative stress from exercise, as “In trained athletes, oxidative stress levels are low because the athletes’ cells have high levels of antioxidants on hand to combat free radical production and damage.”

The study can even be related to college students, as the exposure to low-level stressors actually allows for a more successful antioxidant defense. In his advice, Haussmann said to “remember that the next time you are stressed by an exam, a work deadline or a family get-together, you may just be working out your cells to save you from future damage.”

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