Researchers know that adversity — especially poverty-related adversity — increases the risk for anxiety and depression.

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Now, University of Michigan researchers have won a $6.7 million federal grant to study how poverty-related adversity might affect the development of threat and reward systems in the brain, and how that developmental process might increase the risk for people to develop anxiety and depression.

Specifically, the grant from the National Institute of Mental Health will allow researchers to work with people often overlooked in these kinds of studies: low-income and African-American participants. The study will also help researchers explore sources of resilience for people facing adversity.

“We know that violence exposure in the neighborhood, parental neglect and poverty are variables that affect risk for mental illness, but we don’t really know how these adverse experiences get under the skin, and tweak biology and other aspects of brain function to increase risk for anxiety and depression,” said co-principal investigator Christopher Monk, professor of psychology and of psychiatry, and research professor in the Survey Research Center at the Institute for Social Research.

“The brain is very plastic and constantly changing, so by understanding how adversity affects the brain, we can also find ways to support those facing adversity and understand why some people are resilient in these contexts.”

The grant will also allow the researchers to tease out characteristics of depression and anxiety to help them better understand these kinds of disorders.

Currently, the boundaries of depression and anxiety are poorly understood and could be part of the same disorder, or made up of many different disorders altogether, said co-principal investigator Luke Hyde, associate professor of psychology and SRC faculty associate.

“A good analogy is cancer. Cancer can be in many parts of the body and look different in different places, but it’s mostly defined by the underlying pathology of abnormal cell growth,” Hyde said.

“What we commonly think might be depression might actually be multiple different disorders. Or disorders we think are separate disorders, such as depression and anxiety, might be the same underlying disorder.”

The grant will contribute to what’s called the RDoC Initiative, or the Research Domain Criteria Initiative. Developed by the National Institute of Mental Health, the initiative aims to use neuroscience and behavioral science to better understand the structure of mental disorders and their underlying pathology.

“Most neuroimaging studies have studied mostly white, middle-class college undergraduates,” Hyde said. “Part of what we’re doing is looking at what happens to children and families who are exposed to high levels of adversity, such as those living in poverty and underrepresented minorities who are disproportionately exposed to stressors to try to understand how and why adversity is so toxic to the brain.

“We also want to learn about sources of strength in families who manage to thrive in difficult situations and use our work to inform interventions and policies to strengthen families and communities.”

Better understanding how depression and anxiety develop may ultimately help researchers predict who is at risk for developing them to potentially get a jumpstart on treatment.

“The ultimate goal is to find a mechanism: Here is a poverty-related stressor, here’s how it changes the brain, and here’s how the changing of the brain led to this person having depression,” said Colter Mitchell, co-principal investigator and research assistant professor in ISR’s SRC and faculty associate of the Population Studies Center.

“Potentially learning the mechanism by which these disorders are operating — if it’s exposure to toxicants or diet or poverty or some combination of these — can help us tailor our interventions more precisely and inform policies that might protect youth from toxic environments.”

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