Symposium’s Keynote Focuses on Effects of Stress on Mental Health
Kent State University’s 10th Annual Neuroscience Symposium began Thursday with a keynote address by Tracy L. Bale, Ph.D., titled "The biology of trauma: Understanding risk and resilience."
Bale, of the University of Colorado, is a leading national researcher in the study of how stress on a person and in-utero stress on an unborn child can lead to changes in brain development that can result in an increased risk for mental illness and a variety of other disorders, which can be passed on from generation to generation.
Her research includes the examination of vulnerable populations, including the long-term effects of racism, violence, adverse childhood experiences and similar stressors, and their implications on brain development and mental health for current and future generations.
Bale’s speech was co-sponsored by Kent State’s Anti-Racism and Equity Institute, which seeks to advance racial justice through scholarship and research.
Michael Lehman, Ph.D., director of the Brain Health Research Institute, which is hosting the symposium, introduced Bale, who is the Anschutz Foundation Endowed Chair in Women's Integrated Mental and Physical Health Research at the Ludeman Center and professor and director for InterGenerational Stress and Health and the Director for Sex Differences Research in the Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus.
Lehman said he was pleased to bring in a keynote speaker of Bale’s caliber to Kent State.
Bale provided two specific examples from her research of how racial stressors play a role in creating increased health risks.
First, Bale provided statistics to show that pregnant Black women, regardless of educational background, had three to four times higher rates of maternal morbidity and mortality than white women.
“A Black woman with a Ph.D. has a higher rate than a white woman with an eighth-grade education,” Bale said.
She also shared research from the city of Baltimore, where she developed the Center for Epigenetics Research in Child Health and Brain Development while on staff at the University of Maryland. The research showed how 61% of pregnant Black women in Baltimore had four or more adverse childhood experiences or ACES – stressors such as violence, poverty or neglect – which are known to lead to health issues in later life, including heart disease, diabetes and substance abuse.
Bale spoke about her life’s research studying stress and how it affects human brain development and mental illness. She began by noting how levels of chronic stress have risen dramatically in recent years, both in the United States and globally, brought about by divisive politics, social media pressures, worries of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Persistent social stressors over the past six to eight years have resulted in an increase in depression, anxiety and suicide, she said, with more than 44 million Americans experiencing some type of mental health disorder this year.
Bale encouraged the audience to vote in the upcoming election and ended her talk by encouraging the group, as scientists, to become engaged in their communities so that science is perceived as fact, and not opinions that can be denied or discounted.
“It’s so important that we get out in the community,” she said.
Due to the pandemic, this is the first time in more than three years that Kent State’s neuroscience symposium is being held entirely in person, and Lehman noted how pleased he was for the opportunity for students to meet with experts in their respective fields.
Bale was excited to see, through a show of hands, how the audience for her talk was made up largely of students, including some who had come from other area universities to attend.
Julie Reichert, a first-year graduate student in Behavioral Neuroscience from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said she had a particular interest in the type of stress research that Bale’s lab conducts and was excited for the chance to attend her first neuroscience symposium and the networking opportunities the in-person event provided.
Jasmin Beaver, of Granville, Ohio, a graduate research assistant and fourth-year doctoral student in Behavioral Neuroscience, said she was looking forward to hearing Bale talk about her work because she also works in an animal research lab.
Beaver said she also was happy for the opportunity to hear such a large variety of neuroscience research topics during one symposium.
Provost Melody Tankersley, Ph.D., and Doug Delahanty, Ph.D., interim vice president for Research and Sponsored Programs, opened the symposium by offering welcoming remarks to the crowd of about 150 students, faculty and guests who had gathered at the Kent State Kiva for the keynote address.
Tankersley noted how the Brain Health Research Institute has grown since its inception to more than 450 members and has brought in more than $6 million in new funding for university research.
She specifically praised its collaborations within departments on campus, and with external partners, including Cleveland Clinic, Akron Children’s Hospital and Northeast Ohio Medical University.
“These partnerships create a true regional network to support research and improve the health and well-being of all in Northeast Ohio and beyond,” Tankersley said.
Delahanty noted how Kent State, earlier this year, was awarded the esteemed R1 status for research by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, the highest recognition that doctoral universities can receive.
The idea to create research institutions across the university, he said, was an effort to break down the departmental silos that were keeping researchers in one area from knowing about the work of their colleagues, and to increase the overall amount of research being conducted at the university.
The R1 designation is proof of how successful the institutions have been at bringing researchers together and expanding Kent State’s portfolio of ground-breaking research, he said.
This year’s symposium celebrates Kent State’s contributions to the field of neuroscience and brain health, with nearly all featured speakers being either Kent State graduates or current faculty and researchers.
The symposium continues Friday at the Kent Student Center with a full slate of speakers. The event is free and open to all. Click here for a complete list of speakers and activities.
Learn more about Kent State’s Brain Health Research Institute.