A team of Ohio Northern University researchers including (from left) Jordan Weiser, Mackenzie Riggenbach and Phillip Zoladz is studying stress and the generalization of fear. Their studies, made possible through a $418,620 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, could lead to new treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder. (Ohio Northern University / Trevor Jones)


Staff Writer

ADA — A team at Ohio Northern University is scaring students — in the name of research. And the hope is that what these psychology students learn could lead to new treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Phillip Zoladz, associate professor of psychology at ONU, received a $418,620 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health for his research on stress and the generalization of fear. But, he said, “The students run the lab. … It’s really student-driven.”

Mackenzie Riggenbach, a senior, has been given the opportunity to run the lab, draft papers and posters, and present her research — things most undergraduates don’t get to do. She said the experience has helped her stand out as an applicant for graduate schools.

“We get to do everything, pretty much,” said Jordan Weiser, a junior.

The students are researching how stress influences what’s known as “fear generalization.” That is, if a person learns to fear something, they may then also fear similar things.

When someone has PTSD or another anxiety disorder, “they overgeneralize their fear,” Zoladz said. They have trouble determining “what’s safe versus unsafe.”

He gave the example of someone who has been around gunshots, bombs and people screaming in a war zone. Upon returning home, other loud noises — like fireworks or a car backfiring — can provoke fear and impede basic functioning. Zoladz said the hope is that the ONU group will, by the end of its research, learn “what makes people generalize fear more.”

Students are conducting an experiment in which they cause stress to a subject. Once the person is experiencing stress, the students create a stimulus that induces fear, and they look at how their subject generalizes fear.

If a stimulus does provoke fear, the researchers study how much other, similar things related to that stimulus also provoke fear.

“The whole idea is for them to be afraid,” Zoladz said.

He asked that the details of how the team does this not be made public, as they are still recruiting research subjects who should not know much about the process ahead of time. But Riggenbach said their attempts at scaring the participants are successful.

“They jump really high,” she said.

And Weiser, who went through the experiment herself, said “It was rough.” (Many of the research subjects are ONU students.)

Participants are asked about their history of childhood trauma. The researchers also measure “baseline anxiety levels.” They are trying to get a diverse array of these, so they can look at whether people who start out more anxious respond to the experiment differently.

They measure their subjects’ heart rate, blood pressure and levels of cortisol, a stress hormone which can be measured in saliva. They’re also researching sex differences — that is, are men or women more likely to generalize fear?

And, since one of the things people do when they’re startled is blink, the students are measuring how much participants blink.

They are studying healthy participants, but Zoladz said the research could give insight into how to more effectively study PTSD or other anxiety disorders, and how to help people who generalize fear more.

Riggenbach said she’s learned skills through the research that will help her as she goes on to graduate school. She plans to study cognitive psychology, looking at learning and memory.

Weiser hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience, and to both teach and conduct research.

People are different, so what can help one person with PTSD might need to be addressed differently in another, Riggenbach said.

She noted that while people associate PTSD with military combat, the disorder can affect anyone and result from other situations, too.

Weiser said a lot of people may look at anxiety or PTSD as “somebody just overreacting” or needing to “get over it.” But there is a strong physiological component.

“You can’t just ‘get over’ that,” she said.

But Zoladz said it’s a mistake to view PTSD as completely physiological — that is, people see mental illness as genetic, and it is, but also “there’s a lot of learning” that underlies the condition. So their research is looking at, are there other things a person could learn, that might help them?

Zoladz said ONU received an “area grant,” which is geared specifically toward schools that don’t get a lot of National Institutes of Health funding, and who will involve undergraduates in research excellence. Research started in January and will continue for three years.

Zoladz has previously researched how stress can enhance or impair memory.

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