Researcher Provides a New Perspective on Stress Response and Health

Hyperreactivity in response to psychological stressors has long been linked to health concerns such as hypertension and other cardiovascular challenges. However, new research is finding that the opposite – diminished responses to stress – may also lead to future health complications. FABBS is pleased to name Dr. Annie Ginty an Early Career Impact Award winner, as nominated by the American Psychosomatic Society, for her groundbreaking work in uncovering relationships between biological and cognitive stress responses, physical health, and mental health, as well as her commitment to using science for societal impact.

Key Findings

  • Diminished responses to stress are associated with poor mental and physical health outcomes.
  • Early life adversity is associated with altered stress responses.
  • Interventions such as exercise and neurostimulation can improve the stress response.

Dr. Ginty earned her Ph.D. in behavioral medicine from the University of Birmingham in the UK and completed postdoctoral fellowships for the AXA research foundation and the University of Pittsburgh. She is now an Associate Professor in psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University. Her research examines how individual differences in the body’s stress response are associated with physical and mental health outcomes using cardiovascular, neurobiological, behavioral, and clinical measures. She has been funded by multiple National Institute of Health (NIH) awards.

“As someone doing research in the health field, it’s important to find tangible ways to help the community. It’s part of the privilege of our position.”– ANNIE GINTY

In a recent interview with FABBS, Dr. Ginty discussed the importance of her work and how she uses it for societal change. Her core research has shown that biological hyporesponsivity to stressors is associated with poor mental and physical health outcomes. Specifically, individuals with diminished cardiovascular responses, measured by heart rate, are at higher risk for depression, cognitive dysfunction, risky behaviors such as substance use, and other mental health concerns. As each of these mental health outcomes are associated with physical health concerns, stress hyporesponsivity is also indirectly related to poor physical health.

Critically, this research creates opportunities to develop interventions targeting the stress responses to improve mental and physical health outcomes. In one such study, Dr. Ginty used a novel neurostimulation method, transcranial infrared laser stimulation (TILS), to stimulate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in the brain to influence responses to stress. This preliminary study will provide data on the potential neurobiological research to have translational impact on health outcomes. Moreover, Dr. Ginty uses her background in health education to examine behavioral strategies such as high intensity interval training as interventions for improving the body’s stress response.

A second focus of Dr. Ginty’s research is investigating early life adversity as a risk factor for diminished stress responses. Her early work has shown that early life challenges – such as childhood trauma – are associated with diminished stress responses, possibly due to habituation from facing numerous stressors early in life. Dr. Ginty has the long-term research goal of conducting a longitudinal study that follows individuals from childhood to early adulthood to directly test the pathway of early life adversity to poor health outcomes through the mechanism of a diminished stress response.

Dr. Ginty’s research of early life adversity has also motivated her to engage in numerous community service and science communication activities. “As someone doing research in the health field, it’s important to find tangible ways to help the community. It’s part of the privilege of our position.”

Dr. Ginty has spent the past several years working with the Cove nonprofit organization to provide critical resources, services, and guidance to youth experiencing homelessness in Texas. Dr. Ginty and members of her lab visit the Cove twice a week to provide education and training for organized physical activity, an opportunity many youth at the Cove had not previously been provided. Aligning with her past research, Dr. Ginty found that this service of using science to educate and provide services to disadvantaged youth provided critical benefits to their mental and physical health.

Beyond this service, Dr. Ginty has used several other mediums to translate her scientific expertise into actionable knowledge to the public. Through supplemental outreach funding, Dr. Ginty created digestible YouTube videos that efficiently explain how stress impacts our health and our body, and how we can use simple cognitive and behavioral coping strategies to improve our response to stress. Additionally, before the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Ginty and her lab regularly visited Guatemala to work with local physicians and communicate her knowledge to the public on improving stress awareness and coping strategies, particularly in individuals from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Overall, Dr. Ginty’s commitment to using her scientific expertise for public benefit has had widespread impact in her local community, public forums, and international settings.

These science communication and dissemination efforts have important implications, ranging from acute clinical intervention to systematic changes addressing risk factors for poor cardiovascular health. On a broader level, they reflect how scientific advances can be used for societal benefit, particularly when committed scientists receive funding support.

Potential for Future Impact

  • Educating about the stress response and coping strategies to improve health outcomes.
  • Addressing early life adversity as a risk factor for diminished stress responses.
  • Targeting biological pathways as interventions for improved stress responses.

Dr. Annie Ginty is a recipient of the 2023 Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award and was nominated by the American Psychosomatic Society.

The APS 80th Annual Scientific Meeting, Challenging the Future: Towards a Better Biopsychosocial Health, takes place in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on March 8-11, 2023.

Read more about Dr. Ginty’s work at the links below:

APS, Mental Health, Neuroscience, Stress