This Week in Research: Pregnancy is Stressful — for Men; How Viruses are Like Homeland Security

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Pregnancy is stressful for both partners — that’s certainly not news. But according to recent research from Penn State and Johns Hopkins who studied over a hundred heterosexual couples expecting their first child, women and men process stress differently during pregnancy.

The researchers, who included Johns Hopkins’ Doug Granger, measured couples’ cortisol levels as a marker for stress. They found that when the couples fought, the male partner’s stress level rose higher if the discussion was a hostile one, while women’s stress levels weren’t really affected by hostility at all. The effects persisted even after the argument, when high-anxiety men recovered much more slowly.  According to the researchers, this is one sign of how chronic, unresolved conflicts can undermine a relationship — and partners’ health.

“We found that all men appeared to find hostility stressful,” said Mark Feinberg, a Penn State professor who worked on the study. “For generally anxious men, more expressed hostility was also linked to more persistence of this elevated stress. On the other hand, generally anxious women experienced relatively more prolonged stress when there were lower levels of negativity and hostility expressed during the discussion.

“We speculate that these anxious women, as well as women in relationships in which chronic arguing is a feature, find the airing of differences, even when the tone turns negative, to be reassuring that the couple is engaged with each other. This may be particularly important for women during the vulnerable period of their first pregnancy.

“It would be useful for couples to understand that they need to carefully balance the apparently beneficial effects that discussing difficult relationship topics had for some women with the apparently negative effects it has on some men.”
Swiftly mutating viruses — influenza being the most infamous — are sneaky. They adapt and change in ways that help them avoid attacks by immune systems and vaccines, which is why you have to get a new flu shot every year. But influenza is nothing next to the really scary idea of a swiftly-mutating superbug, which is the stuff of public health nightmares. That’s why scientists from the Johns Hopkins Applies Physics Lab are teaming up with colleagues from Harvard to figure out ways to predict just how (and how quickly) viruses might mutate.

“The current approach to dealing with viruses is reactive,” said Andrew Feldman, the project’s manager and principal investigator. “Existing vaccines and therapies are designed to protect against viruses that are already out there, and new vaccines take years to develop. But we are trying to get out in front of emerging diseases by predicting how viruses evolve.”

That’s why the physicists are being brought in:  they can use their DNA sequencing bioinformatic skills to figure out when viral populations go, well, viral. Some of the technology they use is linked with Homeland Security work in the syndromic surveillance field:  basically, the researchers want to comb through data to figure out when a public health emergency is on its way, perhaps even before many people get sick.

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