Ohio Northern University faculty members Boyd Rorabaugh, Ph.D., and Phillip Zoladz, Ph.D., have received a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the impact of chronic psychological stress on the heart. Their work has implications for patients who have heart attacks while struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Rorabaugh, Associate Professor of Pharmacology and Cell Biology, is the principal investigator, and Zoladz, Associate Professor of Psychology, is a co-investigator.

“Our preliminary data suggest that people who have a heart attack and also have PTSD may be at risk for more extensive myocardial damage than people who have a heart attack and do not have PTSD,” Rorabaugh said. “We are trying to understand the mechanism by which PTSD may worsen the extent of injury during a heart attack. A second goal is to determine whether drugs that are clinically used to treat the psychological symptoms of PTSD can reverse this detrimental cardiac effect. The final goal of the project addresses the fact that traumatized women are more likely to develop PTSD than traumatized men. We are trying to understand why females are more susceptible.”

The $411,453 grant began in December and is expected to take three years to complete. It is anticipated that the project will result in multiple papers and presentations as well as increased opportunities for student research.

This is the second NIH collaboration between Rorabaugh and Zoladz. In the past two years, the two faculty members have earned more than $835,000 in NIH funding. In the past six years, Rorabaugh has been an investigator on three NIH grants, which have brought approximately $1.2 million in NIH funding to the University.

“Phil and I work well together. He is driven to get projects done and see them to completion,” Rorabaugh said. “This is truly an interdisciplinary effort in that we are approaching a problem from different viewpoints. I view things from the perspective of a cardiovascular pharmacologist, while he tends to look at it from a psychological or neuroscience-based approach. It also shows the value of collaboration. Collaborations are critical for productive research. It is good to have someone to help solve problems and to provide a different point of view when things are not going so smoothly.”

Zoladz said, “A few years ago, I asked Boyd to help me with experiments measuring hormones associated with stress. This led to our collaboration on several different research projects. This type of interdisciplinary research is becoming more common. To understand a disease, you need to study all aspects of it.”

This project will open up valuable learning opportunities for ONU students who will be involved in the research. It is anticipated that participating students will write papers, give presentations and attend conferences based on their experiences.

“We both utilize undergraduate students to help in our labs, and many of those students have used their undergraduate research experience to help them succeed in graduate programs after leaving ONU,” Zoladz said.

Several students who worked in the Rorabaugh and Zoladz laboratories have recently matriculated into Ph.D. programs at Duke University, Ohio State University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Notre Dame, Vanderbilt University and other institutions upon graduating from ONU.

The process also supports the faculty members’ teaching efforts. “We can bring into the classroom things we have learned from our own research and the research of other investigators,” Rorabaugh said. “For example, when I talk with students about heart attacks, they sometimes perceive cardiac injury as a nebulous concept. When I show them a photograph of a heart that has experienced a heart attack, that helps them understand that cardiac injury is real.”

From a student’s perspective, it is beneficial to learn from someone who is actively engaged in the topic area.

“If you want to be a surgeon, you can learn from somebody who has read books about surgery, has observed surgeries and can explain the process of a surgery. Alternatively, you can learn from someone who actually does them. The same thing is true of basic science. Students benefit when they learn from faculty who are actively engaged in the process of discovery. Students also benefit when they have opportunities to participate in the process,” Rorabaugh said.

The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.