The Harvard / MGH Center on Genomics, Vulnerable Populations, and Health Disparities has recently been awarded a $6.5 million award from the Templeton Foundation to launch a National Consortium on Psychosocial Stress, Spirituality, and Health.

This Consortium will bring together the Black Women’s Health Study, Nurses’ Health Study II, MASALA, Strong Heart Study, Jackson Heart Study, and the University of Chicago Cohort of Patients, Family, and Friends into a large and highly diverse cohort of 5,000 participants (African American, Native American, Latino, South Asian, and white). This newly formed cohort will be a unique national resource for empirically investigating the intersection of psychosocial stress, racial/ethnic disparities, and positive mediating resources for resiliency such as spirituality and religious coping. We hope to have additional cohorts join our collaboration in the months and years ahead.

The aim of our project is to begin to shift the state of science towards understanding the underlying mechanisms through which psychosocial stress contributes to disease. This will be accomplished through examining psychosocial stressors in relation to DNA methylation in five stress-related and serotonergic genes, as well in relation to telomere attrition. Importantly, our large and diverse national Consortium will allow us to study these genetic mechanisms in relation to health outcomes (such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and mortality) that are marked by persistent racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities. This will be the first such study that will be adequately powered to conduct comparative assessment of the relationship of psychosocial stress and these biomarkers between the diverse populations in our cohort.

Another important innovation of our project will be to look at the influence of positive resources for resiliency such as religion and spirituality, in addition to studying psychosocial exposures. Spirituality is a particularly salient cultural influence in Black, Latino, South Asian, and Native American communities, and our research will be the first large-scale, national project to rigorously assess religion or spirituality within a biologically-meaningful framework. Doing so will hopefully generate new insights into persistent health disparities in underserved communities.