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Considering a combination of cultural and socio-economic factors, it is anticipated that members of American Indian/Alaskan Native communities are exposed to high levels of and/or prolonged stress. It is well established that stress hormones can directly suppress immune function, which, in turn, can increase susceptibility to numerous diseases. Thus, we hypothesize that the reason members of Native communities experience increased frequency and/or intensity of infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases, allergies and/or cancers is high-stress exposure affecting the immune system. In this study, we propose to determine whether individuals from the Blackfeet community are exposed to a high level of stress and whether this exposure causes immunosuppression, which then is associated with the inability of their immune system to defend itself from diseases.

Specific Aims

  1. Develop the surveys necessary to determine the stress levels of individuals in the Blackfeet community, as well as develop the laboratory/medical assays at BCC necessary to determine stress levels and immunological proficiency.  Surveys will be developed that will quantitate the level of both acute and chronic stress an individual has experienced.  These surveys will be administered to Blackfeet Reservation residents by students in the Behavior Health Assistant Program at Blackfeet Community College (BCC).  The students will first be trained in how to administer the surveys and will also be involved in compiling the results of the survey.
  2. Establish the stress levels in individuals from the Blackfeet community through biomarker determination. Because self-reporting of stress exposures done in Aim 1 may not be the most accurate method of determining stress exposure, stress will also be determined by biomarkers.  These biomarkers will include cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine levels in blood and/or saliva.  Blood will be collected by BCC students in the phlebotomy program and saliva by students in the BCC nursing program. Biomarkers in the human samples will be determined by the BCC research laboratory.
  3. Determine the susceptibility to diseases in individuals from the Blackfeet Community by 1) survey of self-reported frequency of diseases and 2) assessing immunological biomarkers as indicators of immune proficiency.  The surveys will be administered as in Aim 1, and the biomarkers determined by the BCC research laboratory.
  4. Determine possible association between levels of stress and susceptibility to diseases among Individuals from the Blackfeet community. Results of an individual’s surveys and biomarker determinations will be compiled.  Possible correlations between stress exposure, stress markers, immunological competency markers and frequency of disease will be determined.

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