Susan Wood

Stressed out

Medical professor searches for clues to stress resilience

We’ve all heard the health warnings about stress, but just how, exactly, does stress damage a healthy person? And what is it that allows some people to be resilient while others exhibit a vexing trail of cytokines, inflammation and other biochemical responses to trauma and other stressors?

Susan Wood, assistant professor in the pharmacology, physiology and neuroscience department of the School of Medicine, is looking at these issues using rodent models where she tests neurobiological responses to stressors.

“We look at what’s being activated in the brain during stress, then we track resulting changes in behavior,” Wood says. The changes in behavior could be a loss of motivation to seek out a particular palatable treat, but the cardiovascular system also shows signs of being damaged by the body’s inflammatory response to stress.

“If the brain and body’s response to stress doesn’t ‘relax’ over time, that’s when problems arise,” Wood says.

Over the short term, Wood and her research team are looking at the mechanisms that allow one’s mind and body to cope with stress, remaining largely unaffected. Once mechanisms for resiliency are found, they learn how to target these systems with the goal of increasing resilience to stress.

Wood says her interest goes back to her undergraduate days at Michigan when first learned to conduct research. She learned how to ask questions relevant to human neuropsychiatry using animal models and fell in love with the research, pursuing her Ph.D. in the same lab where she did her undergraduate work.

If the brain and body’s response to stress doesn’t ‘relax’ over time, that’s when problems arise.

Susan Wood

She came to USC’s School of Medicine in 2013 because she felt that researchers here were very interested in working together.

“The environment here is very collaborative and focused on strengthening the research program at USC,” Wood says, adding that a recent neuroscience colloquium for researchers across campus led her to other potential collaborators, especially in the College of Pharmacy. Wood has been noted for her research productivity since arriving at Carolina.

“She has significantly exceeded our expectations for a junior faculty member, since she has already established her lab, successfully mentored graduate students, published high-impact scholarly activity, and received multiple major funding awards from national sources,” says Marlene Wilson, chair of the pharmacology, physiology and neuroscience department. “She also has contributed substantially to training medical, graduate and undergraduate students at USC.”

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