Baylor Researcher Explores the Resiliency of the Blackfeet Community
Understanding how social connectiveness mitigates the effects of historical and childhood trauma
WACO, Texas (Nov. 27, 2023) – The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a five-year, $3.37 million research grant to Baylor University, Blackfeet Community College (BFCC) in Browning, Montana, and Montana State University-Bozeman to explore how the resiliency of the Blackfeet American Indian community could mitigate the health effects related to historical and childhood trauma.
Although the link between trauma and health risks has been investigated in other groups, there are only a handful of studies for American Indians and no research involving the specific roles of historical and childhood traumas. This NIH grant addresses that critical gap in knowledge on the relationship between historical and childhood trauma and health risk, while also investigating the protective role of social connectedness in the Blackfeet community.
American Indians experience historical trauma and loss as a result of colonization, and a disproportionately higher incidence of childhood trauma, which is in part a product of historical trauma, that could contribute to a disproportionately higher incidence of mental and physical health conditions, including depression, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
As a co-primary investigator for this grant, Annie T. Ginty, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor, and her Montana State University colleague, Neha John-Henderson, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, and Betty Henderson-Matthews, chair of math and science at Blackfeet Community College, will examine how trauma relates to physiological changes that affect health and behavior and how these effects may be mitigated by resiliency factors.
“The project extends my previous years of stress physiology research at the Baylor Behavioral Medicine Lab by examining how resilience factors may buffer the relationship between trauma and alternations in physiology and subsequent adverse health outcomes,” Ginty said. “It is a privilege to be able to build on pilot work conducted by the Blackfeet Community College and Montana State University.”
Since 2012, Blackfeet Community College has conducted research to understand stress and its impact on the immune system within the Blackfeet community. The data consistently showed that the more connected people are to their culture and society, the healthier they are.
After years of gathering data, Betty Henderson-Matthews and her students were ready to expand the study.
“My students told me they were tired of documenting that stress is bad,” said Henderson-Matthews. “We want to do more.”
In 2016, Henderson-Matthews and her team of student researchers collaborated with Neha John-Henderson, Ph.D. and Agnieszka Rynda-Apple, Ph.D. from Montana State University-Bozeman to create an intervention based on their earlier research to test how effectively social connectiveness within the Blackfeet people could positively influence stress levels.
The project was funded by Montana State University through the Montana Idea Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) and the Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity (CAIRE).
A two-week cultural intervention was developed to bring participants together with Blackfeet tribal elders. At each event, participants would meet with tribal elders to share a meal and tell stories of Blackfeet history and traditions. They also took time to visit culturally significant sites in the mountains surrounding the Blackfeet Reservation in northern Montana.
Before and after the two-week intervention, each participant provided a blood and saliva sample. Results from those samples showed a significant decrease in cortisol levels from the start to the finish of the intervention.
With the new NIH grant, the project will work with a group of 400 Blackfeet adults aged 18 to 35 years old using the unique community-based participatory research approach developed by Blackfeet Community College and Montana State University.
The study also creates a platform for students at both Baylor and Blackfeet Community College to assist in NIH-funded research. Students from BFCC will assist in data collection while students from Baylor will assist with processing of cardiovascular data.
As with the original short-term studies, a community advisory board comprised of Blackfeet community members will continue to be vital members of the research team.
“Engaging in community-based research and service has been an integral part of my laboratory at Baylor University,” said Ginty. “Whenever our lab engages in such activities, my goal is to ensure that our work is addressing what members of the community think is best for their community.”
This research will inform future community-developed interventions aimed at reducing health disparities by providing foundational knowledge in understanding how social connectedness buffers the impact of trauma on downstream cardiometabolic and mental health risk.
“Sometimes as a psychophysiologist, it is easy to get caught up in the mechanisms,” said Ginty. “The goal, however, is always to use our research to be able to improve health. The current study has direct translational benefits in understanding how social connectedness may buffer the impact of trauma on health.”
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