Faculty Spotlight

Emma Adam

Stress and Health in the Real World


At last count, IPR developmental psychobiologist Emma Adam estimates that she and her research team have collected more than 100,000 vials of spit from more than 20,000 parents and children across the nation. She is a leader in the collection and use of saliva as a reliable and noninvasive way to measure the real-life effects of everyday events and emotions on human health and development. 

Her research shows how dealing with seemingly mundane social events—for example, feeling rejected by your peers or having an argument with your spouse or parent—lead to changes in biology that increase vulnerability to outcomes such as depression and cardiovascular disease. 

“In my work, biology is not an inborn determinant of behavior but a reflection of our history of social and other experiences,” Adam said. 

Sleep and the HPA Axis

Adam sees two major physiological pathways through which the social world can embed itself in a person’s biology—via the process of sleep and via one of the body’s major biological stress systems, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. She measures sleep objectively with a small wristwatch-like device called an actigraph, and she monitors the HPA axis through measures of salivary cortisol, a hormone that follows a strong circadian rhythm and is released in response to stress.

To effectively capture the effects of everyday stressors, Adam has taken her work out of the laboratory, where most previous research on the topic occurred. She has pioneered studying how these processes unfold in real time in real-world settings, such as school, home, and work. In addition to measuring sleep and stress hormone levels, Adam collects repeated diary reports of everyday experiences, has participants carry iPods to test cognitive functioning, and also takes more traditional health measures such as blood pressure and heart rate readings, measures of inflammation, and clinical psychiatric interviews, to name a few. 

While obtaining her PhD in child psychology from the University of Minnesota, Adam realized that the psychobiological processes she studied were deeply affected by the broader social contexts of her participants’ lives. For a deeper understanding of socioeconomic factors and policy to complement her training in social development and psychobiology, she pursued a master’s degree in public policy and a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Chicago, where she received training in sociology, economics, and political science. 

“My research brings together the perspectives of developmental psychology, developmental psychobiology, and child and family policy,” Adam said. “Through combining these disciplines, I gain a better understanding of the processes by which our social environments ‘get under the skin’ to affect short- and long-term physical health and mental well-being.” 

Measuring Daily Cortisol, Finding Disparities

To fully investigate causal relationships between social experience, cortisol, and health, however, better data was needed. Adam, together with her colleagues, spent a significant portion of her early career building new longitudinal data sets, such as the Youth Emotion Project, and helping to add new data collection modules to existing ones, such as the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. 

Her contributions thus far to the field of psychoneuroendocrinology, or the study of hormones and human behavior, won her the 2013 Curt Richter Award from the International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology this August at its annual meeting, where she presented her award paper on the role of cortisol in anxiety disorders. In the award paper, Adam and her colleagues measured multiple indicators of HPA axis functioning in adolescents, and followed them for six years, interviewing them yearly to identify new onsets of mood and anxiety disorders. 

Adam found that the cortisol awakening response (CAR), or the increase in cortisol levels within the first 30 minutes after waking, strongly predicted first onsets of anxiety disorders, and social anxiety disorder in particular, over the next six years. Adam’s earlier work showed similar results between CAR and the onset of major depressive disorder. Adam has also found shorter hours of sleep in adolescents to predict subsequent onsets of major depressive disorder. 

Adam’s latest research turns attention to the implications of stress, cortisol, and sleep for cognitive and academic functioning in children and adolescents. She is studying more than 300 Chicago public school students to determine how stress, cortisol and low sleep interact to predict impairments in cognition, classroom performance, and academic attainment. “Stress and sleep are not equally distributed in society, and they have important implications for daily functioning” Adam said.  “High stress and lack of sleep are important and understudied contributors to understanding academic achievement gaps.”  

Emma Adam is professor of human development and social policy and an IPR fellow