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​Dr. Christopher Bloom with student researchers
Ryan Post '14, Brenna Peters '13, and Caroline Doyle

First in a series​: Bloom studies self-injury models

Three Professors Receive National Institutes of Health Grants

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded grants to three Providence College professors to support their research.

The Institutional Development Award’s Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) grants are designed to build up the research capacity of institutions that traditionally have not received much NIH funding.

This year, Dr. Christopher M. Bloom, associate professor of psychology, Dr. Brett J. Pellock, assistant professor of biology, and Dr. Jennifer L. Van Reet, assistant professor of psychology, have all received grants. In this article, PC News focuses on Bloom's research.

Modeling self-injury

Bloom actually is in his fourth consecutive year of a grant. He will continue his research developing an animal model for self-injury behavior in humans — when someone intentionally hurts themself, such as by cutting or burning. In the past, researchers studying this phenomenon would give rats stimulants to make them bite their paws or tails, but Bloom said that approach doesn’t mimic the conditions that prompt self-injury in humans.

Stress will exacerbate self-injury in humans, or may even prompt them to start, he said. However, in animals given stimulants, the environment doesn’t affect the behavior.

“The behavior itself is reasonably similar to what humans do when they are self-injuring, but all the other aspects are different,” he said. “It’s chemically induced. It’s entirely dependent on these stimulants. It’s not affected by environmental conditions.”

Researchers studying self-injury in humans believe that people who do so are experiencing an environmental stressor, referred to as an “emotional disregulation” — a physical discomfort as a result of that anxiety. They respond to that environmental stress with a self-initiated physical stress, Bloom said.

Instead of stimulants, Bloom is studying how animals respond to environmental stressors followed by a physical stressor.

“We’re using stressors we think are reasonable parallels to human stress and seeing what are the physiological changes that might initiate self-injury, how stresses combine,” he said.

He hopes the research might offer insights into what physiological changes prompt people to continue to self-injure.

“One of the things that might turn out to be important is not the difference between cutters and non-cutters,” he said. “It’s the difference between people who cut once and never cut again, and people who continue to cut.”

He was able to use the $64,000 grant not only to purchase specialized equipment to support the work, such as a device that measures pain sensitivity, but also to hire three student workers who work full time for two months in the summer and three for the school year.

“They’re the fuel that powers the engine,” Bloom said. “I can’t do this work on my own.”

It’s unusual for a school PC’s size to have animal studies, he said.

“It’s been a real boon in that regard,” Bloom said. The students get valuable experience working with animals, and some advanced to prestigious graduate research programs or to work at labs at Harvard or elsewhere.

It would be difficult to gain similar experience at a larger institution, where they would have to vie with graduate and post-doctoral students for positions, Bloom said.

— Liz F. Kay

Coming up: Dr. Jennifer Van Reet researches pretend play, and Dr. Brett Pellock studies the physiology of bacteria that break down toxic metals.


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