Uncovering Resilience: Hair as a Retrospective Biomarker of Health and Coping During the COVID-19 Pandemic

hair sample

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced healthcare workers to endure a uniquely potent stressor: the combination of social isolation and quarantine at home and exposure to the direct effects of COVID-19 on patients and colleagues at work. Both acute and chronic stress can lead to cognitive rigidity in human decision-making, captured by a tendency to over-exploit a worsening option instead of exploring the world around them for a better one.

This study proposes the use of a novel biomarker, hair cortisol level, to assess the effects of chronic stress on mental health and explore/exploit behavior in healthcare workers and control individuals. While traditional biomarkers such as saliva, blood, or urine only measure at a single point in time, hair provides a larger window of detection and allows for a retrospective and longitudinal assessment.

Studying the effects of mandated social isolation and workplace exposures during the COVID-19 pandemic can provide insight into how loneliness and stress impact cognition, depression, anxiety, and how social connections and coping strategies may moderate symptoms.  

“Clinically, this knowledge would help provide us with the tools to understand how patients and clinicians find their resilience during the pandemic,” said the study's lead researchers Alexander Herman, MD, PhD, and David Darrow, MD, MPH. “We are particularly concerned for our colleagues on the front lines. As the health care systems become increasingly overloaded, some are having to widen their scope of practice and work with inadequate PPE. This has led many to experience burnout, stress, fear, and fatigue. Some individuals will be more adversely affected than others, and we seek to understand why.”  

The study's researchers hypothesize that healthcare workers with lower COVID-19 cortisol increases, relative to their stress exposure, exhibit healthier levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms and a greater propensity to explore in a multi-armed Bandit task. They propose that this pattern of physiology and behavior reflects individual resilience to stress during the pandemic.

This project is supported by the UMN Campus Public Health Officer's CO:VID (Collaborative Outcomes: Visionary Innovation & Discovery) grants program, which support University of Minnesota faculty to catalyze and energize small-scale research projects designed to address and mitigate the COVID-19 virus and its associated risks.