Molecular Pathways Linking Socioeconomic Status, Stress Experiences, and Asthma Severity in Children

About three million Canadians have asthma, a chronic disease of the airways that causes shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, coughing, and wheezing. The prevalence of asthma among children in the developed world has been rapidly increasing, with up to one in four urban children affected. Research shows that stressful life experiences as well as low socioeconomic status have been linked to poor asthma outcomes in children. To date, few studies have examined the common underlying molecular mechanisms behind these links. Dr. Jutta Wolf is investigating how these two variables — stress experiences and socioeconomic status (SES) — can biologically influence asthma symptoms. Stress can cause immune cells to produce more “cytokine” molecules. Cytokines are proteins that stimulate or inhibit the activity of immune cells, which can aggravate asthma symptoms. Stress is also associated with the release of the hormone cortisol. Jutta is examining whether cortisol is incapable of suppressing a molecule called NF-kappa B, which causes immune cells to produce more cytokines in asthma patients, exacerbating their symptoms. This research could help care providers identify early signs of worsening asthma in children, so their condition can be better managed.