Women in Science: GV Krishnaveni is on a mission to examine effects of early stress on adult health
Epidemiologist GV Krishnaveni is examining how stress in early life leads to non-communicable illnesses in adulthood | The Life of Science | #FirstCulture
Editor's note: Starting National Science Day 2018, The Life of Science and Firstpost bring you a series profiling Indian women in Science. The challenges in Indian scientific life are many — more so for women taking up this path. This series honours those who beat the odds and serve as inspirations for the next generation of Indian science — a generation that is slowly and surely on its way to becoming gender equal.
By Rahul M
Ghattu V Krishnaveni | 44 | Epidemiologist | CSI Holdsworth Memorial Hospital, Mysuru
A young girl anxiously narrated how she and her friends escaped a group of hooligans during a night trek in the hills of Mysuru. Two people faced the girl, maintaining neutral expressions as she recounted the incident. Meanwhile, GV Krishnaveni and two of her colleagues gauged the girl’s mental state by examining her cardiovascular parameters through an apparatus connected to her left wrist.
GV Krishnaveni is India’s leading expert on investigating how improper nutrition in the womb leads to non-communicable diseases. She has recently expanded her research to include stress in young adults.
The experiment I was witnessing went something like this: First, the girl’s saliva sample was taken so that the level of the stress hormone (cortisol) in it could be measured. Then, the girl was asked to relax to some soothing music. After this, she was put through a set of ‘stressors’ — beginning with being asked to narrate a fictional, stressful story and then instructed to quickly solve some arithmetic problems. At the end, another saliva sample was taken to measure the stress through cortisol levels.
Krishnaveni was trying out the Trier social stress test, a test designed in 1993 in Germany’s University of Trier, to induce and understand stress levels in individuals. “In this test, we ask them to perform in front of strangers. If there are repeated stressful situations, cortisol levels become high and keeps rising as long as they are stressed,” the 44-year-old Krishnaveni explained. “If cortisol remains consistently high, people are likely to develop [non-communicable] diseases — both mental and physical — in the future. This is the hypothesis we are testing now.” Krishnaveni’s research problem is “to look at the role of psychological stress in the development of adult chronic diseases.”
Mentored into public health
The girl we met at the beginning (who was narrating the story of the trek) is one of the volunteers in a series of “pilot” experiments that Krishnaveni’s team has been conducting on young adults. Once the test is finalised, it will be used to understand stress levels among around 600 young adults Krishnaveni has been studying for the last two decades.
Krishnaveni’s relationship with these (approximately) 600 boys and girls started when they were still in the wombs of their mothers. In 1997, she had just passed out of Mysore Medical College, when she saw an advertisement for a research position in Mysuru’s Holdsworth Memorial Hospital. Professor Caroline HD Fall, an epidemiologist from University of Southampton, had been doing research at the hospital since 1993, and was looking for someone to assist her. Krishnaveni applied for the position and soon joined Fall in her investigations.
Fall was studying the “early origins of adult disease hypothesis” which was originally put forward by her colleagues in the UK. According to this hypothesis, environmental factors, particularly nutrition, influence an individual’s risk of adverse health in adult life. Barker’s experiments conducted in the mid-1980s showed that low birthweight and small body-size (which were used as proxies to indicate how well nourished the mother was while pregnant) at the time of birth were associated with a greater risk of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and diabetes in later life.
Fall set up a unit for her research in Mysuru’s Mission Hospital (as CSI Holdsworth Memorial Hospital is commonly known) because this hospital had records with details about the birth weight, birth length and head circumference of the infants born at the hospital from 1934. With these details it was possible to repeat Barker’s experiments in India. Fall began this in 1993 and was joined by Krishnaveni in 1997.
Medical case studies: From birth to death
When Krishnaveni took up the job she was just out of medical college, where the norm she remembered was to “read a lot, memorise and reproduce,” she said. This routine did not excite her at all. “That was not my way. I wanted to understand things and interpret them,” she said. Under Fall, she expanded her horizons and was brought closer to research. The duo gradually set up the the Mysore Parthenon Birth Cohort consisting of 600-odd subjects.
According to a paper titled “Cohort Profile: Mysore Parthenon Birth Cohort” published in International Journal of Epidemology in 2014 which Krishnaveni co-authored, “The cohort was established to examine the long-term effects of maternal glucose tolerance and nutritional status on cardiovascular disease risk factors in the offspring.”
Within a few years of working with Fall, Krishnaveni deepened her expertise by going on to do a PhD at University of Southampton where Fall taught. There, she studied the long-term implications of maternal undernutrition and overnutrition for offspring cardio-metabolic risk.
During her research in Mysore, she noticed a public health trend unique to India. “Unlike in the UK, here there were babies born with more fat — chubby babies, short and fat babies — who went on to develop diabetes,” explained Krishnaveni.
Krishnaveni and team have been very resourceful during the study of this cohort. “We had to trace people who were born in the hospital,” recounts Dr K Kumaran, a senior scientist at the unit and Krishnaveni’s colleague in the research unit. “At that time there were many places here which didn’t have proper door numbers. So when we went, we would draw a map of the area, come back and transcribe to a large scale map here and basically mark where we had found people who said they were born in the hospital.” Interestingly, and with efficiency, Kumaran’s team had used various colours and sizes of bindis to mark details on these maps. Once they narrowed down on the people they wanted to study from the area, they persuaded them to volunteer in their research over the next few years.
Apart from some hindrances while travelling, Krishnaveni said that her gender has not affected her work. “At least in this research unit, we have more women researchers than males.” She is unmarried, not because there was too much work, but because “it just didn't happen,” she said.
Krishnaveni believes that her work will provide important leads for next-generation preventive strategies for non-communicable disease in susceptible individuals across the world. She also plans to develop multi-faceted interventions for future use among vulnerable youth to manage stress.
All the individuals seen in the photographs have consented to appear in the images for this essay
Read more from the Women in Science series here.
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