New faculty member focuses on stress and its effects on aging

January 24, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Stress has long-term effects on the genome and may cause early aging, according to new Penn State faculty member Idan Shalev’s research. He investigates the aging process and how stress erodes telomeres, a part of chromosomes that protects them from deterioration.

Shalev joined the University's Department of Biobehavioral Health in January as part of the cluster hire in child maltreatment being conducted by Penn State’s Network on Child Protection and Well-Being .

Victims of child abuse often experience trauma. That stress can boost the aging process or cause diseases usually found in older persons to emerge at earlier ages. Shalev hopes his research will identify the mechanisms linking early stress and aging that can be translated into effective prevention and treatment methods.

“Once the telomeres get to a critically short length, the cells start to die,” he said. “Like the plastic caps at the end of shoe laces, they protect the chromosomes from unraveling. But once chromosomes start to unravel, biological aging begins.”

Shalev, along with Jennie Noll, professor of human development and family studies; Chad Shenk, assistant professor of human development; and Lori Frasier, director of the Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital Division of Child Abuse Pediatrics, were the first four of at least 12 hires to join the network since fall 2013. Two additional faculty members: Brian Allen and Kent Hymel; will join the College of Medicine later this semester.

This group of faculty members is strengthening the University’s research, education and engagement efforts in the area of child maltreatment. The Network was launched in response to a recommendation from the Presidential Task Force on Child Maltreatment in the fall of 2012.

“Idan’s study of maltreatment is at the molecular level,” said Doug Teti, professor of human development, psychology and pediatrics and chair of the Network’s cluster hire search committee. “It’s a new perspective, and he is a strong addition to the expertise that is and will be here at the University.”

"Unfortunately, maltreatment is growing in prevalence all over the world. We know its long-lasting effects on health. The research we are doing is very important.”

-- Idan Shalev, assistant professor of biobehavioral health

Penn State has a long history of conducting innovative research in child and family health and development. The network is building cross-disciplinary and University-community collaborations to translate research into effective and sustainable, real-world practice.

“Bringing together people from all disciplines and perspectives is a great step,” Shalev said. “This is a significant undertaking at Penn State, channeling these efforts to address this important issue of maltreatment. Unfortunately, maltreatment is growing in prevalence all over the world. We know its long-lasting effects on health. The research we are doing is very important.”

Telomere science is relatively new. For Shalev, the connection between the fields of psychology, wherein stress has a long history of study and biology, which has had a major emphasis on physical health, opens to the door to a wide range of novel research possibilities. His interest in the area began during his time as an army medic.

Shalev is from Israel, where military service is mandatory. Observing the kind of stress soldiers endure inspired Shalev to study its effects on human health. During his doctoral education, Shalev started focusing on individual differences in response to a stressful task in the lab. During his postdoctoral training, he developed interest in early life development and learned how the stress of sexual or physical abuse on children can be detrimental to their development, and focused his research to that area.

“The first 15-20 years of life is a very important time in the maintenance of telomeres,” Shalev said. “Finding specific mechanisms that can be targeted for intervention is a prime goal for me.”

Shalev came to Penn State from Duke University where he was a postdoctoral associate. He received his doctorate in neurobiology from Hebrew University.

  • Idan Shalev

    Idan Shalev is an assistant professor of biobehavioral health.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated April 04, 2014