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The association between ambient air pollution and depression symptoms among University of Utah patients

Summer 2023

Project Background

Exposure to ambient air pollution is associated with a number of poor physical health outcomes including cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and total mortality. Recent research reported that air pollution reduces an individual's average life expectancy worldwide by 2.9 years, which is equivalent to that of tobacco smoking. The biological mechanisms through which air pollution is hypothesized to impact physical health include inflammation and oxidative stress. The negative effects of these biological processes, however, are not limited to physical health outcomes. Mounting evidence suggests that the negative effects of exposure to poor air quality also influence an individual's mental health. A Utah-based study conducted by Huntsman Mental Health Researchers, the first U.S.-based study of its kind, identified a heightened risk of suicide death associated with short-term exposure (up to four days preceding a suicide) to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). These findings have now been replicated in culturally, geographically, and meteorologically diverse regions of the world such as Belgium, Japan, China, and England. Suicide mortality is an extreme outcome of poor mental health and much remains to be discovered about how correlates of suicide risk such as depression symptoms, which may be modifiable, vary based on exposure to ambient air pollution. The proposed study aims to investigate the relationship between short-term ambient air pollution exposure and variation in depression symptom severity among patients visiting a primary care clinic at University of Utah Health.

This project is funded by a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (PIs: Sara Grineski and Tim Collins). In addition to being part of SPUR, it is also part of the HAPPIEST programApplicants must be University of Utah students who identify in one or more of the following ways (defined by the National Institutes of Health): Blacks or African Americans, Hispanics or Latinxs, American Indians or Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders. Two students will be selected to work on this project together.

Student Role

The student can expect to 1) conduct a literature review on the topic of ambient air pollution and depression symptoms, 2) assist with data preparation and management including accessing and working with spatially-explicit data sets, 3) assist with study design, 4) conduct data visualization (potentially in R, SAS and/or ArcGIS), and conduct or assist with conducting descriptive analyses investigating changes in ambient air pollution and depression symptoms over time among University of Utah patients, and 5) conduct or assist with conducting a more complex case-crossover or time-series study to examine the relationship between ambient air pollution concentrations and risk of depression symptoms. The student will also have the opportunity to participate in weekly lab meetings with other faculty, staff, and students.

Student Learning Outcomes and Benefits

At the conclusion of the summer program, the student will have completed a thorough literature review on the topic of ambient air pollution and depression symptoms, which will serve as the foundation of an introduction for a future journal article. The student will have gained a comprehensive understanding of what is known about ambient air pollution and depression as well as current knowledge gaps. Further, the student will have gained experience with data visualization, some statistical analysis approaches, and with the interpretation of results. Most importantly, participation on this project will result in improvement in foundational skills for career development including writing and analytical skills.

Amanda Bakian

Research Associate Professor

Bakian's expertise in statistics and epidemiology puts her in a strong position to mentor undergraduate students in the design and analysis of individual- and ecologic-level studies assessing the relationship between ambient air pollution and risk of psychiatric outcomes. She can provide guidance throughout the experimental design process from hypothesis development and data acquisition/preparation to data analysis and interpretation. Bakian has gained extensive mentoring experience participating on graduate student committees (4), mentoring Department of Psychiatry research staff (>10), and serving as the formal mentor to a junior faculty member. Her hands-on approach encourages mentees to distill and articulate their interests and develop ideas and projects; at the same time, she directs them to essential data and analytical resources. She strives to create a team environment inclusive of faculty, staff, and students, so that mentees benefit from input from senior researchers as well as peers.