BY KENDYL HOLLINGSWORTH
If you are an adult who experiences high blood pressure, or simply has the desire to help with medical research, researchers at Auburn University could use your help.
Dr. Austin Robinson, an assistant professor in the School of Kinesiology, is working with five students in the Neurovascular Physiology Lab (NVPL) on Auburn’s campus to study vascular function.
Through studies that involve high-sodium diets, lifestyle choices and dietary supplements like MitoQ, the research team aims to determine how these factors affect blood pressure and blood vessel function. But beyond that, Robinson said the lab focuses a lot on racial disparities when it comes to these functions.
“There’s a lot of literature in the scientific record showing that Black adults have greater proportion of what’s called ‘salt sensitivity,’” Robinson said, meaning their blood pressure may change a lot in response to how much salt they consume. “… What we’re trying to do is kind of establish the ‘why,’ and that’s one of the major things that we do in the lab.”
Robinson, who also serves as director of the NVPL, said the lab began collecting data for some of these studies as early as October 2020. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, things were put on hold.
Now, the team is proceeding in full force, thanks in large part to a $300,000 grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This type of grant is given to universities that don’t typically receive much NIH funding. According to Robinson, NIH funds about 70% of the biomedical research conducted in the U.S.
“This particular grant is to kind of help build the research infrastructure here, and then it also emphasizes participation of undergraduate researchers, and that’s something that we kind of pride ourselves on in the lab,” Robinson said. “Every semester, we have at least five or six undergraduate students who are helping us out in different capacities, whether it’s entering data or processing blood and urine samples and analyzing some of the data — stuff like that.”
The NVPL is recruiting participants for three paid studies:
• The Effects of a High Salt Meal on Blood Flow Regulation – for adults 19 to 75 years old with blood pressure no higher than 150/90 and a body mass index (BMI) no greater than 35 kg/m², with no metabolic, liver, pulmonary and cardiovascular disease, and who do not smoke or use tobacco or blood thinners. Includes a screening visit and two experimental visits. Pay is $225.
• Antioxidant Supplementation and Blood Vessel Health – for adults 19 to 75 years old with blood pressure no higher than 150/90 and a body mass index (BMI) no greater than 40 kg/m², with no metabolic, liver, pulmonary and cardiovascular disease, and who do not use blood thinners. Includes a screening visit and two experimental visits. Pay is $300.
• MitoQ Antioxidant Supplement and Blood Vessel Health – for adults 45 to 75 years old with blood pressure no higher than 150/90 and a body mass index (BMI) no greater than 35 kg/m², with no metabolic, liver, pulmonary and cardiovascular disease, and who do not use blood thinners. Includes a screening visit and four experimental visits, totaling about 12 hours within an 18-week period. Pay is $600.
MitoQ is an antioxidant taken orally. Its purpose is to target free radical damage, or dysfunction caused by unstable atoms, in the mitochondria of cells. Free radical damage can help cause a variety of chronic health problems, according to “Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health,” published in the NIH’s National Library of Medicine.
Both antioxidant studies involve taking the antioxidant supplement and a placebo, but it’s random which one the participant will receive first.
“We’re giving this supplement to both white and Black adults, but the idea that we kind of have is that it’s going to have more of a benefit in Black adults because they might have more free radical damage and more hypertension and blood vessel dysfunction to begin with,” Robinson explained.
This research holds some personal meaning for Robinson, whose own experience with high blood pressure in his youth sparked his interest in studying exercise science and cardiovascular health.
“I want to say I was 13 or 14, went to the doctor — and it was just a routine physical for, like, football — and my blood pressure was really high,” he recalled.
He was prescribed hypertension medication but was later able to normalize his blood pressure through lifestyle changes, such as diet and exercise. But as an African American male growing up in a blue-collar area, Robinson said he could see how environment could also influence someone’s health.
“We don’t think that Black people are just born at higher risk for disease, like innately, so it’s definitely a lot to do with the environment and social context,” he said. “And there’s published literature on that, too. Like, for example, in Jamaica or Nigeria — there’s other countries that have a high proportion of people with West African ancestry, and they don’t necessarily have the same rates of high blood pressure and stuff like that. So, it definitely shows the importance of the environment and how that influences health disparities.”
Zach Hutchison, a lab technician and PhD student, said he believes the NVPL’s work is important, and he hopes others in the community will recognize the value of their participation in these studies.
“I think once … they can kind of see that we’re really trying to help — we’re trying to drive science forward — that hopefully we develop that relationship with the community,” he said.
Robinson said the NVPL’s work is also unique in that it extends beyond the lab.
“In our lab, we’re basically broadly interested in these health disparities, but then, I think, the angle that we’re looking at it from that makes our work unique is that we work with other investigators here at Auburn to try to capture some of the social determinants of health that are contributing to the health disparities,” he said.
That includes working with people who have backgrounds in psychology, as well as human development and family studies, to assess environmental factors with questionnaires. Questions might ask where the participant grew up, if they have depression or anxiety, if they feel that they experience racial discrimination, or if they’ve had adverse childhood experiences.
Robinson said the goal with this research is to inform medical practices, including drug development, but also to inform policy.
“We might find that something like neighborhood poverty is one of the major mediators of a health disparity,” he said. “I think that could inform policy where we start trying to target kids at a younger age, like with their school programs or different interventions, to try to get them less exposure to some of the negative aspects of living in a poor neighborhood, and that could maybe kind of move the needle a little bit in terms of the health disparities.”
Anyone interested in participating in any of these studies should email their name and contact information to the lab at email@example.com. For more information on the NVPL and its work, visit www.education.auburn.edu/initiatives/neurovascular-physiology-laboratory-austin-robinson-ph-d/.