Sunday, March 13, 2011

Geek of the Week: Dr. Robert Sapolsky

Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky
Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky is not your average scientist.  The curly-haired, bushy-bearded professor is a world renowned expert on stress.  In addition to teaching biology and neurology at prestigious Stanford University, he is the author of the critically-acclaimed book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers*.  Sapolsky has spent the last 30 years studying the correlation of interaction and stress-related diseases among the baboon population of Kenya. He postulates that baboon relationships mirror basic human relationships, and by studying stress in baboons, he can infer the effects of stress on humans.

While working on his doctorate, Sapolsky discovered that chronically stressed lab rats had significantly diminished brain capacity when compared with non-stressed rats.  Specifically, chronic stress affected the rats' hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory.  In his work with baboons, he has also discovered that the animal's place in the social hierarchy affects the cortisol levels in the blood.  In layman's terms, the higher status the baboon has, the lower its stress level.  Sapolsky, along with his colleagues, discovered that the earlier a child experiences major stress in their lives, the greater effect it will have on their adulthood.

He has also taken the study of stress to a cellular level.  Telemiers are the "caps" that protect your individual strands of DNA.  As we age, the telemiers deteriorate, but Sapolsky noticed in his research that high levels of stress accelerate telemier deterioration.  It's fascinating stuff and Sapolsky is fascinating to listen to.  (I highly recommend the National Geographic documentary, Killer Stress, in which Sapolsky is featured heavily.)

*I will be posting a review of this book on Saturday.


  1. okay, i will be honest, i saw his beard, scrolled down past your nicely written blog just to post this:

    i hate beards.

  2. Me too, but doesn't Jon have a beard?


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