Spitting for science

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by Alexander D. Chapin & Perla Farias
May 05, 2014
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Spitting for science

Can making music with other people bond us on a biological level? Researchers at Arizona State University are studying saliva to find out if hormones work in concert among a college marching band.

Full transcript

 [background music]

Serena Weren, doctoral student, School of Music:  Why do so many people come away from a musical performance feeling exhilarated, feeling this wonderful sense of performance? For anyone who's had that experience, they know what I'm talking about.

Olga Kornienko, assistant research professor, T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics:  This is an interdisciplinary project in which a team of bio‑behavioral scientists, social scientists, like myself, and musicians, we are studying how social networks and music making operate in a marching band of Arizona State University.

We hope to uncover the wide directional associations between the social relationships within the marching band, music making, and the physiological underpinning, specifically hormone levels of cortisol and testosterone.

Douglas Granger, Foundation Professor and director, Institute for Interdisciplinary Bioscience Research:  That concept emerged from some early work we did, where we looked at moms and babies, and we found that the correlation between cortisol levels for moms and babies was very high. Subsequently, we showed that that was true in newlywed couples.

Our curiosity led us towards this place of thinking about people who share common social experience. They would have similar levels of these biomarkers.

Kornienko:  It seemed like a good opportunity to bring these diverse research agendas together and come up with this interdisciplinary study.

Granger:  Just two hormones the we are looking at, in particular, one is cortisol, and one is testosterone. Our work over the years has shown that they are very accurately measured in saliva, so the correlation between what is in your saliva, the levels of those hormones in your saliva, and what's in your blood is very high.

We can use saliva as a minimally invasive alternative to blood sampling. Testosterone and cortisol are both biomarkers; they reflect the activity of very specific biological systems. We know a tremendous amount about their impact in the body and their effect on cells. If you think about it, there is a long history of work that talks about social support and health and stress.

People believe that having a very extensive social support network is the buffer to stress and would protect you from getting sick, so we're quite interested in how intrinsic individual differences are related to how people respond biologically to context; and now with some focus on sophisticated knowledge about social network modeling, we are able to look at that social context in a completely different way.

Weren:  We have two rehearsal, one in the beginning of the season in September and one in the end of the season, in November. During those two rehearsals, students come prior to the rehearsals and provide a saliva sample And they do an online questionnaire, giving us information about their personality, as well as their history with marching band and marching band activities.

Then at the end of rehearsal they give us another saliva sample, and fill out a questionnaire where they tell us about who their friends are, where they have conflicted relationships, who do they go to for performance advice, so now we're able to have this really huge data set that has really so many different ways that we can look at the marching band and the social networks and the performance networks, and then compare those to what's going on in their bodies, using the saliva sample analysis.

Granger:  There's lots of interesting things to think about in terms of parenting, and also in terms of how you coach people. Then I think we are centrally involved in the business world, as well, and thinking about how people perform in business and in military situations, there is so many different avenues of impact.

But, you know, it's hard to speculate about that too much and get excited about too much, because this is just the third study, so we have much more to learn.

Weren:  I think as human beings we have a curiosity to understand and ask questions and research helps us provide the answers and ask more questions and find out what we don't know, and then find things we do know. It's an exciting process and I love being able to be a part of it.