Broadly speaking, my research interests fall within the fields of psychoneuroimmunology, ecoimmunology, behavioral endocrinology, and evolutionary medicine, all within an anthropological framework that focuses on human variation.
Current research questions include: how do our brains and immune systems affect each other, what implications does this have for our mood and behavior, what are the mechanisms underlying this phenomenon, do these brain/immune system interconnections vary predictably due to environmental (physical and social) conditions, and are these phenomena an evolved response to infectious disease?
Briefly, sickness behavior is a constellation of behavioral changes that occurs during an infection. It has been observed in a variety of animals, from goldfish to humans, and is driven by several proinflammatory cytokines, including interleukin-6 and tumor necrosis factor-alpha. Characteristic changes include reduced social behavior, fatigue, and diet and cognitive disturbances, among others. It is thought that sickness behavior serves to divert energy towards mounting an effective immune response and away from less important behaviors, such as socialization. Finally, these behavioral changes appear to vary in their strength, and can even be "turned off" or at least ignored by the sick animal depending on social or environmental context. It is possible that certain hormones, such as testosterone, cortisol, and oxytocin, that have effects on both behavior and immune function could underlie this variation.
While we have a fairly good understanding of sickness behavior in model organisms (e.g., rodents), it has not been researched to the same degree in humans.
The ultimate goal of my research to date is to gain a more complete understanding of human sickness behavior in general and to formulate a more standardized research methodology, which can then be applied to other populations across the globe.
Another major research interest of mine is pathogen-mediated behavioral change in the host. Unlike sickness behavior, these behavioral changes serve to benefit the pathogen or parasite. There are multiple, well-documented, instances of this phenomenon among non-human animals, including ants and rodents. This fascinating phenomenon is, so far, unsubstantiated in humans. My master's degree research at SUNY Binghamton was a pilot test of this possibility in a sample of individuals receiving the influenza vaccine, and I plan on revisiting this research in the future.