Dr. Ebony Glover seeks answers in brain and behavior science research
Pursuing research in her field of behavioral neuroscience started more as a practical matter for Ebony Glover, fueled by a healthy dose of curiosity. As a largely self-funded undergraduate psychology major at Atlanta’s Spelman College, she jumped at the chance to earn a stipend to participate in a series of research talks by high-profile neuroscientists.
After hearing one of them discuss a model of animals’ fear response to post-traumatic stress — “fear-potentiated startle” in the scientific jargon — Glover said she was “hooked.” “It was something about how he described fear as a biological construct and not just a feeling or emotion.”
As associate professor of neuroscience in Kennesaw State’s Department of Psychological Science, Glover has followed the path from her undergraduate courses in the brain and behavior through a nearly 20-year research career. She conducted doctoral studies and research in neuroscience and animal behavior at Emory University, post-doctoral research on human subjects at Grady Hospital, and, most recently, research into sex-linked biological factors for women’s heightened risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Along the way, she has attracted more than $620,000 in funding for her research interests, including teaching research to undergraduates and helping increase diversity among researchers. She also has published more than 20 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. Last fall, she received her most prestigious grant, a three-year, $406,000 R15 Academic Research Enhancement Award from the National Institute of Health, to determine why women have such a disproportionate rate of PTSD and other anxiety disorders — nearly two times the rate for men — and worse outcomes in treatment.
“I’ve been concerned about the mental health disparities related to sex and race in general for some time,” Glover said. “I started this research to determine if there was some biological mechanism at play in this disparity. When I started looking at the literature, I discovered there was very little research examining the female brain. Even the pre-clinical research on animals was almost exclusively done on male subjects.”
As she pursued understanding the roles of various neurochemicals in modulating fear learning and memory in rats, a break came when she worked on post-doctoral research at Grady Hospital with a team of neuroscientists from Emory University. They were working to develop a way to translate the startle model for measuring response to fear from animals to humans, using stimuli like a blast of air to the back of the throat rather than electric shock. With this translational model, she and her colleagues were able to study risk factors for developing PTSD in a “highly traumatized” clinical sample of patients at Grady Hospital, where she began looking at sex as an important biological determinant in PTSD, examining the impact of hormones like estrogen.
When she joined Kennesaw State’s faculty in 2014, Glover said she hoped to continue her translational research in order to study the impact of additional hormones such as progesterone and synthetic hormones found in contraceptives on the fear responses in women with PTSD. However, a lack of space and access to a dedicated wet lab to analyze hormone levels and other biological markers put her work on hold.
While the accommodations did not immediately meet her longer-term research goals, Glover said the pause allowed her to focus on another passion: working with and training undergraduate students in research. Using funds from the University’s Office of Research and the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, she trained students in collecting and compiling physiological data for studies examining sex influences in regulating emotions. Students worked with Glover collecting study participants’ arousal levels, changes in in sweat gland activity, motor responses, startle reflex and other data.
Additional funding from the Department of Psychological Science and the Norman J. Radow College of Humanities and Social Sciences provided the research equipment and supplies Glover needed to set up a fear-potentiated startle research model program at Kennesaw State in 2017, including the creation of a behavioral isolation booth to do experimental training and conduct fear conditioning. Through a collaboration with Sharon Pearcey, professor of psychology, Doreen Wagner, professor of nursing, and the Wellstar School of Nursing, Glover eventually realized a dedicated office and research space to collect physiological data for a pilot program. She also gained access to a wet lab in Wellstar College, where she, Wagner, and Pearcey were able to analyze and measure biological markers in the brain.
Glover and her research team of collaborating faculty and dozens of student researchers collected pilot data from nearly 200 participants over three academic semesters from fall 2017 to fall 2019. The pilot data was used to support her current NIH grant.
Glover is already looking ahead to the potential of fear-motivated startle research in understanding the fear and anxiety response across racial lines and among populations that have been traditionally understudied.
The implications of this research could be enormously helpful in understanding the reactions of white police officers in confrontations with black male suspects and issues related to policing and race, Glover noted. “We’re just not seeing very much study of it in the neuroscientific literature," she said. “I’ve been developing the tools for empirical, objective measurement of these unconscious and innate responses.”
Researching areas where there are sex and racial differences and disparities in mental health outcomes and where there are huge gaps in the research literature has been very helpful in attracting students and diversity among researchers, Glover noted.
For her, inspiring underrepresented groups to pursue careers in science and to focus on issues that disproportionately affect underrepresented groups and those that have mental health disparities is the holy grail of research.
“It’s not so much the research itself,” she said. “It’s impacting aspiring researchers, giving them agency to believe they can add something to the scientific literature that will help the conditions that disproportionately affect women and racial minorities."
– written by Sabbaye McGriff