The research group of Julie Bienertová Vašků at the Masaryk University Faculty of Medicine published a bold concept several weeks ago in the journal Plos One. The group members have come up with – and tested – a mathematical procedure to calculate the cumulative stress burden on people as well as how long can they withstand the burden.
There is no shortage of research trying to describe the impact of stress on people. But sooner or later, most experts hit the same problem: stress factors can differ and have a different impact on different people. Vašků also points out this fundamental obstacle: “Fellow researchers who previously looked into this issue tried to quantify the forces that people are exposed to, but that is virtually impossible. We can never account for everything – and even if we could, these forces also influence each other and they do not have the same effect on everyone.”
She and her colleagues at the Department of Pathological Physiology chose the opposite approach. Their theory does not try to monitor which forces have a stronger or weaker effect on people. What they are interested in is how people react to them and what the effects of these stimuli are on their bodies.
The group, which consists of experts from several specialisations, works with the concept of entropy in their research. They perceive it as a thermal trace that is left in people by the combined effects of forces in the environment and that also differs based on the unique characteristics of each individual. “Our approach is innovative in that we look at a purely biological phenomenon from a physical perspective, following the work of the very first stress researchers,” says physicist Filip Zlámal. After several years of work, the team arrived at an equation that takes into account factors such as the amount of oxygen received and the amount of carbon dioxide that we breathe out, the amount of heat emitted, and the core body temperature.
The result of the equation is the value of entropy produced by a living system in a unit of time – or, more precisely, the increment of entropy compared to the amount that was already present in the system. This means that the concept is meant to calculate how much stress has a person “accumulated”, rather than just its immediate amount. The researchers have already passed the stages of formulating the mathematics, testing the equation, and extensive discussion of the idea in the scientific community. Now they need to test the concept in practice.
Among other things, they need a special device for the calculations, which can currently only be found in the US and UK. “We have just reached an agreement with our British colleagues, who will take some measurements for us. That will be a huge boost to our progress,” adds Vašků. If all of this really works, it will be a big step for medicine. While patients currently often hear rather vague pieces of advice and warnings that there will be consequences unless they slow down, the newly obtainable information would identify the boundary marking the zone that already poses a risk to their health.