Warhawk Spotlight: AUM research shakes up common health diagnosis

by Neil Probst | Mar 14, 2016

Megan Traffanstedt

Excellence: An Auburn University at Montgomery research team’s study that refutes a common medical diagnosis, published online in January and in print in February, is causing a stir in medical and consumer medical communities. The study also has garnered attention from more than 140 publications and media outlets for the research team of Megan Traffanstedt and Dr. Steven LoBello.

Media outlets that have covered the AUM research include Glamourdna India, MSN.com, CBS News, WebMD, Yahoo! Health, U.S. News & World Report, and the Carlisle Wellness Network.

Traffanstedt, an AUM graduate who earned a B.S. in Psychology from Auburn University before completing her M.S. in Psychology at AUM in 2014, worked with LoBello, a professor in AUM’s Department of Psychology, to develop her thesis that casts doubt on the existence of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a medical diagnosis that concludes that patients become depressed because of seasonally related changes in sunlight.

Traffanstedt’s article, “Major Depression with Seasonal Variation: Is it a Valid Construct?” is now published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

Traffanstedt, whose thesis committee also included AUM psychology professors Dr. Sheila Mehta and Dr. Peter Zachar, initiated a study that compared information from several databases to build a case that individuals do not become depressed, for example, simply because of diminished sunlight.

To study survey respondents’ levels of depression throughout the year, Traffanstedt analyzed data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.    

In addition, Traffanstedt obtained data from the U.S. Naval Observatory on daily sunlight to correlate survey respondents’ depression scores with the amount of sunlight on the day they were interviewed. 

According to the research team, the more recent survey methodology asks respondents about depression symptoms in the previous two weeks and does not signal to respondents the possibility of a connection between depression and seasonal changes. Some earlier studies asked respondents questions such as, “Do you think you get more depressed in the winter?” and in many instances asked respondents to recall episodes of depression from previous winters.

“So people answered the older surveys retrospectively,” Mehta said, “and because we have this belief that reduced sunlight exposure can make you depressed, you can see the problem with the validity of that instrument.”

For Traffanstedt and LoBello, the collaboration in the research made the experience of studying seasonal depression especially satisfying. Over eight months, the professor and student shared ideas and insights while Traffanstedt brought the thesis to fruition.

“She took the concept and ran. She made really good, fast progress, and she would always be much further along than she was a week before. It was a joy,” LoBello said.

For Traffanstedt, AUM’s comfortable learning atmosphere was a great help.

“Dr. LoBello was so supportive through the entire process. The professors at AUM help out students,” Traffanstedt said. “And the class sizes are small, so that gives you a better one-on-one connection with your professors, and that was very helpful as well.”

(Editor’s note: The Warhawk Spotlight features news about people, projects and programs at AUM that illustrate our Core Values. Need a refresher on our Core Values?)