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Army grant funds environmental physiology research

March 11, 2007

KALAMAZOO--Western Michigan University researchers are working with a $190,200 U.S. Army grant to create an environmental physiology laboratory that will be the only one of its kind in Michigan and will be used to study the effect of hot and cold temperatures on the human body in combination with other factors.

The grant is from the Department of Defense Army Research Office and is part of the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program. Using the funding that was announced last year, faculty in the WMU Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation have been busy buying and installing diagnostic equipment and creating an 11-foot-by-11-foot, state of the art laboratory in which the effects of heat and cold can be measured in combination with other variables, such as nicotine intake.

Housed in the Student Recreation Center, the environmental physiology lab can measure a subject's cardiovascular system, body temperature, blood flow and other physical reactions to heat and cold in high or low humidity, says Dr. Chris Cheatham, assistant professor of health, physical education and recreation and the grant's principal investigator. Cheatham is being assisted by co-principal investigator Dr. Timothy Michael, associate professor of health, physical education and recreation. The HPER department and College of Education each contributed $10,000 to cover renovation costs.

"We're at a good starting point," Cheatham says. "This grant will make this one of the best environmental labs around. Certainly, in the state of Michigan, nobody will come close to us with respect to environmental physiology study."

Cheatham is eager to begin using the new lab and conducting studies on high heat on human beings in combination with other factors.

"The first question we'll follow up on is, we're interested in finding out how nicotine affects performance in high temperatures," Cheatham says. "The effect of nicotine at cold temperatures is more well understood. But its impact at high temperatures hasn't really been studied."

While studying at Kent State University, Cheatham did his doctoral thesis on how the human body responds to cold temperatures when nicotine is present. Although the body's ability to maintain its internal temperature was not affected, nicotine did have an impact on how much energy is required to avoid a decrease in body temperature. Cheatham continued studying the effects of nicotine on temperature regulation and skin blood flow while doing post-doctoral work with Dr. Gary Mack at the John B. Pierce Laboratory, part of the Yale School of Medicine.

It had been well established that people using tobacco products were more susceptible to frostbite. But Cheatham wanted to find out why. He discovered that nicotine interferes with the body's natural response cycle to cold, in which blood flow is alternately reduced to minimize heat loss and then increased to protect the body from exposure. In the presence of nicotine, it took longer for the onset of increased blood flow and the amount of increase was reduced.

During Cheatham's post-doctoral work, he also became interested in studying the effects of heat and exercise on the cardiovascular system, a research interest he brought to WMU.

Cheatham says the body's physical response to high heat and nicotine might be of particular interest to the U.S. military, since soldiers today are often deployed to hot parts of the world. Since upward of one-fourth of service people use tobacco products, the Army would be interested in funding further research on the combined effect of heat and nicotine on humans. Cheatham submitted his heat-and-nicotine research idea with the equipment grant proposal. He believes the Army is interested in this area of study and that it was a factor in the equipment grant being approved.

Cheatham's interests include studying how heat and other variables can affect the quality and speed of decision-making, cognitive ability and other mental functions that would be of interest in a military situation. He hopes to roll it all into a three-to-four-year study that the Army would be willing to fund. If all goes according to plan and a research grant is approved, data collection could begin by fall 2008. Some preliminary projects can be conducted in the interim.

Cheatham is optimistic additional funding will be approved.

"Getting these types of grants is very competitive," he says. "But the fact that they looked at the conceptual ideas we proposed and then funded the equipment grant bodes well for us."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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