Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, June 10, 2013

Herd to use $6.7 million federal grant for genetic research on Wisconsin Longitudinal Study participants

Pam Herd

La Follette School sociologist Pamela Herd has received a $6.7 million grant from the National Institute on Aging to generate genetic research on participants in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study.

WLS has followed the life course of 10,317 Wisconsin high school graduates of 1957 and randomly selected siblings through repeated surveys (in 1964, 1975, 1993-94, 2004-06 and 2010-11) and through data resources such as high school records, yearbooks, and disability, Social Security, Medicare and death records.

"The WLS thus has created a detailed record of the educational, social, psychological, economic and mental and physical health characteristics that will allow for path-breaking analyses of the role of genetics in determining a range of health and behavioral outcomes," Herd says. "The grant funds will also allow for the exploration of how genes interact with the environment to shape these outcomes."

WLS began collecting DNA samples in 2007-08 by mail and, more recently, during the course of home interviews that began in March 2010. "We will be able to match genetic markers against the other data we have collected," Herd says. "Ultimately, we will better understand the genetics of aging, including behavior, cognition, affect, personality, health, disease, and mortality."

The principal investigator for the WLS, Herd has a joint appointment with the La Follette School of Public Affairs and the Department of Sociology. Her co-principal investigators on the genetics project funded by the National Institute on Aging (part of the National Institutes of Health) are Robert Hauser of the National Academy of Sciences, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and former principal investigator of the WLS, and Jeremy Freese of Northwestern University. Their goal is to create a public good, a data resource that can facilitate cutting edge research in genetic studies of aging.

In sharing data with researchers, the WLS gives appropriate and careful attention to the privacy and confidentiality of research participants. "We will continue this tradition with the addition of these genetic data," Herd says. "Researchers, via varying mechanisms, will have access to all of the genetic, socioeconomic and health data the WLS has to offer. Our procedures and mechanisms reduce barriers to access and use of these data, while ensuring protections for our research participants."

The WLS has followed its participants and selected sibling from adolescence to today when participants are in their early 70s, Herd says. "The sibling data allow researchers to control for the family genetic heritage shared by siblings and family of origin environmental factors."