STEM Shoutout: Dr. Siobhán Mattison

Anthropology professor publishes a paper on high-altitude health


Dr. Siobhán M. Mattison, an assistant professor in the UNM Department of Anthropology, has published a paper on how high-altitude adaptations mitigate risk of chronic disease.

The paper was published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology April 1, 2020 under the title “High-altitude adaptations mitigate risk for hypertension and diabetes-associated anemia.”

In the mountains of Southwest China, Mattison led a research team to study the Mosuo, a high-altitude population found to be at lower risk for hypertension and diabetes-associated anemia than low-altitude Han populations. The research team included American and Chinese anthropologists, biologists, demographers, and geneticists including faculty from the University of New Mexico, Binghamton University, and the Fudan University School of Life Sciences.

The researchers noticed differences in the Mosuo health profile as they compared their findings to health data on the more general Chinese population. 

“The research suggests that, as chronic diseases continue to grow as global health concerns, it will become increasingly important to investigate how risk may be affected by genetic adaptations to the local environment,” Mattison said.

Research proved that “the risk is actually lower, [The Mosuo] have low risk of high-blood pressure and they have lower risk of anemia that is typically associated with diabetes. Lots of people there have diabetes actually, but they don’t seem to get the anemia that typically accompanies that,” she said. 

Because the Mosuo live in environments where they have lower oxygen availability, it makes it a difficult place to live, but also give them a higher blood flow due to genetic mechanisms that dilate the blood vessels, which increases oxygen delivery.

“Now we are working with geneticists too, to sort of validate the thinking about how closely related this population is to folks that have these kinds of adaptations,” Mattison said. The research team is wondering whether the Mosuo might be closely related to the Tibetan populations, who also shows signs of low anemia.

Mattison said she hopes this work raises interest in other researchers around the world to study other populations that have unique conditions and compare results. 

“There are two really obvious next steps for the project. The first one is to really get a sense of the kind of genetic differences, if any, that the Mosuo [population] express, and whether the kinds of changes that we are seeing have anything observable in the genum. […] The other thing that I think would be really interesting is the extent to which this generalizes to [other] high altitude populations. That’s really cool to think about, there are a lot of high altitude populations all over the world,” Mattison said.