Date published: 7/1/2015

The mind and body are linked in complex and interesting ways. My research examines the interactions between these systems and their implications for their health and well-being, with a focus on the immune system.

One area of my work examines how stress influences mental and physical health, and the “risk and resilience” factors that determine individual responses to a particular stressor.  On the resilience side, my lab has shown that individuals who are able to find some positive benefit or meaning in a stressful experience show enhanced immune function and physical health.  Positive affect also seems to promote psychological and immunological well-being in the aftermath of stress, and we are trying to track down the biological mechanisms for these effects.  On the risk side, my students and I are very interested in how trauma in early life can shape psychological and biological responses in adulthood.  For example, we have shown that breast cancer survivors who have experienced more childhood stressors have higher levels of inflammation, which is linked to poor mental and physical health. 

In addition to work on the “top down” effects of stress on the immune system, my lab also examines how changes in the immune system can feed back to influence the brain and behavior.  Much of my work in this area has focused on fatigue and other behavioral problems that commonly occur in cancer patients (including depression, sleep disturbance, and “chemobrain”), and we have shown that patients who experience these problems do show elevations in markers of inflammation.  We are currently conducting research to determine what drives persistent alterations in inflammatory activity following cancer and other stressors, and whether this leads to premature aging.   In addition, we are interested in how inflammation may influence the brain during key developmental periods, such as adolescence. 

Ultimately, the goal of this work is to develop targeted interventions to improve psychological and physical well-being in vulnerable populations.  I am particularly interested in mind-body interventions, such as yoga and mindfulness meditation.  My colleagues and I have conducted several randomized controlled trials that have demonstrated beneficial effects of these interventions on stress, behavioral symptoms (like fatigue), and inflammatory activity in breast cancer survivors.   

I have been fascinated by mind-body interactions since I first found my way into a neuroscience class as an undergraduate at Brown University.  I grew up in Los Angeles and was happy to return here for graduate school in the clinical psychology program at UCLA.  I completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA, and joined the faculty in 2001.  Obviously, I have never wanted to leave – the environment is incredibly supportive, stimulating, and challenging, and a great place to work and live.