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The scientific team assembled for the new Center for Mind-Body Interaction will explore emotional pathways to physical health from a variety of perspectives. Here are the five interrelated projects that will be pursued:
Resilience in the face of later-life challenges
In later life, people may experience more of life’s slings and arrows, including health problems, loss of loved ones and lessening engagement with the world. This project will look at the health and well-being of 150 older women who have recently gone through the difficult experience of community relocation.
Prior UW research has shown that some members of this group have been remarkably resilient and upbeat during this transition, while others experience setbacks. This research will tease out some of the health-related correlations with resilience, and potentially show the way to delaying or preventing some diseases and mental health problems associated with later life.
Overseeing this project is Carol Ryff, professor of psychology and director of the UW–Madison Institute on Aging. She studies positive mental health, a topic that has received scant attention in the social science and health fields given the traditional focus on mental illness.
Social and economic influences on mental health
People who study mind-body interaction are finding evidence of how positive attitudes can be a protective factor for our health, but attitude isn’t everything. For example, lower-income and lower-occupational status groups are typically held in lower social regard and are exposed to more stressful life conditions that may make it harder for them to feel happy and in control of their lives.
This study will take stock of social influences on the mind, tapping information from three large national studies: The national Survey of Families and Households; the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study; and the National Survey of Midlife.
Overseeing this project is Nadine Marks, professor of child and family studies. Marks studies a broad variety of psycho-social factors that influence mental and physical health at midlife, including socio- economic status, caregiving responsibilities and work-family spillover.
Measuring the power of positive outlooks
Diagnosis with a serious illness can be overwhelming, but some people make a remarkable adjustment and manage to sustain a positive outlook and a sense of psychological well-being. This study will compare symptoms and physiology in women with two debilitating conditions, fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis, with the goal of determining the benefits of maintaining a positive emotional outlook.
In a second phase of the study, half the women in each group will be taught a special type of meditation. Differences will be compared between the two groups in pain sensitivity, immune response and measures of psychological health. The project’s mission is to provide a physiological explanation for the widely held belief that emotions can influence our physiology.
Overseeing this project is Christopher Coe, a professor of psychology. Coe is a leader in the study of the psychological and neurological influences on the immune system. In studies with both animals and humans, he has shown that stressful life events can significantly undermine immune function. Rheumatologist Daniel Muller, UW Medical School associate professor of medicine, will oversee the clinical aspects of this project.
Brain circuits linked to coping with stress
Sophisticated scanning technology is giving scientists an insider’s view of the precise brain circuits that produce and control emotional reaction. UW–Madison researchers are going further by correlating individual differences in the circuitry of emotion with physiological measures. Now they will examine the anatomy and activity of brain circuits linked to resilience and vulnerability in the older women participating in the later-life challenges project above.
In another part of the study, scans will be taken of the women before and after they learn and practice meditation to see if it produces biological changes in the brain that make it easier to cope with stress.
Overseeing this project is Richard J. Davidson, Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry and director of the new Center for the Study of Mind-Body Interaction. Davidson also heads the Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior and the Wisconsin Center for Affective Science. He is an expert on the neural substrates of emotion and emotional disorders.
Fearful temperament points to vulnerability
The free-ranging male monkeys of Cayo Santiago provide a unique opportunity to study biological factors associated with different kinds of emotional and social styles because they normally go through a highly stressful event during adolescence that results in death for 25 percent of them.
UW–Madison researchers have identified monkeys for whom this process is especially difficult and have found that the animals have fearful temperaments as well as specific brain activity and hormone levels related to elevated stress. Additional physiological measures will be taken to learn which constellation of factors may make some monkeys more vulnerable to stress and more susceptible to disease than others.
Overseeing this project is Ned Kalin, Hedberg Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology. Kalin is chair of the UW Medical School psychiatry department and director of the HealthEmotions Research Institute. He is an expert in the biology of stress and emotion and their relation to the development of anxiety and depressive disorders.