URMC Pilot Studies To Look at How Mind Drives or Prevents Disease

May 18, 2005

The newly formed Rochester Center for Mind-Body Research (RCMBR) today launched its first three pilot programs to explore how depression, personality and stress contribute to disease in the aging body. The announcement coincides with the center’s annual board meeting, research presentation day and the kick-off of a mind-body lecture series.

In 1999, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded new mind-body research centers to examine how beliefs, attitudes and stress affect heart disease and immune system failure. As part of a second round of funding in 2004, the University of Rochester Department of Psychiatry received a $1.42 million grant from the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of NIH, to create RCMBR. The new center is focused on mind-body interactions and aging because people may be less likely as they age to respond to blanket treatments meant to protect against the diseases of aging. Tailored treatments are urgently needed, and mind-body approaches may be part of the solution. 

“Our mission is to better understand age-related diseases on the way to improving the health of older Americans,” said Jan Moynihan, Ph.D., director of the RCMBR. “Our new program of human research, beginning with these pilot projects, has the potential to help steer the course of mind-body research for the next two decades.”

The first RCMBR pilot study, led by Jeffrey Lyness, M.D., associate professor of Psychiatry at URMC, will seek to explain why patients who suffer from depression following heart failure are more likely to die. The body’s immune response to high cholesterol, inflammation, is gaining credence as a predictor of heart failure.  Do high blood levels of inflammatory signaling chemicals like interleukins contribute to both depression and heart disease? Does depression predict heart failure? Fifty patients from the Strong Memorial Hospital Cardiology Clinic and the Highland Hospital Family Medicine Clinic will be tested for personality traits, stress levels, depression and heart disease.

A second study, led by Kirk Brown, Ph.D., within the URMC Department of Clinical and Social Psychology, and Moynihan, will look at whether behavioral training can increase the response to flu vaccines in elderly patients. About 90 percent of those who die from influenza are aged 65 and older, despite the availability of vaccines. Part of the problem is that fewer seniors respond to vaccine the older they get. Researchers will attempt to bolster the immune systems of 50 local nursing home patients by increasing “mindfulness,” or attention to what is taking place in the present. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has been shown in past studies to strengthen immune systems.

The third pilot, led by Alice Pentland, M.D., chair of the URMC Department of Dermatology, will examine whether stress and lack of sleep precede bursts of psoriasis in patients in her dermatology clinic. Psoriasis is a disease diagnosed in 4.5 million Americans where red patches regularly appear in the skin, most likely due to a misfire in the immune system. Patients with severe, chronic psoriasis report that stress and sleep loss trigger flares of skin lesions. Sleep disruptions may be more common in patients with particular personality traits or a history of depression, suggesting a mind-body connection. Are disease flares related to personality, stress or depression? Can mental health treatment reduce flares? 

RCMBR is a collaboration of biologists, social scientists, and practicing physicians within the University of Rochester Medical Center and the College of Arts and Sciences. More than 10 other collaborating disciplines contribute to the center, including immunology, vaccine biology, cardiology, rheumatology, neurology, family medicine, dermatology, and clinical and social psychology. One long-term goal is to secure funding for a dedicated mind-body building to house both ambulatory clinics and cutting-edge research.

The center’s NIA grant has supported infrastructure building, an influx of new researchers, a seminar series and support for grant applications. As part of the series, RCMBR board member John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D., Tiffany and Margaret Blake Professor at the University of Chicago Department of Psychology, this morning delivered a presentation titled “Social Isolation (Loneliness) and Health” in the Class of 1962 Auditorium in the Kornberg Medical Research Building at URMC.

“Dr. Robert Ader founded the Center for Psychoneuroimmunology in 1993, formalizing the groundbreaking mind-body research that the university had been conducting for decades on the basic chemical mechanisms by which the brain impacts the immune system,” said Paul Duberstein, Ph.D., co-director of RCMBR. “The Rochester Center for Mind Body Research is taking the next step, and applying those early lessons to people suffering from, or at risk for, an array of diseases.”

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