University Of Wisconsin to launch center to study how emotions affect health

September 27, 1999

MADISON - University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists will study how the emotions affect health at a new center funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The university will receive $10.9 million to create a Center for the Study of Mind-Body Interaction. The center's goal is to gain a clearer understanding of how emotions are encoded in the brain and then influence other body systems that affect health, according to Richard J. Davidson, Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, who will serve as center director.

The center builds upon several existing UW initiatives, particularly the HealthEmotions Research Institute, one of the first and only academic institutions established to rigorously uncover the relationship between emotions and health.

The center also draws on ongoing interdisciplinary research programs at the Institute on Aging that are connecting psychosocial factors such as well-being and social relations to a host of neural, endocrine and immunologic measures.

And the new center intersects with the Wisconsin Center for Affective Science and a critical mass of researchers who have been investigating social, behavioral and biomedical linkages for years.

"The unique environment here, which fosters unusually close collaboration across academic departments and research institutes, has helped make Wisconsin one of the foremost resources for the study of emotion," says Chancellor David Ward. "The new center will allow these scientists to delve further than ever into the biological bases of human emotion."

The Mind-Body Center will focus on five projects. "We begin with the understanding that emotion is the primary means through which external psychological and social factors influence body systems and thus affect health," Davidson says. "We will examine this premise from five different perspectives."

-- One project will look at older women who have gone through a major life change to see what health-related correlations exist in those who handle the change well and those who do not.

-- A second study will examine the way women with positive outlooks react to two chronic, painful illnesses. The effect of a specific kind of meditation will be measured in half the group.

-- In a third project, brain scans will be taken of some women participating in the first two projects to see what difference resiliency and meditation may have on brain activity and structure.

-- A fourth study examines free-ranging Caribbean monkeys that go through a highly stressful, naturally occurring event. They will be monitored to identify biological factors that make some of them more resilient than others to the stress.

-- The fifth project explores the way psychological factors stemming from social inequalities such as low economic status, race and ethnicity can be linked to physical health.

The Mind-Body Center is a logical extension of the HealthEmotions Research Institute. "The goals of the institute and the center are virtually identical," says institute director Ned Kalin, UW Medical School Hedberg Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology. "Together we'll be able to elevate our efforts to a new order of magnitude."

The center also extends several ongoing campus collaborations that have been nurtured by MacArthur Research Networks, which includes Davidson along with investigators Nadine Marks, Carol Ryff and Burton Singer.

"What made our proposal unique relative to others around the country was, in fact, the scope of the mind-body research we already had under way here at Madison," says Carol Ryff, director of the Institute on Aging.

Several other UW interdisciplinary institutes and centers will also receive funds from the new grant, including the Waisman Center, the Harlow Primate Laboratory and the Wisconsin Primate Research Center. Researchers with related interests from the departments of psychology, psychiatry, sociology, medicine and child and family studies are also involved.

"Ultimately, the major goal of our efforts is to better understand the psychological and biological factors that constitute resilience so that these qualities can be fostered more systematically to enrich both mental and physical health," says Davidson.


The scientific team assembled for UW-Madison's 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.

CONTACT: Carol Ryff, professor of psychology, (608) 262-1818, . Ryff is 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.

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.

CONTACT: Christopher Coe, a professor of psychology, (608) 263-3550, . 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. Women interested in participating should contact him directly at (608) 263-3577.

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 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

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.

CONTACT: Richard J. Davidson, Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, (608) 263-8972; . 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 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.

CONTACT: Ned Kalin, Hedberg Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology, (608) 263-6079; . 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.

The 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.

CONTACT: Nadine Marks, professor of child and family studies, (608) 263-4020; . Marks studies a broad variety of psycho-social factors that influence mental and physical health at midlife, including socioeconomic status, caregiving responsibilities, and work-family spillover.
Press contacts: Dian Land, UW Center for Health Sciences Public Affairs, (608) 263-9893, ; Terry Devitt, UW-Madison News and Public Affairs, (608) 262-8282,

University of Wisconsin-Madison

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