New Review Suggests Meditation May Influence Immune System Activity

Mindfulness meditation represents an increasingly popular strategy for dealing with life’s challenges. Recent research has suggested that mindfulness meditation may have beneficial effects on emotional wellbeing. But, how deep do these effects go? Can mindfulness meditation influence immune system processes that directly affect health?

In their new article appearing in the prestigious journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Drs. David Black (USC) and George Slavich (UCLA) conducted the first comprehensive review of all existing randomized controlled studies that have been done on the topic. The review included data from 1,602 participants. The data revealed that mindfulness meditation appears to influence some mechanisms that are known to underlie human disease and aging. However, existing studies are limited and additional research is needed to confirm these effects.

Of the effects that were detected, mindfulness meditation appeared to most reliably lead to the following four changes in immune system function: reductions in the activity of the cellular transcription factor NF-κB, which is known to drive inflammation; reductions in circulating levels of CRP, which is a key marker of systemic inflammatory activity; increases in CD4+ T cell count (in HIV-diagnosed individuals); and increases in telomerase activity, which is thought to potentially reverse biological aging.

Considered together, these data point to promising areas of future investigation. However, the authors caution against exaggerating the positive effects of mindfulness meditation on immune system dynamics until these effects are further replicated and additional studies are performed.

Dr. Black is an assistant professor of Preventive Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, where he directs the BioMind Lab.

Dr. Slavich is an associate professor and Society in Science – Branco Weiss Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, and a Research Scientist at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, where he directs the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research.


pdfMindfulness Meditation and the Immune System: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials

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Slavich Wins Three Early Career Investigator Awards

George SlavichThe Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research is proud to announce that laboratory director, Dr. George M. Slavich, Ph.D., has received three prestigious early career investigator awards. The awards are from the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology, Society for Research in Psychopathology, and Society of Behavioral Medicine, and they recognize outstanding early career contributions to clinical psychology, psychopathology, and behavioral medicine research. These awards are described in more detail below:

2015 Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology Susan Nolen-Hoeksema Early Career Research Award

The Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology is one of the oldest organizations in the United States devoted to promoting empirical research in clinical psychology, integrating research with clinical practice, and according science a central role in the training of clinical psychologists. Members of the Society are world-renowned clinical scientists and direct many of the clinical psychology training programs in the United States. The Society’s Early Career Research Award is named for the late Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a Stanford University and later Yale University professor who conducted pioneering research on the role that cognitive and emotional processes play in depression. She is best known for her groundbreaking work on rumination. The Early Career Research Award named in her memory recognizes a young investigator and Society member who has made exceptional contributions to the science of clinical psychology. Nominees are evaluated with respect to having taken groundbreaking conceptual or theoretical approaches to solving a problem, making innovative methodological contributions to clinical psychology, and publishing highly significant and impactful empirical findings. In addition, nominees are judged with respect to their publications, grants, awards, scientific presentations, and positions attained since receipt of their Ph.D. Dr. Slavich is the second recipient of this coveted award. The previous winner was Katie McLaughlin.

2015 Society for Research in Psychopathology Early Career Award

The Society for Research in Psychopathology is one of the most prestigious organization in the United States devoted to the scientific study of psychopathology. Members of the Society are leading experts in the characterization of anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, personality disorders, and schizophrenia. The Society’s Early Career Award recognizes excellence and promise in psychopathology research by an early career member who has successfully developed an independent and impactful program of research. Early career clinical scientists are nominated for the award by Society members and evaluated according to the productivity, innovation, and significance of their research program. Dr. Slavich is the sixth recipient of this prestigious award. Previous winners include S. Alexandra Burt, Jennifer Tackett, June Gruber, Stewart Shankman, and Brian Hicks.

2015 Society of Behavioral Medicine Early Career Investigator Award

The Society of Behavioral Medicine is the premier scientific organization for more than 2,200 behavioral and biomedical researchers and clinicians who study the interactions of behavioral, physiological, and biochemical states in shaping human health, morbidity, and mortality. Selection for the Society’s Early Career Investigator Award is based on a comprehensive review the total career achievement of the nominated applicant, and a review of a representative published paper that exemplifies scientific rigor and innovation, is an original research investigation, and makes a significant contribution to the field of behavioral medicine. Dr. Slavich was selected for his professional achievements to date and for his 2010 paper published in the leading scientific journal, PNAS, which was the first to elucidate neural mechanisms underlying inflammatory responses to social stress. Dr. Slavich is the twenty-seventh recipient of this highly-selective award. Previous winners include Gregory Miller, Edith Chen, Alan Christensen, Michael Antoni, Joshua Smyth, Eli Puterman, and Janet Tomiyama.


Dr. Slavich is an associate professor and Society in Science – Branco Weiss Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, and a Research Scientist at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, where he directs the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research.


Slavich Identifies Inflammation as Leading Cause of Death in U.S.

It has long been known that stress increases a person’s risk for several psychiatric conditions, such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as numerous physical disease conditions including asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, certain cancers, and stroke. At the same time, it has been unclear exactly how these effects occur.

In a new article published in the leading psychoneuroimmunology journal, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, Dr. George Slavich argues that components of the immune system involved in inflammation may represent a common mechanism linking stress with several different diseases. Dr. Slavich goes on to describe the importance of better understanding these links.

“All told, inflammation is involved in at least 8 of the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States today,” writes Dr. Slavich. “Understanding how inflammation promotes poor health, and how and when we can intervene to reduce inflammation-related disease risk, should thus be a top scientific and public priority.”

Several multi-level theories of inflammation and health have been recently proposed to shed light on how stress influences the immune system to promote poor health. Dr. Slavich writes that to realize the full potential of this work for improving human health, “we must continue to push the boundaries of scientific enquiry by conducting studies that are increasingly integrated, multi-level, and multidisciplinary, and that link inflammatory and related processes with important health outcomes.”

Dr. Slavich is an associate professor and Society in Science – Branco Weiss Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, and a Research Scientist at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, where he directs the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research.


pdfUnderstanding Inflammation, its Regulation, and Relevance for Health: A Top Scientific and Public Priority

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Flipped Keynote: Depression from a Socialneuroimmunologic Perspective

Dr. George Slavich recently gave a Flipped Keynote Address, titled “Depression from a Socialneuroimmunologic Perspective.” It was for the 2014 Neuroscience of Youth Depression Conference, hosted at the Rizzo Conference Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on October 11th, 2014.



Slavich & Irwin Propose a Social Signal Transduction Theory of Depression

PsychBull_LogoDepression is one of the most common and costly of all psychiatric disorders, afflicting more than 15 million Americans and 350 million people worldwide each year. Depression also frequently co-occurs with several physical health conditions that, together with the disorder itself, cause substantial morbidity and mortality. Identifying biobehavioral factors that can be targeted to prevent and treat depression is thus very important.

In a new review article published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, Dr. George Slavich and Dr. Michael Irwin describe the social, neural, physiologic, molecular, and genomic mechanisms that underlie depression and the many physical disease conditions that typically co-occur with this disorder. The review provides the basis for a social signal transduction theory of depression, which describes how social-environmental factors activate biological processes that lead to depression.

Central to this social signal transduction theory of depression is the hypothesis that experiences of social threat and adversity upregulate components of the immune system involved in inflammation. The key mediators of this response, called pro-inflammatory cytokines, can in turn elicit profound changes in behavior, which include the initiation of depressive symptoms such as sad mood, anhedonia, fatigue, psychomotor retardation, and social-behavioral withdrawal.

As described in the article, this highly conserved biological response to adversity is critical for survival during times of actual physical threat or injury. However, this response can also be activated by modern-day social, symbolic, or imagined threats, leading to an increasingly pro-inflammatory phenotype that may be a key phenomenon driving depression pathogenesis and recurrence, as well as the overlap of depression with several somatic conditions including asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic pain, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and neurodegeneration.

Insights from this theory may thus shed light on several important questions including how depression develops, why it frequently recurs, why it is strongly predicted by early life stress, and why it often co-occurs with symptoms of anxiety and with certain physical disease conditions.

“We have long known that depression can be highly recurrent, and that it frequently co-occurs with a number of other mental and physical health problems,” said Slavich. “Social signal transduction theory of depression attempts to explain this phenomenon by elucidating the social and biological processes that underlie this disorder.”

In the article, Slavich and Irwin say that the theory may also suggest new opportunities for preventing and treating depression by targeting inflammation.

Dr. George Slavich is an assistant professor and Society in Science – Branco Weiss Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA. He is also a Research Scientist at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, where he directs the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research.

Dr. Michael Irwin is Cousins Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Professor of Psychology in the UCLA College of Letters and Sciences, Director of the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology in the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, and Director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.


pdfFrom Stress to Inflammation and Major Depressive Disorder: A Social Signal Transduction Theory of Depression

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Lifetime Stress Exposure Predicts Persistent Fatigue in Breast Cancer

Persistent fatigue, characterized by overwhelming and sustained exhaustion, is a common and often debilitating side-effect of breast cancer treatment. Risk factors for cancer-related fatigue remain largely unknown, however, even though there are approximately 13.7 million cancer survivors living in the United States today.

In a new study, published in Clinical Psychological Science, Dr. Julienne Bower and Dr. George Slavich examined the role lifetime stress exposure plays in cancer-related fatigue. Results revealed that women with persistent fatigue have significantly higher levels of stress, in both childhood and adulthood, than non-fatigued control participants. The data thus suggest that stress occurring over the life course may play an important role in promoting symptoms of fatigue in the context of cancer.

To investigate how stress impacts fatigue, Drs. Bower and Slavich examined the life histories of 50 breast cancer survivors using an online stress assessment system that Dr. Slavich developed, called the Stress and Adversity Inventory, or STRAIN. The STRAIN is based on state-of-the-art methods for assessing life stress and measures individuals’ lifetime exposure to 96 types of acute and chronic stressors that may have implications for health. Fatigue status, in turn, was assessed by asking individuals standardized, clinically relevant questions regarding the extent to which they “felt full of pep,” “felt worn out,” “felt tired,” and “had a lot of energy” during the past four weeks.

“Women with breast cancer can experience high levels of stress, but the effects these experiences have on clinical outcomes in cancer are rarely assessed,” said Slavich. “In this study, therefore, we aimed to understand all of the major stressors that each patient experienced over their lifetime and how those experiences in turn impacted their health and well-being.”

The data collected revealed that fatigued breast cancer survivors reported significantly higher levels of stress in both childhood and adulthood compared to their non-fatigued counterparts. Prior research on this topic has shown that traumatic life events impact clinical functioning in cancer. In the paper, Drs. Bower and Slavich note that the present study extends this prior research by showing that more common, non-traumatic stressors occurring over the lifespan can also influence clinical outcomes in the context of cancer.

“Although these results do not highlight the specific mechanisms that might link stress and fatigue in breast cancer,” Slavich said, “they do suggest that life stress is a risk factor for cancer-related fatigue that should be routinely assessed in the course of all cancer treatment.”

The study was supported by the University of California Cancer Research Coordinating Committee, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, National Institutes of Health (NIH)/National Cancer Institute Grant R01-CA160427 awarded to Dr. Bower, NIH/National Institute of General Medical Sciences Grant T32-GM084903 awarded to study co-author Alexandra Dupont, and by a Society in Science–Branco Weiss Fellowship awarded to Dr. Slavich.

Dr. Julienne Bower is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at UCLA and a Research Scientist at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology.

Dr. George Slavich is an assistant professor and Society in Science – Branco Weiss Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLAHe is also a Research Scientist at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunologywhere he directs the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research.

Childhood Adversity and Cumulative Life Stress: Risk Factors for Cancer-Related Fatigue

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Slavich & Cole Reveal How Social Experiences Affect Our Genes and Health

Prevailing wisdom suggests that our genes remain largely fixed over time. But, an emerging field of research is beginning to prove this intuition wrong. Scientists are uncovering increasing evidence that changes in the expression of hundreds of genes can occur as a result of the social environments we inhabit. As a result of these dynamics, experiences we have today can affect our health for days and even months into the future.

Psychological researchers George Slavich and Steven Cole of the University of California, Los Angeles refer to this blossoming field as “human social genomics.” In an article published in Clinical Psychological Science, they assert that certain genes can be “turned on” and “turned off” by different social-environmental conditions — especially our subjective perceptions of those conditions.

Slavich and Cole point to a number of studies that have connected external conditions to our genomic profiles. For example, in 2007 Cole found that, compared to socially connected individuals, people who experience chronic social isolation show reduced antiviral immune response gene activity, which leaves them vulnerable to viral infections like the common cold. These individuals also showed increased expression of genes involved in inflammation, which underlies the progression of chronic diseases like metabolic syndrome, heart disease, certain cancers, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Other social conditions that have been found to influence human gene expression include being socially evaluated or rejected, which can have different consequences for different people depending on their sensitivity to social threat.

The researchers also point to social influences that may regulate gene expression at a collective group level. This suggests, they say, the existence of a metagenome, wherein the activity of one person’s genome is influenced by the genomic activity of surrounding individuals.

In their article, Slavich and Cole acknowledge that they focused on gene programs involved in innate immunity. They call for more research on other types of genes, as well as other social factors that may regulate human gene expression, such as culture, social attachment, prejudice, and social hierarchies.

Dr. Slavich is an assistant professor and Society in Science – Branco Weiss Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA. He is also a Research Scientist at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, where he directs the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research.

Dr. Cole is a professor in the Departments of Medicine and Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He is also a Research Scientist at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, where he directs the Social Genomics Core Laboratory.

The Emerging Field of Human Social Genomics

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Immune Response May Link Social Rejection to Later Health Outcomes

CPS_LogoBy: Anna Mikulak, Association for Psychological Science

No matter which way you look at it, rejection hurts. Experiencing rejection from a boss, a friend, or a partner is difficult enough for many adults to handle. But adolescents, who are dealing with the one-two punch of biological and social change, may be the most vulnerable to its negative effects.

In a new study published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, researcher Michael Murphy and colleagues examine the human immune response as a potential link between social stressors like rejection and later mental and physical health outcomes.

There are many kinds of stressors that increase our risk for disease, but stressors that threaten our social standing, such as targeted rejection, seem to be particularly harmful.

Many people are probably familiar with targeted rejection from their school days, when a student was actively and intentionally rejected by another student or a group of students. It’s the kind of behavior that we see in so many cases of ostracism and bullying.

“Targeted rejection is central to some of life’s most distressing experiences – things like getting broken up with, getting fired, and being excluded from your peer group at school,” said Murphy. “In this study, we aimed to examine processes that may give these experiences the ability to affect health.”

Previous research has shown that people who are on the receiving end of this kind of rejection experience symptoms of depression three times faster than people who are faced with similarly severe life events. Researchers believe that certain inflammatory processes that are part of the immune response could be a link between targeted rejection and depression.

Murphy and colleagues decided to directly investigate whether rejection-related life events affect inflammatory activity by conducting a study that followed 147 healthy adolescent women over 2.5 years. The participants did not have a personal history of mental health problems but were all at risk for major depression due to family and other personal risk factors.

The participants were assessed for psychiatric diagnoses, incidences of targeted rejection, perceived social status, expression of inflammatory signaling molecules, and indicators of low-grade inflammation every 6 months over the course of the study.

The data collected suggest that recent exposure to targeted rejection does indeed activate the molecular signaling pathways that regulate inflammation. Participants had elevated levels of pro-inflammatory signaling molecules at visits when they had recently experienced an incidence of targeted rejection compared to visits when no targeted rejection had occurred.

Interestingly, the effect was more pronounced in those who perceived their social status to be higher.

Murphy and colleagues speculate that this inflammatory response might be adaptive for individuals at the top of a social hierarchy, giving them a survival advantage. The researchers note, however, that an overly productive immune response can be harmful to mental and physical health in the long run.

If substantiated in future research, these findings could have implications for understanding how social conditions increase risk for a variety of inflammation-related diseases, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and depression.

The study was co-authored by George M. Slavich, University of California, Los Angeles; Nicolas Rohleder, Brandeis University; and Gregory E. Miller, University of British Columbia.

The research was supported by grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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Targeted Rejection Triggers Differential Pro- and Anti-Inflammatory Gene Expression in Adolescents as a Function of Social Status

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Clinical Psychological Science — a new journal from APS — publishes advances in clinical science and provides a venue for cutting-edge research across a wide range of conceptual views, approaches, and topics. The journal encompasses many core domains that have defined clinical psychology, but also boundary-crossing advances that integrate and make contact with diverse disciplines and that may not easily be found in traditional clinical psychology journals. Among the key topics are research on the underlying mechanisms and etiologies of psychological health and dysfunction; basic and applied work on the diagnosis, assessment, treatment, and prevention of mental illness; service delivery; and promotion of well-being.



Slavich & Zimbardo Define Transformational Teaching

Educational Psychology ReviewDr. George Slavich (UCLA) and Dr. Phil Zimbardo (Stanford University) have published a comprehensive review article on Transformational Teaching, an exciting new approach to classroom instruction. The article appears in the current online edition of the journal Educational Psychology Review.

According to Slavich and Zimbardo, transformational teaching involves creating dynamic relationships between teachers, students, and a shared body of knowledge to promote student learning and personal growth. From this perspective, instructors are intellectual coaches who create teams of students who collaborate with each other and with their teacher to master bodies of information. Teachers assume the traditional role of facilitating students’ acquisition of key course concepts, but do so while enhancing students’ personal development and attitudes toward learning. They accomplish these goals by establishing a shared vision for a course, providing modeling and mastery experiences, challenging and encouraging students, personalizing attention and feedback, creating experiential lessons that transcend the boundaries of the classroom, and promoting ample opportunities for preflection and reflection.

Dr. George Slavich is an assistant professor and Society in Science: Branco Weiss Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA. He is also a Research Scientist at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, where he directs the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research.

Dr. Phil Zimbardo is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University. He has published more than 400 professional articles and is generally recognized as the voice and face of modern psychology. He is best known for his award-winning textbook, Psychology and Life, PBS TV series, Discovering Psychology, and landmark studies including the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Transformational Teaching: Theoretical Underpinnings, Basic Principles, and Core Methods

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Slavich wins Raymond D. Fowler Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Professional Development of Graduate Students

Dr. George M. Slavich, Ph.D., has been awarded the 2012 Raymond D. Fowler Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Professional Development of Graduate Students. The award is administered by the American Psychological Association and honors psychologists who have made significant contributions to the professional development of graduate students over the course of their careers. Criteria for selection include encouraging and facilitating academic and/or scientific excellence, encouraging broader socialization of students, and helping students to shape their own professional identity.

Dr. Slavich received the award for his landmark contributions to founding groups and forums that promote student development while advancing psychological science. These groups include the Stanford Undergraduate Psychology Conference, the Western Psychological Association Student Council, and the Society of Clinical Psychology’s Section on Graduate Students and Early Career Psychologists.

Previous recipients of the Raymond D. Fowler award include renowned psychologists Mitch Prinstein, John Dovidio, Rick Snyder, Mark Zanna, Patrick DeLeon, and Raymond Fowler, for whom the award is named.

Dr. Slavich is an assistant professor and Society in Science – Branco Weiss Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA. He is also a Research Scientist at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, where he directs the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research.

More information about the Raymond D. Fowler Award is available on the official website for the American Psychological Association.