Stress – we all face it in this super-charged society we live in.
Left unchecked, stress can cause inflammation in the body, which can bring on depression, heart disease, cancer and a host of physical and emotional ailments.
Experts in medical, behavioral and family sciences at the University of Arizona are teaming up to better understand the effects of inflammation – and how to manage it.
Among the leaders in this collaboration is Charles Raison. Raison is an associate professor of psychiatry in the UA College of Medicine with a joint appointment as the Barry and Janet Lang Associate Professor of Integrative Mental Health in the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He also is a member of the UA's BIO5 Institute.
Raison, who was clinical director of the Mind-Body Program at Emory University before joining UA two years ago, has received research funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Everything I do at the UA is a collaborative effort between Norton and the department of psychiatry, and many of my close collaborators are in the department of psychology," said Raison, who serves as a mental health expert for CNN. He blogs about topics that include depression for CNN.com.
His research focuses on relationships between neuroendocrine and immune systems, especially as they pertain to depression in response to stress or medical illness.
From studying how hyperthermia might treat depression to lessening inflammation through medication and meditation, Raison brings together medical and behavioral sciences in an effort to develop improved treatment.
Stephen Russell, interim director of the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences, said Raison "represents an emerging area of scholarship that blends multiple fields and is gaining traction in the family sciences."
He also brings tremendous potential for collaborative research, including a recent award of $2.1 million to conduct a study that involves recording and analyzing audio clips of social interactions of people exposed to chronic inflammation, partnering with Matthias R. Mehl in the department of psychology.
Much of Raison's work has focused on how meditation practices within Tibetan Buddhism may positively impact mind-body functioning in ways that would be expected to enhance health.
"One of the key tenets in advanced Buddhist practices is the use of bodily energies, especially the generation of body heat, to stabilize the mind into a positive state," Raison said. "As a psychiatrist I realized if I could understand what these guys are doing it might give some insight into the neurobiology of mental disorders."
It turned out to be a challenging population to study.
"We wanted to study the monks who lived in caves to let us into their world and they just didn't want to be studied," he said.
"Instead we turned to understanding how other meditation practices from Tibetan Buddhism might be applicable for helping set the body and mind into states that protect against medical and physical disease."
After a rash of suicides at Emory University, Raison conducted a study among freshmen who were taught meditation practices that "help people develop heartfelt compassionate perceptions and emotions towards other people – even people they don't like," Raison said. "We knew from other studies that people with these attitudes have lower levels of inflammation so we explored whether practicing compassion meditation, what we now call Cognitively-Based Compassion Training, or CBCT, might reduce deleterious inflammatory responses to stress."
The study found that the more people practiced CBCT the less upset they became and the less inflammation they produced in response to a psychological stressor. Based on these findings, Raison and his team have studied CBCT in severely traumatized teens in foster care and found similar results.
"Stress turns on the immune system in ways similar to an infection," he continued. "And it is more pronounced in people who were primed to be vulnerable by early life adversities, such as abuse or neglect. They get whopping inflammatory responses to stress.
"If you feel like you're going to spend your life in a dangerous environment, you will burn yourself out with anxiety, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. The goal is to turn down these signals."
The studies could impact autoimmune diseases as well as depression – diseases that have skyrocketed in the past 50 years.
Although Raison never studied the advanced body heat raising techniques of Tibetan masters living in caves, he and his team have built upon data from collaborators to determine whether heating the body might work as an antidepressant. He notes that although the study of hyperthermia for depression is in its infancy, cultures around the world have used hyperthermia techniques (such as sweat lodges) to heal the body and soul for millennia.
Raison and his team are currently conducting a study examining whether whole body hyperthermia does indeed have rapid antidepressant effects, and if so, how these effects occur in the body and brain.
Russell said the Norton School has a history of bringing together experts in medical and social sciences in collaborative efforts.
"Out of that collaboration we started talking to people within psychiatry and then Chuck appeared as this amazing opportunity – someone who was already working with people in psychology and was interested in work we were doing in the Norton School," Russell said. "We had the opportunity to bring him to Arizona and help us create energy around this collaboration."
The study of traditional practices could be a key to finding improved treatment for depression and other ailments, he said.
"Many traditional, indigenous cultures have engaged in these cultural practices for millennia – suggesting maybe there is an evolutionary advantage or a physiological benefit that people have known all along, but we just never viewed it through a medical science lens until now," Russell said.
He said the work is helping experts better understand how stress "literally gets under our skin."
"If we can understand it better, we can develop strategies for effective behavioral intervention," Russell said.