San Francisco VA/UCSF Psychiatry Researcher Honored by Behavioral Medicine Society

By Steve Tokar

Aoife O’Donovan, PhD, a Society in Science: Branco Weiss Fellow in psychiatry at the San Francisco VA Medical Center (SFVAMC) and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), was presented with the Neal E. Miller New Investigator Award for 2012 by the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research.

Aoife O’Donovan, PhDAoife O’Donovan, PhD

O’Donovan was recognized for her research into the mechanisms by which chronic and acute traumatic stress are linked with increased risk of poor health outcomes, including autoimmune, neurodegenerative and cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

O’Donovan received the award on June 28th at the Society’s annual meeting in Asheville, North Carolina.

She was specifically cited for a paper published in January 2012 which found that women who tended to anticipate more threat in response to minor short-term stress had shorter telomere length than women who anticipated less threat.

Telomeres are DNA-protein complexes that cap the ends of chromosomes and protect them from damage and mutations. Short telomere length is associated with an increased risk of various diseases of aging, as well as early death.

“The Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research is made up of researchers who are leaders in the field — distinguished scholars,” said O’Donovan. “So, to be recognized by that society is a particularly great honor for me.”

The award, named after the founder of the Academy and the first psychologist to receive the National Medal of Science, is presented “for work imaginatively conceived and carefully conducted prior to the recipient’s appointment as an assistant professor or equivalent rank.”

“We know that people who are exposed to traumatic or chronic psychological stress have increased risk for diseases of aging. In fact, a lot of the research on this has been done here at SFVAMC and UCSF,” said O’Donovan. “What I’m focused on is understanding the mechanisms by which our life experiences could get under the skin and into the cells to affect our risk for these diseases.”

O’Donovan was the lead author of a May 2011 paper which found that adults with PTSD and a history of childhood trauma had significantly shorter telomere length than those with PTSD but no history of childhood trauma, as well as a February 2012 study showing that greater lifetime exposure to traumatic stress was linked with higher levels of inflammation in patients with cardiovascular disease.

SFVAMC has the largest medical research program in the national VA system, with more than 200 research scientists, all of whom are faculty members at UCSF.

UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care.