UCLA opens expanded center to study mind-brain-body links in chronic medical disorders

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Rachel Champeau
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Investigators at UCLA's Center for Neurobiology of Stress have been studying the links between the brain and digestive system in the development and treatment of common chronic digestive disorders in adults and children. 
 
Now, with the support of the Gerald Oppenheimer Family Foundation, the center will expand its activities to include research into brain-body interactions in other chronic medical disorders and the biology underlying mind-based therapies. In recognition of this support, the center has been renamed the Gail and Gerald Oppenheimer Family Center for Neurobiology of Stress.
 
The center's new 5,500-square-foot facility on the UCLA campus features labs and clinic areas and houses 30 faculty and staff.  
 
Supported by $4 million in annual federal grants, the center will receive additional support from the Oppenheimer family's 2002 gift of $9.6 million, directed to underwrite both the center and the UCLA Center for East–West Medicine. Half of the gift has been established as an endowment to meet these programs' long-term objectives.
 
The endowment will help investigators at the Oppenheimer Family Center for Neurobiology of Stress explore mind-brain-body interactions in several stress-sensitive conditions, including persistent pain disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome and interstitial cystitis; obesity; inflammatory diseases of the liver and intestine; and chronic cardiovascular disorders. It also will support studies of the biological mechanisms underlying the effectiveness of various mind-body therapies.
 
"Traditionally, doctors believed that the mind and the brain had very little role or impact on chronic medical disorders, including those of the digestive system," said Dr. Emeran Mayer, the center's director and a professor of medicine, physiology and psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "This is changing as the field grows. We are very excited to be expanding our research and clinical programs through this generous funding." 
 
Mayer and his team are pioneers in the characterization of brain-gut interactions in chronic abdominal pain syndromes such as irritable bowel syndrome. Recent research supports the concept that irritable bowel syndrome patients, like other chronic-pain patients, have alterations in their brain structure, characterized by a remodeling of the connections among different brain regions that play a role in pain modulation.
 
The researchers also have been leaders in unraveling the biological mechanisms that link stressful life events with gastrointestinal symptoms. Center investigators have begun to examine these brain-body connections in other chronic digestive disorders and in other medical conditions, including cardiovascular diseases.
 
"We are pleased to support this new field of medicine and research that addresses the mind-body connections and the role of stress in chronic disease and which ultimately may be able to offer more treatment and care options for patients," said Gail and Jerry Oppenheimer.
 
Further understanding of brain-gut connections could lead to more mind-body therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnosis, meditation and yoga, to relieve chronic conditions. In the future, these may be used in combination with more conventional pharmacologic therapies, increasing the cost-effectiveness of therapeutic approaches to chronic pain.
 
"We are very grateful to the Oppenheimers for recognizing and supporting this emerging new field that explores the interaction between the mind, brain and digestive system and that can lead to more effective new treatment approaches," said Dr. Gary Gitnick, chief of the division of digestive diseases at the Geffen School of Medicine.
 
The new center will also house research and research clinic units previously located in other areas of the UCLA campus and at the Veterans Affairs Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. The new facility will allow interdisciplinary teams to work together much more closely, resulting in greater synergy and more translational research collaborations.
 
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Media Contact:
Rachel Champeau
(310) 794-2270
[email protected]