New metric shows COVID cut average lifespan by nearly a decade in parts of U.S.

UCLA sociologist’s demographic tool clarifies impact of temporary ‘shocks’ like epidemics and natural disasters

By Jessica Wolf

silhouetted people walking on busy street. iStock.com/imagedotpro

iStock.com/imagedotpro

At its peak, COVID-19 drastically reduced the average human lifespan — by as much as nine years in one U.S. state — according to a new longevity metric developed at UCLA.

Sociology professor Patrick Heuveline devised the metric, called the mean unfulfilled lifespan, to assess the impact of temporary “shocks” like the novel coronavirus on average length of life. To date, the pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 4.2 million people worldwide.

The tool allows demographers to conduct fine-grained analyses in specific regions over various periods of time, offering a new and more dynamic way of gauging how different areas of the country and the world experience decreases in lifespans over the course of the pandemic, Heuveline said.

Heuveline’s analysis, published online in the open-access journal PLOS One, suggests, for example, that as COVID-19 peaked in New Jersey in mid-April 2020, the average lifespan in the state plummeted by almost nine years, the most dramatic example from the U.S.

Demographers typically calculate lifespan using a metric known as period life expectancy at birth, or PLEB, which is the average number of years a person born at a certain time would be expected to live if future death rates remained at present levels. When researchers factor in the impacts of a given cause of death — a steady increase in heart attacks or car accidents, for instance — they see how these factors can reduce PLEB.

However, calculating changes to life expectancy in this way cannot adequately capture the effect of large, temporary shocks like natural disasters or the COVID-19 pandemic, in which mortality conditions are rapidly shifting, Heuveline said.

To more clearly illustrate the impact of such phenomena, Heuveline’s mean unfulfilled lifespan measures the difference between the average age at death of individuals who died within a given time frame and the average age these people would have been expected to reach had there not been a temporary shock.

“As did a few other demographers, I initially tried to convey the mortality impact of COVID-19 by assessing how much life expectancies would decline during the pandemic,” he said. “When mortality conditions are continuously changing, however, life expectancies are hard to interpret, and I wanted to provide a more intuitive indicator of that mortality impact.”

Read about Patrick Heuveline’s previous research on COVID-19 and life expectancy.

Heuveline demonstrated the mean unfulfilled lifespan by applying it to COVID-19 mortality data from regions with similarly sized populations, including New Jersey, Mexico City, Lombardy in Italy, and Lima, Peru. He compared decreases in life expectancy by calendar quarter (from March 31, 2020 to March 31, 2021) and using rolling seven-day windows (from March 15 to June 15, 2020). The latter analysis suggested that the mean unfulfilled lifespan peaked at 8.91 years in New Jersey, 6.24 years in in Mexico City, 6.43 years in Lombardy and 2.67 in Lima.

In addition, his study found that during the month of April 2020, the mean unfulfilled lifespan may have reached 12.7 years in the Guayas province of Ecuador.

Graph illustrating effect of COVID-19 on death rates in four regions

Patrick Heuveline/PLOS One
Graph illustrates how the average lifespan changed over three-month periods between March 2020 and 2021 in regions of Italy, the U.S., Mexico and Peru as a result of COVID-19. (Figures on the left represent the mean unfulfilled lifespan in years.)

Heuveline noted that uncertainties in calculating mean unfulfilled lifespan may arise from potential differences between deaths related to temporary shocks like the pandemic and actual or excess deaths — differences that, when accounted for, may push the peak unfulfilled lifespan figures seen in the study even higher. His analysis demonstrates how these issues can be factored into calculations.

Heuveline said he hopes the new metric will eventually be applied broadly as researchers seek to better understand the impact of epidemics, natural disasters and even violence on life expectancy.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

UCLA College Magazine 2021 Issue

2021 UCLA College Magazine

Welcome to the latest issue of the UCLA College Magazine, highlighting our remarkable faculty, students and alumni.

In the central feature, we celebrate five Black Bruins — scientists, professors, activists and students — driven by their experience of community and passion for justice to help to build a more equitable world.

In this issue, you can also read about new insights into Venus and Mars, studies on maternal stress, an award-winning documentary on migration, and much more.

We hope you enjoy reading this issue of the magazine! Go Bruins!

For the full magazine click here >>

A photo of D’Artagnan Scorza filming his address to the UCLA College’s class of 2021.

UCLA College to host virtual commencement celebration June 11

A photo of D’Artagnan Scorza filming his address to the UCLA College’s class of 2021.

D’Artagnan Scorza filming his address to the UCLA College’s class of 2021. (Photo Credit: Mike Baker/UCLA)

Civic leader, social justice advocate and UCLA alumnus D’Artagnan Scorza will deliver the keynote address at the UCLA College’s virtual commencement celebration on Friday, June 11. The program, which begins at 6 p.m. PDT, will also feature remarks by Chancellor Gene Block, Nobel laureate Andrea Ghez, class of 2021 student speakers and others.

A decorated U.S. Navy veteran, Scorza is the inaugural executive director of racial equity for Los Angeles County and president of the UCLA Alumni Association. He is also a lecturer at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

“D’Artagnan Scorza has given back to his fellow Bruins and his fellow Americans in myriad ways since his graduation,” said David Schaberg, senior dean of the UCLA College and dean of humanities. “His incredible life experiences and dedication to social change make him the ideal person to inspire our graduating seniors to aim high and make a difference in the world.”

In 2008, Scorza founded the nonprofit Social Justice Learning Institute and as its executive director over the next 12 years led efforts to open up academic and career opportunities to Black and Latino youth while establishing community gardens, a farmers’ market and healthy lifestyle centers in his hometown of Inglewood, California. His research, policy initiatives and grassroots organizing have had a significant impact on high-need communities throughout California.

“This year’s graduating class deserves so much credit for their achievement and resilience in the face of the pandemic,” Scorza said. “It’s an incredible honor to have been asked to give the commencement address to this remarkable group of Bruins.”

While studying as an undergraduate UCLA, Scorza enlisted in the Navy following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and served for four-and-a-half years, including a deployment to Iraq. He later returned to UCLA, where he completed his bachelor’s degree in the study of religion in 2007 and earned his doctorate in education in 2013. As a UC student regent from 2007 to 2009, he helped pass policies that established veterans’ service centers and prioritized $160 million for student services across UC campuses.

Scorza also served as president of the Inglewood Unified School District Board of Education and chaired a campaign to secure $350 million in school improvement bonds for the district’s schools.

Scorza was invited to be the 2021 commencement speaker after being selected from among wide field of candidates by UCLA’s Commencement Committee, which comprises students, faculty members and administrators.

Along with his UCLA degrees, Scorza holds a bachelor’s in liberal studies from National University in San Diego.

Virtual and in-person commencement ceremonies

In addition to the virtual celebration, UCLA plans to recognize members of the class of 2021 individually and in person at a series of events beginning the weekend of June 11; these events will be held over the course of several days and will adhere to public safety guidelines. For information on the in-person and virtual celebrations, please visit the UCLA College’s commencement website and UCLA’s campus commencement website.

Campus leaders announced in April that while the UCLA College and other units would be hosting commencement ceremonies virtually due to the continued public health risks of the COVID-19 pandemic, UCLA remains committed to hosting in-person commencement ceremonies for the classes of 2021and 2020 and their families and friends at a later date.

This article, written by Margaret MacDonald, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom

A photo of Ayad Akhtar

Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar to speak at UCLA’s Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership, May 13

A photo of Ayad Akhtar

Akhtar won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama for his Tony-nominated play “Disgraced.” (Courtesy of the Tuesday Agency)

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ayad Akhtar will speak at the Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership on Thursday, May 13 at 4 p.m. Following his remarks, Akhtar will take part in a conversation with Ali Behdad, UCLA’s John Charles Hillis Professor of Literature.

The online event is free and open to the public.

“This is an exciting opportunity to hear from one of the most creative and brilliant literary minds of our time,” said David Schaberg, senior dean of the UCLA College. “Ayad Akhtar is an outstanding storyteller and an incisive observer of the human experience, and we are honored to have him share his insights with us.”

Akhtar won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama for his Tony-nominated play “Disgraced.” His other plays include “Junk,” which won the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for American Drama Inspired by American History and was nominated for a Tony, and “The Invisible Hand,” which earned an Obie Award, Outer Critics Circle’s John Gassner Award and Olivier Award.

Akhtar’s latest work is the novel “Homeland Elegies,” which explores the experiences of a Muslim man who, like the author, grew up in Wisconsin as the son of Pakistani immigrants. The Washington Post called it “a tour de force” and The New York Times noted it was “a beautiful novel … that had echoes of ‘The Great Gatsby’ and that circles, with pointed intellect, the possibilities and limitations of American life.”

Jennifer Mnookin, dean of the UCLA School of Law was one of the four UCLA deans who collectively chose to invite Akhtar to speak. She said “Homeland Elegies” was “the single most affecting, inspiring book” she has read during the pandemic.

“It is an extraordinary novel about the complexity of America, a beautiful interweaving of fact and fiction that explores identity, immigration, Islamophobia after 9/11, the process of literary creation and so much more,” Mnookin said. “It’s both a novel of ideas and a page turner.”

Akhtar’s first novel, “American Dervish,” has been published in more than 20 languages.

In 2017, Akhtar received an Arts and Letters Award for literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Steinberg Playwright Award and the Nestroy Theatre Prize. He has received fellowships from the American Academy in Rome, MacDowell, the Sundance Institute and Yaddo, for which he is also a board director. He is president of PEN America, the national nonprofit writers organization, and a board trustee at New York Theatre Workshop.

Visit the Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership website to register for the livestream, learn more about the event and submit a question for the speaker.

The Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership was established in 2011 through a generous gift from Meyer and Rene Luskin. Their vision in establishing the lecture series gave UCLA an opportunity to share knowledge and foster dialogue among scholars, leaders in government and business, and the greater Los Angeles community.

This article, written by Margaret MacDonald, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom

A rendering of the NASA Perseverance rover as it would appear on Mars.

Q&A: David Paige on the Mars Perseverance landing

A rendering of the NASA Perseverance rover as it would appear on Mars.

Rendering of the NASA Perseverance. The rover’s RIMFAX technology will use radar waves to probe the unexplored world that lies beneath the Martian surface. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/FFI)

NASA’s Perseverance rover is scheduled to land on Mars on Feb. 18 after a six-and-a-half month flight. Over the next two years, it will explore Jezero Crater, which is in Mars’ northern hemisphere, for signs of ancient life and for new clues about the planet’s climate and geology.

Among other tasks, it will collect rock and soil samples in tubes that a later spacecraft will bring back to Earth, and the experiments will lay the groundwork for future human and robotic exploration of Mars.

Perseverance, which is about the size of a car, is outfitted with seven different instruments, including the Radar Imager for Mars‘ Subsurface Experiment, or RIMFAX. RIMFAX will probe beneath the planet’s surface to study its geology in detail, and its deputy principal investigator is David Paige, a UCLA professor of planetary science.

In an email interview with UCLA Newsroom, Paige discussed his hopes for the mission. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Why do you want to study Jezero Crater’s geologic history?

Jezero Crater is a very interesting location on Mars because it looks like there was once a lake inside the crater, and that a river flowed into the lake and deposited sediments in a delta. We plan to land near the delta and then explore it to learn more about Mars’ climate history, and maybe something about ancient Martian life. What we’ll be able to see once we start roving and what we will actually learn is anybody’s guess.

RIMFAX will provide a highly detailed view of subsurface structures and help find clues to past environments on Mars, including those that may have provided the conditions necessary for supporting life.

A photo of David Paige.

David Paige (Courtesy of David Paige)

What are you hoping to discover?

Well, the first thing to know about RIMFAX is that it’s an experiment. We’ve never tried using a ground-penetrating radar on Mars before, so we can’t really predict what types of subsurface structures we might be able to see.

But we have done some fairly extensive field testing of RIMFAX on Earth to learn how to use it and how to interpret the data. Here, ground-penetrating radars can be very useful for clarifying subsurface geology, but with any kind of imaging system, the science of ground-penetrating radar comes from the interpretation of the images, and interpretation relies on context.

Frankly, if we are able to usefully interpret anything we see in the RIMFAX data, the experiment will be a success. Any discoveries we make beyond that will be icing on the cake.

Are you hopeful of finding water, or evidence of water, beneath the planet’s surface?

There are all kinds of evidence for past liquid water all over Mars. At Jezero, there must have been a lot of water at some point, but we don’t expect that the ground beneath the rover will still be wet.

Mars today is a very cold place, and any water in the shallow subsurface should be frozen at Jezero. What we’re interested in finding are geologic features that wouldn’t be expected to form under present climatic conditions, as those would be especially interesting targets to search for signs of past life.

However, searching for past life on Mars may be very difficult, and we should not expect instant success. After all, we know the Earth was literally crawling with life, but definitive evidence for past life on Earth, especially ancient life, is very rare.

What is your role in the research? 

My role is to help plan the observations and analyze the results. Since the rover will be working on Mars time, in which the days are 24.5 hours long, responsibility for the operation of RIMFAX will pingpong between Norway and UCLA every two weeks. Having operations centers on two continents will make it easier to keep up with the mission and stay on a reasonably normal schedule.

In fact, RIMFAX was designed, paid for and built by our colleagues in Norway. I teamed up with my colleague, Svein-Erik Hamran of the University of Oslo, to propose the instrument to NASA, and it has been a rewarding experience to work with the international RIMFAX team.

Are UCLA students involved?

Yes. Mark Nasielski, a UCLA graduate student in electrical engineering, is part of our operations team. And Max Parks and Tyler Powell, graduate students in Earth, planetary and space sciences, are part of our science team.

This article, written by Stuart Wolpert, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom

A photo of Ida B. Well.

Five Black suffragists who were critical to the long battle for the vote

A photo of Ida B. Well.

In her latest book, “Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote,” UCLA professor emerita Ellen DuBois traces the three-generation struggle that led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 1920.

The battle for women’s suffrage was intertwined with America’s confrontation with slavery and its enduring effects of structural racism and inequity. As DuBois traces the sustained movement, she also shines a light on suffragists who fought for the enfranchisement of all Black citizens, and who often found their cause diminished — or themselves dismissed — by white women leading the suffragist charge.

Today is Women’s Equality Day, which marks the date the 19th Amendment was certified by the Secretary of State. In honor of the 100th anniversary of that milestone, we celebrate five African American women highlighted in DuBois’ book — each of whom played a critical role in the fight for women’s suffrage. They are listed here in order of their birth years.

Sojourner Truth

A photo of Sojourner Truth .

Sojourner Truth (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Truth (1797-1893) was an abolitionist and women’s rights activist best known for her speech on racial inequalities, “Ain’t I a Woman?” delivered at the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. In it, she challenged prevailing notions of racial and gender inferiority and inequality by reminding listeners of her combined strength and her gender.

She devoted her life to the abolitionist movement and sponsored several other causes, including prison reform, property rights and universal suffrage.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary

A photo of Mary Ann Shadd Cary.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary (Photo Credit: National Archives of Canada/National Park Service)

Cary (1823–1893) was an activist, writer, teacher and lawyer, and the first female African-American newspaper editor in North America. Her family participated in the Underground Railroad until the passage of Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, causing them to move to Canada.

In 1853, she created “The Provincial Freemen,” Canada’s first anti-slavery newspaper. She was a member of the National Woman Suffrage Association and spoke at the NWSA’s 1878 convention. Cary also advocated for the 14th and 15th Amendments at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, publicly taking offense that the writing of the amendments was not gender neutral.

► Read an interview with DuBois about her latest book

Frances Watkins Harper

A photo of Frances Watkins Harper.

Frances Watkins Harper (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Harper (1825-1911) was a poet and orator who advocated for abolition and education through speeches and publications. She published several poetry collections and the publication in 1859 of “Two Offers” made her the first African-American woman to publish a short story.

She was a member of the American Equal Suffrage Association and later formed the American Woman Suffrage Association with Frederick Douglass and other reformers.

Ida B. Wells

Wells (1862–1931) was a journalist, abolitionist and feminist who led an anti-lynching crusade in the 1890s. She openly confronted white women in the suffrage movement who ignored lynching, causing her to be ostracized by some women’s suffrage organizations. Wells brought her campaign to the White House in 1898, calling for President William McKinley to make reforms.

With Frances Watkins Harper, Mary Church Terrell and Harriet Tubman, she cofounded the National Association of Colored Women (later the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs), which was created to address civil rights and women’s suffrage issues.

Mary Church Terrell

A photo of Mary Church Terrell.

Mary Church Terrell (Photo Credit: Wikimedia)Commons

Terrell (1864-1954), one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree, is best known as a national activist for civil rights and suffrage. After graduating from Oberlin College, Terrell became part of a rising Black middle and upper class who fought racial discrimination.

Terrell joined Ida B. Wells in anti-lynching campaigns, but her life’s work focused on the idea of racial uplift, the belief that Black people would help end racial discrimination by advancing themselves and other members of the race through education, work and community activism. She was a cofounder and the first president of the National Association of Colored Women.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Image of Kabuki actor performing

UCLA receives $25 million from Uniqlo founder for Japanese literature and culture studies

Image of Kabuki actor performing

Renowned Kabuki actor Nakamura Kyozo performing the role of a lion in “Shujaku jishi” at the Glorya Kaufman Dance Theater in an event for students co-sponsored by the Yanai Initiative and the Japanese Ministry of Culture (November 14, 2019). (Credit: Ning Wong Studios)

UCLA has received a $25 million gift from Tadashi Yanai, the chair, president and CEO of Japan-based Fast Retailing and founder of clothing company Uniqlo. The funds will endow the Tadashi Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities, which will bolster UCLA’s status as a leading center for the study of Japanese literature, language and culture.

The gift is the largest from an individual donor in the history of the UCLA College’s humanities division. A previous donation of $2.5 million from Yanai in 2014 created the Yanai Initiative, a collaboration between UCLA and Waseda University, one of Japan’s most prestigious universities. The program supports academic and cultural programming and enables student and faculty exchanges between the two universities. This latest gift will ensure the initiative’s long-term future.

“Mr. Yanai’s extraordinary gifts are a testament to UCLA’s long-standing commitment to educate global citizens who can thrive in careers — and cultures — anywhere in the world,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. “The Tadashi Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities will have a profound and lasting impact on this campus.”

Photo of Tadashi Yanai

UCLA has received a $25 million gift from Tadashi Yanai, the chair, president and CEO of Japan-based Fast Retailing and founder of clothing company Uniqlo. (Credit: Fast Retailing Co., Ltd.)

The Yanai Initiative is housed in the UCLA College department of Asian languages and cultures and directed by Professor Michael Emmerich. The latest gift will fund and establish an endowed chair in Japanese literature and will fund conferences, public lectures, faculty research, cultural performances and community outreach. It will support graduate and postdoctoral fellowships and undergraduate awards.

“It has been inspiring to see all of the creative, innovative programming — both academic and cultural — that this project has realized over the past five years,” Yanai said. “Now that we are making it permanent, I’m excited to see how it will continue to transform the Japanese humanities in a global context. At the same time, I hope this gift will give others a chance to remember how crucial the humanities are, and, in their own way, to recommit.”

The gift also triggers matching funds from the Humanities Centennial Match and the UCLA Centennial Scholars Match to support UCLA graduate students in Japanese humanities and other areas of study.

“Mr. Yanai’s gift is a visionary investment in a field of increasing interest to humanities scholars, students and people everywhere,” said David Schaberg, UCLA’s dean of humanities. “Thanks to his generosity, UCLA will lead the way in research and teaching in Japanese humanities, bringing new attention to a rich culture that has captured people’s imaginations for centuries.”

Schaberg said another benefit of the gift is that it will deepen UCLA’s partnership with Waseda.

In addition to funding fellowships, symposia, lectures and academic workshops, Yanai’s previous donation supported a range of cultural programs, including a five-day series of events featuring actor Nomura Mansaku, who was designated a “living national treasure” by the Japanese government; a retrospective of films by Palme d’Or recipient Hirokazu Kore-eda; and “The Art of the Benshi,” which introduced Los Angeles audiences to the early 20th century performance art in which narrators bring silent movies to life with live music accompaniment.

“During the past five years, Mr. Yanai’s generosity has enabled us to do so much for students and for the Japanese humanities not just at UCLA, but across the country and around the world,” Emmerich said. “We’ve been able to organize major cultural events across Los Angeles, drawing thousands of participants. I never imagined I would be able to say that all this was only the beginning. I can’t express how grateful we all are to Mr. Yanai for his generosity, his incisive advice and his commitment.”

The gift was facilitated through a designated donations program run by the Japan Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting cultural and intellectual exchange with Japan. Over the past three decades, the foundation has helped advance and fund numerous cultural programs at UCLA.

View this release in Japanese

UCLA Opens World’s 1st Institute To Study Kindness

UCLA receives $20 million to establish UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute

Jennifer and Matthew C. Harris ‘84.

The Bedari Foundation, established by philanthropists Jennifer and Matthew C. Harris, has given $20 million to the UCLA College to establish the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute.

The institute, which is housed in the division of social sciences, will support world-class research on kindness, create opportunities to translate that research into real-world practices, and serve as a global platform to educate and communicate its findings. Among its principal goals are to empower citizens and inspire leaders to build more humane societies.

“Universities should always be places where we teach students to reach across lines of difference and treat one another with empathy and respect — even when we deeply disagree,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said. “The UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute will bring the best thinking to this vital issue and, I think, will allow us to have a real social impact on future generations.”

The institute, which will begin operating immediately, will take an interdisciplinary approach to understanding kindness — through evolutionary, biological, psychological, economic, cultural and sociological perspectives. It will focus on research about the actions, thoughts, feelings and social institutions associated with kindness and will bring together researchers from across numerous disciplines at UCLA and at external organizations.

The inaugural director of the institute is Daniel Fessler, a UCLA anthropology professor whose research interests include exploring how witnessing acts of remarkable kindness can cause an uplifting emotional experience that in turn motivates the observer to be kind. Studies by Fessler and his colleagues have shed light on why some people are open to that type of “contagious kindness” experience.

The Bedari Foundation is a private family foundation whose aim is to enable significant cultural shifts in the fields of health and wellness, community displacement and environmental conservation.

“Our vision is that we will all live in a world where humanity discovers and practices the kindness that exists in all of us,” said Matthew Harris, the foundation’s co-founder and a 1984 UCLA graduate. “Much research is needed to understand why kindness can be so scarce in the modern world. As we seek at Bedari to bridge the divide between science and spirituality, through the establishment of the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute we hope to educate and empower more and more people in the practice of kindness.”

Already, a range of researchers at UCLA are studying the types of questions that will be the basis of the institute’s work. For example, UCLA anthropologists are examining how kindness spreads from person to person and group to group. UCLA sociologists are analyzing how people who regularly act unkind might be encouraged to engage in kind acts instead, and UCLA psychologists are researching how kindness can improve people’s moods and reduce symptoms of depression. Others are pursuing research on changes in neurobiology and behaviors resulting from mindfulness, and how those changes can influence kindness and people’s mental, physical and social well-being.

“In the midst of current world politics, violence and strife, the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute seeks to be an antidote,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of the UCLA division of social sciences. “Rooted in serious academic work, the institute will partner and share its research on kindness broadly in accessible formats. The Bedari Foundation’s extraordinary gift is truly visionary and we are grateful for its support and leadership.”

The Kindness Institute will provide seed funding for research projects that examine the social and physical mechanics of kindness and how kindness might be harnessed to create more humane societies. It also will provide mindfulness awareness training to students, faculty and staff and in underserved Los Angeles communities, and host an annual conference at which presenters will examine new discoveries in kindness research, among other activities.

“The mission of the Kindness Institute perfectly aligns with that of the division of social sciences, where engaging the amazing diversity and social challenges shaping Los Angeles routinely inspires research that has the potential to change the world,” Hunt said.

The gift is part of the Centennial Campaign for UCLA, which is scheduled to conclude in December.

Study shows how serotonin and a popular anti-depressant affect the gut’s microbiota

Senior author Elaine Hsiao says researchers hope to build on their current study to learn whether microbial interactions with antidepressants have consequences for health and disease. Photo: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

A new study in mice led by UCLA biologists strongly suggests that serotonin and drugs that target serotonin, such as anti-depressants, can have a major effect on the gut’s microbiota — the 100 trillion or so bacteria and other microbes that live in the human body’s intestines.

Serotonin — a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger that sends messages among cells — serves many functions in the human body, including playing a role in emotions and happiness. An estimated 90% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut, where it influences gut immunity.

The team — led by senior author Elaine Hsiao and lead author Thomas Fung, a postdoctoral fellow — identified a specific gut bacterium that can detect and transport serotonin into bacterial cells. When mice were given the antidepressant fluoxetine, or Prozac, the biologists found this reduced the transport of serotonin into their cells. This bacterium, about which little is known, is called Turicibacter sanguinis. The study is published this week in the journal Nature Microbiology.

“Our previous work showed that particular gut bacteria help the gut produce serotonin. In this study, we were interested in finding out why they might do so,” said Hsiao, UCLA assistant professor of integrative biology and physiology, and of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics in the UCLA College; and of digestive diseases in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

Hsiao and her research group reported in the journal Cell in 2015 that in mice, a specific mixture of bacteria, consisting mainly of Turicibacter sanguinis and Clostridia, produces molecules that signal to gut cells to increase production of serotonin. When Hsiao’s team raised mice without the bacteria, more than 50% of their gut serotonin was missing. The researchers then added the bacteria mixture of mainly Turicibacter and Clostridia, and their serotonin increased to a normal level.

That study got the team wondering why bacteria signal to our gut cells to make serotonin. Do microbes use serotonin, and if so, for what?

In this new study, the researchers added serotonin to the drinking water of some mice and raised others with a mutation (created by altering a specific serotonin transporter gene) that increased the levels of serotonin in their guts. After studying the microbiota of the mice, the researchers discovered that the bacteria Turicibacter and Clostridia increased significantly when there was more serotonin in the gut.

If these bacteria increase in the presence of serotonin, perhaps they have some cellular machinery to detect serotonin, the researchers speculated. Together with study co-author Lucy Forrest and her team at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the researchers found a protein in multiple species of Turicibacter that has some structural similarity to a protein that transports serotonin in mammals. When they grew Turicibacter sanguinis in the lab, they found that the bacterium imports serotonin into the cell.

In another experiment, the researchers added the antidepressant fluoxetine, which normally blocks the mammalian serotonin transporter, to a tube containing Turicibacter sanguinisThey found the bacterium transported significantly less serotonin.

The team found that exposing Turicibacter sanguinis to serotonin or fluoxetine influenced how well the bacterium could thrive in the gastrointestinal tract. In the presence of serotonin, the bacterium grew to high levels in mice, but when exposed to fluoxetine, the bacterium grew to only low levels in mice.

“Previous studies from our lab and others showed that specific bacteria promote serotonin levels in the gut,” Fung said. “Our new study tells us that certain gut bacteria can respond to serotonin and drugs that influence serotonin, like anti-depressants. This is a unique form of communication between bacteria and our own cells through molecules traditionally recognized as neurotransmitters.”

The team’s research on Turicibacter aligns with a growing number of studies reporting that anti-depressants can alter the gut microbiota. “For the future,” Hsiao said, “we want to learn whether microbial interactions with antidepressants have consequences for health and disease.” Hsiao wrote a blog post for the journal about the new research.

Other study co-authors are Helen Vuong, Geoffrey Pronovost, Cristopher Luna, Anastasia Vavilina, Julianne McGinn and Tomiko Rendon, all of UCLA; and Antoniya Aleksandrova and Noah Riley, members of Forrest’s team.

The research was supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health’s Director’s Early Independence Award, Klingenstein-Simons Fellowship Award, and David & Lucile Packard Foundation’s Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.