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A photo of Shelley Taylor, distinguished research professor or psychology in the UCLA College.

Psychology professor honored for pioneering work on ‘social cognition’

A photo of Shelley Taylor, distinguished research professor or psychology in the UCLA College.

Shelley Taylor was recently honored as one of the most influential social psychologists working today. (Photo Courtesy of Shelley Taylor)

Shelley Taylor, distinguished research professor of psychology in the UCLA College and the founding scholar in the areas of social cognition, health psychology and social neuroscience, has been awarded the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Social Sciences.

The BBVA Foundation praised Taylor, who has been on faculty at UCLA since 1979, as a pioneer of social cognition who revealed the role of cognitive bias in social relations. Social cognition is the process of people making sense of the social world — how people think about themselves, other people, social groups, human history and the future. This social knowledge begins to develop in infancy, and guides human beliefs about others, and social behavior.

“It is a great honor to receive this award,” said Taylor, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, who is an expert on how people cope with adversity. “In the last decades, social cognition has gone from being an interesting idea to being a guiding force in scientific inquiry concerning how people think about themselves and the social world. I am especially grateful to my colleague, Susan Fiske for her important collaborative role in the development and subsequent prominence of this field.”

The foundation’s award citation praised Taylor as one of the most influential social psychologists working today whose “amazing insights” and “outstanding contributions” have elucidated the role of cognitive shortcuts in shaping social interactions.

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, established in 2008, recognize and reward contributions of exceptional impact in science, technology, social sciences and the humanities. The BBVA Foundation, part of financial group BBVA, partners with the Spanish National Research Council, Spain’s premier public research organization. The foundation promotes world-class scientific research and recognizes significant contributions in scientific research with Frontiers of Knowledge Awards that include a cash prize of 400,000 euros.

Taylor and Fiske, a psychology professor at Princeton, with whom she has been collaborating since 1972, published in 1984 “Social Cognition,” a landmark book; its fourth edition, in 2012, is titled, “Social Cognition: From Brains to Culture.” The authors proposed a model in which people process information on their social environment (people, groups, social situations) at two distinct speeds: a slow, careful speed, based on a systematic analysis of all available data, and a faster, relatively superficial one drawing on “cognitive shortcuts,” biases and strategies that simplify complex problems.

Instead of reaching conclusions in a rational manner, people often rely on shortcuts, including stereotypes. Taylor and Fiske defined several types of social thinkers, including what they called the “cognitive miser,” who exhibits a kind of bias favoring information that confirms one’s own beliefs, reducing the mental effort involved in processing. The cognitive miser simultaneously draws on and reinforces existing stereotypes, such as race, gender, age and immigrant status. Their model, the committee wrote, “details the conditions under which more elaborative cognitive processes are used as a basis for decision.”

Taylor is also among the founders of health psychology, renowned for her contributions on how stress affects health, and how social factors are able to buffer this effect.

Her research in health psychology led her to the discovery of “positive illusions,” with which people tend to perceive things in an optimistic light, believing they are better than they are. Taylor showed that this bias contributes to the improvement of health, and that these illusions are very adaptive. Taylor is a leader in research into how stress affects health, and how social factors can serve as a buffer in this respect.

What happens when your social support becomes dangerous?

In a new article published by the BBVA Foundation, Taylor and Fiske analyze the impact the COVID-19 pandemic may have on social life. Other people, they note, are the source of our greatest danger and our greatest support. How do we decide who is safe and trustworthy? They explain how social cognition allows us to make these determinations.

Under normal circumstances, social support is one of the most effective resources a person has for dealing with threat.

“One of the particularly disturbing aspects of the coronavirus epidemic is that it undermines and can even eliminate this vital resource,” the article said. “The infection is, of course, socially transmitted, so an infected person likely got it from a social contact and may subsequently inadvertently pass it on to others. How devastating it is to know that one’s social support may be eliminated by the very stressor one is trying to combat, manage, or avoid.”

The article states that there could be other consequences, as well, such as the impulse to form new friendships may be muted and people could come to view the world with more suspicion and concern.

“And yet, there is also the likelihood that we will emerge from these trying times with renewed appreciation for our social ties and the physical and emotional benefits they provide. Never is it more clear than in a crisis that no one solves such severe problems alone. We must depend on one another for warmth, kindness, and help and by providing and receiving the support that is the essence of our humanity.”

Taylor also developed an alternative to the prevailing fight-or-flight theory of how people respond to stress, which is the idea that people respond either aggressively to stressful events or flee from them. Her alternative, “tend-and-befriend” model states that people, especially women, seek positive, nurturing social relationships.

Eight of Taylor’s research articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals have each been cited more than 1,000 times. Her research has been supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health since 1974.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a valley oak tree.

UCLA College Celebrates Earth Day

A photo of a Griffith Park vista; the view of the Los Angeles skyline from Griffith Park.

Los Angeles County is home to more than 4,000 distinct species of plants and animals, and the sustainability plan aims for “no loss of native biodiversity.” (Photo Credit: Jake Dobkin)

Not only does this mark its 50th anniversary, this Earth Day is unlike any other we have seen as the global pandemic continues to impact the way we live our lives. Yes, it has disrupted our daily routines but it has also benefited the environment in myriad ways. For example, freeways once clogged with traffic have opened up, clearing the air and making way for bright blue skies and views for miles. Even before COVID-19, UCLA College faculty members and teams were out in the field and in their labs, working on groundbreaking research and advising on county and statewide plans. In honor of Earth Day, we are highlighting stories about conservation, sustainability, global warming, solar geoengineering and protecting our precious ecosystems.

 

A photo of vegetation and mountains in California's Anza-Borrego State Park.

Vegetation and mountains in California’s Anza-Borrego State Park. (Photo Credit: Sean Brenner/UCLA)

UCLA to lead $10 million California conservation project

UCLA scientists are leading a $10 million project to help California officials make ecologically wise decisions as the state continues to confront the effects of climate change. The initiative will give California officials scientific data they can use to make decisions about conserving the state’s ecosystems.

A photo of a valley oak tree.

The valley oak, the largest oak in California, grows to over 100 feet tall and provides habitat and food for a variety of animals. (Photo Credit: Victoria Sork/UCLA)

One of California’s iconic tree species offers lessons for conservation

New research led by UCLA evolutionary biologist Victoria Sork examines whether the trees being replanted in the wake of California’s fires will be able to survive a climate that is continuing to warm. The study, which is published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, focuses on California’s iconic valley oak.

A photo of a Griffith Park vista; the view of the Los Angeles skyline from Griffith Park.

Los Angeles County is home to more than 4,000 distinct species of plants and animals, and the sustainability plan aims for “no loss of native biodiversity.” (Photo Credit: Jake Dobkin)

L.A. County taps UCLA to help create first-ever sustainability plan

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an ambitious sustainability plan that calls for phasing out fossil fuels to address climate change and improve quality of life in the region. Sixteen UCLA researchers contributed to the OurCounty plan, which was created by the county’s Chief Sustainability Office.

A photo of the Santa Monica Pier at night.

The Santa Monica Pier at night. Artificial light can cause problems for a range of species that live and breed in coastal environments. (Photo Credit: William Chen/Pexels)

Study draws Southern California coastal light pollution into focus

Artificial light is known to disrupt mating cycles in species along the Southern California coast. A team of UCLA and University of Southern California researchers led by Travis Longcore, UCLA adjunct professor of urban conservation biology, has mapped light pollution conditions that will be used to inform decisions about future infrastructure and construction plans.

A photo of members of the UCLA Center for Diverse Leadership in Science, which was founded by Aradhna Tripati, associate professor in the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Members of the Center for Diverse Leadership in Science, which was founded by Professor Aradhna Tripati, third row, far right, and their colleagues. (Photo: Courtesy of Aradhna Tripati)

Professor pays it forward by promoting diversity and environmental justice

When she was appointed in 2009, Aradhna Tripati was the first woman of color out of 50 faculty in UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Along with colleagues in UCLA’s Anthropology department and American Indian Studies Center, she conducts community engaged research on water in the context of global warming in the southwestern United States. She also formed the first university-based center for diversity in environmental science, with the goal of inspiring a generation of leaders that matches the demographics of the U.S. population.

A photo of Stephanie Correa and Edward van Veen in Correa's UCLA laboratory

Research provides new insights into menopause and weight gain

A photo of Stephanie Correa and Edward van Veen in Correa's UCLA laboratory

Stephanie Correa and Edward van Veen in Correa’s UCLA laboratory (Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson)

Can women in menopause get the benefits of hormone replacement therapy without the risks? A new UCLA study conducted with mice points in that direction, but additional research is necessary.

Women commonly experience hot flashes and weight gain, among other changes, during and after menopause. Hormone therapy, which gives women additional estrogen, can help alleviate some of these symptoms, but it has been linked to a higher risk of heart disease and breast cancer.

UCLA life scientists now report that a gene called reprimo, which is expressed by certain neurons in the brain, may play a role in menopause-related weight gain, a phenomenon not linked to increased eating. Their findings are published today in the journal Nature Metabolism.

“We want to figure out which neurons are mediating the beneficial portions of hormone therapy and mimic them without hormones,” said senior author Stephanie Correa, a UCLA assistant professor of integrative biology and physiology and a member of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute. “Hormone therapy can be beneficial, but it treats the entire brain and body with hormones. We may be able to bypass the hormone. That’s our goal, and it’s a big one. We haven’t achieved it yet, but we’re learning.”

Correa and her research team show that the reprimo gene is important for regulating temperature. Changes in temperature are known to affect body weight and may contribute to the weight gain often seen in menopause.

“It’s possible that reprimo is involved in the weight gain that accompanies menopause,” said co-lead author Edward van Veen, a project scientist in Correa’s laboratory. “If equivalent neurons exist in humans and we can find some way to tweak them, it might relieve much of the weight gain without the side effects of hormone therapy.”

A brain region called the hypothalamus is essential for survival in many species, from mice to humans; it controls eating, drinking, reproduction and body-temperature regulation, among other vital functions. Correa and her research team studied dozens of genes in the hypothalami of more than 50 mice, both female and male, starting at about eight weeks of age, shortly after they reach reproductive age.

The team used a technique known as single-cell RNA-seq, which allows biologists to study individual cells one at a time, to investigate which neurons in an area of the hypothalamus known as the ventromedial hypothalamus might mediate these different functions.

“We had hints there were different types of neurons in the ventromedial hypothalamus, and this region is very different in males and females, so we studied hundreds of cells in males and females to identify the different types of neurons and determine whether there are sex differences,” Correa said.

The biologists were most interested in neurons that have estrogen receptors. These receptors bind to the hormone and are subsequently able regulate to the activity of specific genes in the neuron, a process known as gene expression. The team’s most significant findings centered on the reprimo gene, which is expressed in one group, or population, of these estrogen-responsive neurons, restricted almost entirely to females.

“We were excited to find not only populations of estrogen-responsive neurons but also differences in these populations between males and females,” said co-lead author Laura Kammel, a former UCLA doctoral student in Correa’s laboratory.

“The difference between females and males in reprimo in the ventromedial hypothalamus is like night and day,” Correa said. “The females express a ton of it, and males express little, if any, reprimo in this brain region. Of the dozens of genes I have studied in this region, this is easily the strongest sex difference I have ever seen.”

In a series of experiments, the biologists interfered with the function of reprimo in the ventromedial hypothalamus in about two dozen mice. In one experiment, they shut off reprimo in female mice by using an RNA molecular compound that interferes with how the gene works in neurons. In another, they increased reprimo expression in male mice by removing an estrogen receptor from the neurons. In both cases, body temperature changed substantially, demonstrating a link between reprimo’s role in temperature and the effects of estrogen.

“We know that reprimo is important in regulating body temperature, but we don’t know what it is actually doing in neurons,” van Veen said. “We want to find out.”

Correa and her team also report that estrogen acts on another gene, Tac1, that is significantly increased in the ventromedial hypothalamus of female mice, although the difference is not nearly as dramatic as with reprimo. Tac1 has been shown to promote physical activity in female mice.

Estrogen receptor alpha, one of three estrogen receptors, is found in neurons in the same region of the ventromedial hypothalamus as Tac1 and reprimo. When the researchers removed that estrogen receptor, they found it led to obesity and reduced movement in female mice.

The results, the researchers said, not only aid in their understanding of the interplay between genes and estrogen but may also have implications for understanding obesity.

Summarizing the research, van Veen said: “The ventromedial hypothalamus is involved in movement and temperature regulation. We know estrogen affects movement and temperature. From Stephanie Correa’s previous research, we learned the estrogen response of neurons that affect movement, and now we think we know the estrogen response of neurons that affect temperature. It’s interesting that they are in the same location but distinct.”

“Our findings suggest reprimo is controlling some of the effects of estrogen on temperature,” Correa said. “If it is controlling the beneficial effects, then maybe we can manipulate it — with a drug that targets reprimo or the neurons that express reprimo — as an alternative to hormone therapy and get around the requirement for estrogen. We are studying the brain in a nuanced way and trying to learn which cells or which genes are important to target for potential therapies.”

Co-authors are co-lead author Laura Kammel, a former UCLA doctoral student in Correa’s laboratory; Xia Yang, a UCLA associate professor of integrative biology and physiology; Arthur Arnold, a UCLA distinguished professor of integrative biology and physiology; and Marc Liesa-Roig, a UCLA assistant professor-in-residence at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of James Lloyd-Smith.

Study reveals how long COVID-19 remains infectious on cardboard, metal and plastic

The virus that causes COVID-19 remains for several hours to days on surfaces and in aerosols, a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found.

The study suggests that people may acquire the coronavirus through the air and after touching contaminated objects. Scientists discovered the virus is detectable for up to three hours in aerosols, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.

A photo of James Lloyd-Smith in his office.

James Lloyd-Smith

“This virus is quite transmissible through relatively casual contact, making this pathogen very hard to contain,” said James Lloyd-Smith, a co-author of the study and a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “If you’re touching items that someone else has recently handled, be aware they could be contaminated and wash your hands.”

The study attempted to mimic the virus being deposited onto everyday surfaces in a household or hospital setting by an infected person through coughing or touching objects, for example. The scientists then investigated how long the virus remained infectious on these surfaces.

The study’s authors are from UCLA, the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Princeton University. They include Amandine Gamble, a UCLA postdoctoral researcher in Lloyd-Smith’s laboratory.

In February, Lloyd-Smith and colleagues reported in the journal eLife that screening travelers for COVID-19 is not very effective. People infected with the virus — officially named SARS-CoV-2 — may be spreading the virus without knowing they have it or before symptoms appear. Lloyd-Smith said the biology and epidemiology of the virus make infection extremely difficult to detect in its early stages because the majority of cases show no symptoms for five days or longer after exposure.

“Many people won’t have developed symptoms yet,” Lloyd-Smith said. “Based on our earlier analysis of flu pandemic data, many people may not choose to disclose if they do know.”

The new study supports guidance from public health professionals to slow the spread of COVID-19:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover coughs or sneezes with a tissue, and dispose of the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a household cleaning spray or wipe.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo collage: from left, top row: Elaine Hsiao, Andrea Ghez, Sarah Stein. From left, bottom row: Heather Adams and Lynn Vavreck.

UCLA College Celebrates International Women’s Day

A photo collage: from left, top row: Elaine Hsiao, Andrea Ghez, Sarah Stein. From left, bottom row: Heather Adams and Lynn Vavreck.

From left, top row: Elaine Hsiao, Andrea Ghez, Sarah Stein. From left, bottom row: Heather Adams and Lynn Vavreck.

On International Women’s Day we give a shout-out to five incredible UCLA College faculty whose research and accomplishments are truly awe-inspiring—including discoveries about our galaxy’s black hole, landing on The Economist’s “Best of 2019” book list, spearheading one of the largest public opinion surveys for the 2020 election, revealing how anti-depressants affect our gut microbiome, and advocating for transfer students. See our highlights below.

Physical Sciences

A photo of Andrea Ghez.

Andrea Ghez (Photo Credit: Christopher Dibble)

Astronomers discover class of strange objects near our galaxy’s enormous black hole

Astronomers from UCLA’s Galactic Center Orbits Initiative have discovered new objects that “look like gas and behave like stars,” said co-author Andrea Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics and director of the UCLA Galactic Center Group.

 

Social Sciences

A photo of Lynn Vavreck.

Lynn Vavreck (Photo Credit: UCLA)

UCLA political scientists launch one of largest-ever public opinion surveys for run-up to 2020

UCLA political scientists Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausanovitch launch one of largest-ever public opinion surveys for the run-up to 2020 elections.

 

Life Sciences

A photo of Elaine Hsiao.

Elaine Hsiao (Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA)

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

Senior author Elaine Hsiao, along with a team of researchers, hopes to build on their current study to learn whether microbial interactions with antidepressants have consequences for health and disease.

 

Humanities

A photo of Sarah Abrevaya Stein.

Sarah Abrevaya Stein (Photo Credit: Caroline Libresco)

Professor’s book about Sephardic Jews chosen as a Best of 2019

The Economist has named to its Best of 2019 list, “Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century,” by Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Sady and Ludwig Kahn Director, Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies.

 

Undergraduate Education

A photo of Heather Adams, first row center, former director of the UCLA Transfer Student Center.

Heather Adams, first row center. (Photo Credit: Ivan Mendez/UCLA)

UCLA’s Heather Adams wins national award for work helping transfer students

Adams was honored by the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students.

 

 

A photo of Professor Tracy Johnson.

Professor Seeks to Provide All Students with a Pathway to Research Success

A photo of Professor Tracy Johnson.

Professor Tracy Johnson, Keith and Cecilia Terasaki Presidential Endowed Chair in the Life Sciences, with undergraduate students in her research lab. (Photo credit: UCLA Strategic Communications.)

When Tracy Johnson was an undergraduate working in a lab at the University of California at San Diego, she found herself suddenly jolted. Conducting research on gene function using fruit flies, she realized she was involved in something deeper and more fulfilling than a traditional classroom experience. “The idea that I was learning things that nobody else knew, that I could make some contribution,” she says now, “that was a game-changer.”

Professor Johnson arrived at UCLA College’s Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology in 2014, aiming to bring this same sense of purpose to others. She founded the UCLA-HHMI Pathways to Success, a program that seeks to give students from diverse backgrounds an “authentic research experience, early on, and in a prolonged way.” For years, she says, students of color and those who were the first in their family to attend college pursued STEM degrees at equal rates as other students but left STEM majors at a higher rate.” “I think that has less to do with preparation,” she says, “and more to do with not seeing themselves as part of a scientific community. Pathways was designed to rethink that.” The goal was to help students understand they belonged and had important contributions to make.

In building the program, Johnson looked around the country to find what worked best, and bring it to UCLA. She was interested not just in lab work but in mentoring as well.

Pathways students participate in a lab course dedicated to Johnson’s field, gene expression. The DNA in every cell of a given plant or animal are identical. Expression is the process by which specific segments of the DNA, genes, get turned on.  This process allows cells to perform specific functions. For example this process can tell a cell to become part of a muscle, part of the bran, and so on.

It’s a lot to throw first-year students into, she acknowledges. “They’re freshmen, on campus for barely 10 weeks if it’s winter quarter. Some have never taken AP biology. It’s ambitious, but they rise to the occasion.”

In fact, she’s expecting to publish some of the student research in an academic journal in 2020. Pathways has now enrolled close to 100 students, and they’ve taken on more and more responsibility as the years have passed. Some have gone on to doctoral programs, others to medical school. “There isn’t anything quite like what we do,” she says. “I think it’s a model for how to think about student success.”

Find out more about UCLA College’s innovative Pathways program.

A photo of Esmeralda Villavicencio.

Esmeralda Villavicencio Is Working to Make Disease and Infertility a Thing of the Past

UCLA College division of Life Sciences student Esmeralda Isabel Villavicencio wants to return some day to her home country of Ecuador as a genetics professor, leading pioneering research on complex diseases and neurological disorders. She already has a solid start at UCLA.

“My community has suffered from a tremendous lack of support for STEM research, and I want to contribute to change that,” says Villavicencio, a senior majoring in Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics with a Biomedical Research minor.

A photo of Esmeralda Villavicencio.

Esmeralda Villavicencio in the lab. Photo credit: UCLA College/Reed Hutchinson

Villavicencio is gaining valuable experience in Dr. Amander Clark’s lab as an undergraduate research assistant, where her project working with stem cells is a part of a research effort that could one day help develop novel treatments for infertility. The possibility that her work will have impact is what drives her.

“The work I’m doing now could eventually help people who suffer from infertility to conceive a child—people, for example, who become infertile after treatments for pediatric cancer, or due to developmental defects,” she says.

Villavicencio says the collaborative research environment at UCLA has prepared her for graduate school and a career as a scientist, from learning lab techniques to strengthening her critical thinking skills, discipline and resiliency.  This experience has helped her grow in her chosen career, and her hard work is also paying off in other ways.

Villavicencio’s drive and vision have been recognized by two UCLA Life Sciences scholarship awards that are helping her move closer to her goals. Last year, she was awarded the Kristen Hanson Memorial Scholarship, which honors a female undergraduate for academic accomplishment and a passion for science in addition to well-rounded interests, leadership, originality and commitment to engage with the world.  More recently, the COMPASS scholarship—from the Center for Opportunity to Maximize Participation, Access and Student Success—was presented to Villavicencio for her summer research.

“Knowing my hard work and enthusiasm stand out in such a top-tier school is encouraging, and receiving these honors also greatly alleviated my financial burden,” Villavicencio says. “I come from a low-income family and I’m able to attend UCLA in part thanks to a scholarship from my government. However, there are expenses it does not cover. The scholarships allow me to reduce my part-time job hours and focus more on my research and academic endeavors.”

A photo of Michelle Craske.

Michelle Craske to share how research can inform anxiety and depression treatment

A photo of Michelle Craske.

Michelle Craske and colleagues are studying how to integrate virtual reality into treatment for anxiety and depression. Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

For more than three decades, Michelle Craske has been trying to understand what makes some people prone to anxiety and depression. She’s studied what biomarkers, behaviors and thinking patterns contribute to these conditions, and how to use that knowledge to develop better treatments.

At the 128th Faculty Research Lecture, Craske, distinguished professor of psychology in the UCLA College, will describe some of her findings and talk about how virtual reality has begun playing a role in changing patients’ mindsets for the better. The talk will be held at 3 p.m. on Wednesdsay, Feb. 19.

“Anxiety and depression are dramatically increasing in prevalence,” said Craske, who is also a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and holder of the Joanne and George Miller and Family Endowed Chair. “We need to understand the engine that’s driving these conditions so we can improve our treatments.”

In the U.S., only about half of people with symptoms of anxiety or depression receive treatment. And when they do get help, treatments are only effective about half the time, said Craske, also an executive committee member for the UCLA Depression Grand Challenge, a campus-wide initiative that aims to cut the global burden of depression in half by 2050.

Much of Craske’s work on anxiety centers on the idea that people prone to anxiety disorders, which affect an estimated 18% of U.S. adults each year, anticipate threat more often than others and have difficulty inhibiting this fear. Most people feel fearful when faced with a real threat — say, a bear in front of us in the woods. But people most at risk for anxiety disorders are more likely to respond to an uncertain situation — feeling afraid in the woods even when there’s no bear, for instance.

The challenge for clinicians like Craske is to decrease this anticipation of threat. Craske uses a technique known as exposure therapy, in which a person is exposed to a situation or setting that makes them anxious, in an attempt to train their brain that it’s safe. Craske utilizes prediction error learning to explain the effects of exposure therapy and attempts to optimize such learning. The greater the element of surprise, the more the learning sticks.

“We want to design a treatment where a person says, ‘Oh, I was wrong! I really expected this to be unmanageable or even risky and it wasn’t at all,’” Craske said.

Craske’s research aims to make people with depression — or those prone to depression — more motivated to work toward and to savor rewards. This “reward sensitivity” is often dampened by depression and Craske thinks it’s an avenue for potential treatments to target. For example, in her studies of the effects of kindness and compassion on depression, she has found that training people how to more regularly engage in acts of kindness can ease their symptoms.

Craske and colleagues also are studying how to integrate virtual reality into treatment for anxiety and depression.

“We use virtual reality to help people face the situations they fear and avoid, and at other times we use virtual reality to increase their capacity for positive emotions,” she said. “By immersing themselves in positive scenes we can teach them how to anticipate and savor rewarding events and then transfer that to real life.”

In her talk, titled “Anxiety and Depression: Risk Factors and Treatment,” Craske wants to convey a sense of her scientific approach, which builds off her background as a clinical psychologist to improve psychotherapies. It will take many different perspectives, however, to solve anxiety and depression, she said. In her role with the Depression Grand Challenge, she helps build collaborations between researchers like herself and those that study psychological diseases from a genetic, molecular or neurological point of view.

Craske looks forward to presenting her research, and hopes the audience comes away from her lecture feeling hopeful about the progress that science is making on anxiety and depression.

“I am deeply honored to have been selected to give this lecture which represents the true pinnacle of my career at UCLA,” Craske said.

The Faculty Research Lecture — a UCLA tradition since 1925 — is free and open to the public and will be held at 3 p.m. on Feb. 19 in the Schoenberg Music Building. Please RSVP here if you’d like to attend.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photo of a computer-generated 3D rendering of a flu virus.

First childhood flu helps explain why virus hits some people harder than others

Photo of a computer-generated 3D rendering of a flu virus.

A computer-generated 3D rendering of a flu virus. Photo Credit: Dan Higgins/Courtesy of CDC/Douglas Jordan

Why are some people better able to fight off the flu than others? Part of the answer, according to a new study, is related to the first flu strain we encounter in childhood.

Scientists from UCLA and the University of Arizona have found that people’s ability to fight off the flu virus is determined not only by the subtypes of flu they have had throughout their lives, but also by the sequence in which they are been infected by the viruses. Their study is published in the open-access journal PLoS Pathogens.

The research offers an explanation for why some people fare much worse than others when infected with the same strain of the flu virus, and the findings could help inform strategies for minimizing the effects of the seasonal flu.

In addition, UCLA scientists, including Professor James Lloyd-Smith, who also was a senior author of the PLoS Pathogens research, recently completed a study that analyzes travel-related screening for the new novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV. (The research is under review; a preprint is online.)

The researchers report that screening travelers is not very effective for the 2019 coronavirus — that it will catch less than half of infected travelers, on average — and that most infected travelers are undetectable, meaning that they have no symptoms yet, and are unaware that they have been exposed. So stopping the spread of the virus is not a matter of just enhancing screening methods at airports and other travel hubs.

“This puts the onus on government officials and public health officials to follow up with travelers after they arrive, to isolate them and trace their contacts if they get sick later,” said Lloyd-Smith, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. Many governments have started to impose quarantines, or even travel bans, as they realize that screening is not sufficient to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

One major concern, Lloyd-Smith said, is that other countries, especially developing nations, lack the infrastructure and resources for those measures, and are therefore vulnerable to importing the disease.

“Much of the public health world is very concerned about the virus being introduced into Africa or India, where large populations exist that do not have access to advanced medical care,” he said.

The researchers, including scientists from the University of Chicago and the London School of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine, have developed a free online app where people can calculate the effectiveness of travel screening based on a range of parameters.

“Our finding concerning the effectiveness of screening for the coronavirus is not a criticism of screening practices being done by public health officials in the United States or elsewhere,” Lloyd-Smith said.

He said that the biology and epidemiology of the virus itself makes infection extremely difficult to detect in its early stages, because the majority of cases show no symptoms for five days or longer after exposure.

“My colleagues and I know there is a lot of speculation online about the coronavirus and how it spreads,” Lloyd-Smith said “People should look to trusted sources for accurate information, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, and the peer-reviewed scientific literature.”

Solving a decades-old question

The PLoS Pathogens study may help solve a problem that had for decades vexed scientists and health care professionals: why the same strain of the flu virus affects people with various degrees of severity.

A team that included some of the same UCLA and Arizona scientists reported in 2016 that exposure to influenza viruses during childhood gives people partial protection for the rest of their lives against distantly related influenza viruses. Biologists call the idea that past exposure to the flu virus determines a person’s future response to infections “immunological imprinting.”

The 2016 research helped overturn a commonly held belief that previous exposure to a flu virus conferred little or no immunological protection against strains that can jump from animals into humans, such as those causing the strains known as swine flu or bird flu. Those strains, which have caused hundreds of spillover cases of severe illness and death in humans, are of global concern because they could gain mutations that allow them to readily jump not only from animal populations to humans, but also to spread rapidly from person to person.

In the new study, the researchers investigated whether immunological imprinting could explain people’s response to flu strains already circulating in the human population and to what extent it could account for observed discrepancies in how severely the seasonal flu affects people in different age groups.

To track how different strains of the flu virus affect people at different ages, the team analyzed health records that the Arizona Department of Health Services obtains from hospitals and private physicians.

Two subtypes of influenza virus, H3N2 and H1N1, have been responsible for seasonal outbreaks of the flu over the past several decades. H3N2 causes the majority of severe cases in high-risk elderly people and the majority of deaths from the flu. H1N1 is more likely to affect young and middle-aged adults, and causes fewer deaths.

The health record data revealed a pattern: People first exposed to the less severe strain, H1N1, during childhood were less likely to end up hospitalized if they encountered H1N1 again later in life than people who were first exposed to H3N2. And people first exposed to H3N2 received extra protection against H3N2 later in life.

The researchers also analyzed the evolutionary relationships between the flu strains. H1N1 and H3N2, they learned, belong to two separate branches on the influenza “family tree,” said James Lloyd-Smith, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and one of the study’s senior authors. While infection with one does result in the immune system being better prepared to fight a future infection from the other, protection against future infections is much stronger when one is exposed to strains from the same group one has battled before, he said.

The records also revealed another pattern: People whose first childhood exposure was to H2N2, a close cousin of H1N1, did not have a protective advantage when they later encountered H1N1. That phenomenon was much more difficult to explain, because the two subtypes are in the same group, and the researchers’ earlier work showed that exposure to one can, in some cases, grant considerable protection against the other.

“Our immune system often struggles to recognize and defend against closely related strains of seasonal flu, even though these are essentially the genetic sisters and brothers of strains that circulated just a few years ago,” said lead author Katelyn Gostic, who was a UCLA doctoral student in Lloyd-Smith’s laboratory when the study was conducted and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago. “This is perplexing because our research on bird flu shows that deep in our immune memory, we have some ability to recognize and defend against the distantly related, genetic third cousins of the strains we saw as children.

“We hope that by studying differences in immunity against bird flus — where our immune system shows a natural ability to deploy broadly effective protection — and against seasonal flus — where our immune system seems to have bigger blind spots — we can uncover clues useful to universal influenza vaccine development.”

Around the world, influenza remains a major killer. The past two flu seasons have been more severe than expected, said Michael Worobey, a co-author of the study and head of the University of Arizona’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology. In the 2017–18 season, 80,000 people died in the U.S., more than in the swine flu pandemic of 2009, he said.

People who had their first bout of flu as children in 1955 — when the H1N1 was circulating but the H3N2 virus was not — were much more likely to be hospitalized with an H3N2 infection than an H1N1 infection last year, when both strains were circulating, Worobey said.

“The second subtype you’re exposed to is not able to create an immune response that is as protective and durable as the first,” he said.

The researchers hope that their findings could help predict which age groups might be severely affected during future flu seasons based on the subtype circulating. That information could also help health officials prepare their response, including decisions about who should receive certain vaccines that are only available in limited quantities.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, DARPA and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. In 2018, the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced a strategic plan to develop a universal flu vaccine.

The study’s co-authors are Rebecca Bridge of the Arizona Department of Health Services and Cecile Viboud of the Fogarty International Center at the NIH.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of images of fruit flies’ eyes, wings and lymph glands.

Hundreds of UCLA students publish paper analyzing 1,000 genes involved in organ development

A team of 245 UCLA undergraduates and 31 high school students has published an encyclopedia of more than 1,000 genes, including 421 genes whose functions were previously unknown. The research was conducted in fruit flies, and the genes the researchers describe in the analysis may be associated with the development of the brain, eye, lymph gland and wings.

The fruit fly is often the object of scientific research because its cells have similar DNA to that of human cells — so knowledge about its genes can help researchers better understand human diseases. The UCLA study should be useful to scientists studying genes involved in sleep, vision, memory and many other processes in humans.

The research is published in the journal G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics. The study’s senior authors include researchers Cory Evans and John Olson, who taught UCLA’s Biomedical Research 10H, the course in which the studies were conducted.

“I expect this will be a highly cited paper and a valuable resource to life scientists,” said Tracy Johnson, director of UCLA’s biomedical research minor, which offers the course the students all took. “It’s inspiring to know all of this really important research came from freshmen and sophomores. It’s beautiful, high-quality research.”

A photo of images of fruit flies’ eyes, wings and lymph glands.

Visible on this page are images of fruit flies’ eyes (top), wings and lymph glands, showing which genes are active (red) or were previously active (green). (Download the full image to also see scans of the brain.) Photo credit: Cory Evans

The students studied short DNA sequences to learn how specific genes are turned on and off and understand how those genes control the functions of various cell types. Although all cells have essentially the same collection of genes, specific genes are turned on or off depending on the cells’ needs, Evans said.

Each student studied several genes, ultimately producing a total of more than 50,000 microscopic images; the researchers then posted their analysis on an online database where other scientists can study the genes’ roles.

“This shows not only which genes are turned on, but the history of which genes have been turned on,” Johnson said.

The research was conducted as part of a UCLA life sciences course that was developed in the early 2000s by Utpal Banerjee, a UCLA distinguished professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor and a senior author of the paper. The course received initial funding from the HHMI.

“Research on science education says that one of the best way to teach science is by having authentic research experiences embedded in a course,” said Johnson, who holds the Keith and Cecilia Terasaki Presidential Endowed Chair in the Division of Life Sciences and is an HHMI Professor. “Professor Banerjee understood years ago when he envisioned the class that students learn more by doing science. They learn how to design experiments, how to think like scientists, how to write about science and how to present their research.”

Johnson said the approach is analogous to teaching a sport. “If a kid wants to play soccer, you don’t say, ‘Don’t touch the soccer ball yet. You have to first learn all of the rules, watch other people play and read about the soccer greats, and maybe in a couple of years, we’ll let you kick the ball.’ No, bring out the soccer balls! So we need to get science students in the lab.”

The students completed two other research projects, one of which Evans expects will be published this year. In that study, the undergraduates studied the effects of turning off specific genes in fruit flies using a scientific technique called RNA interference. They then determined which of those 4,000 genes, when turned off, affect the proper development of blood cells.

“We teach students how to do research, not fly biology,” said Evans, who is now an assistant professor of biology at Loyola Marymount University. “Their science literacy is high, and they know how to evaluate evidence.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.