Psychology department focuses on health
Richard Hartman, PhD, assistant professor of psychology, SST, tracks each mouse’s path by a camera hooked up above the water maze (located in the basin) that sends the picture to his computer.
The department of psychology in the Loma Linda University School of Science and Technology is growing. The number of students and faculty is rising and the selection of course offerings is expanding. To add to this growth is the department’s developing focus on health.
“Health psychology is an important area because it sheds significant light on the mind-body relationship,” explains Kendal Boyd, PhD, MA, assistant professor of psychology, School of Science and Technology.
Health psychology is an emerging field of study that explores the ways a number of factors, including beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and lifestyle, influence a person’s physical health status. This emphasis on health has grown into a primary area of concentration in the psychology department. Professors in the department of psychology are exploring the various factors of health psychology in their different areas of research and work.
Jason Owen, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of psychology in the School of Science and Technology, is examining the different ways cancer patients and survivors adjust to the cancer experience. He is interested in understanding how survivors access and use psychosocial services, as well as developing ways to improve access to psychosocial care.
The National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) indicates that although cancer survivors have a number of unmet needs, very few utilize mental health services. Working with clinical psychology graduate student Natalie Kaiser, Dr. Owen has shown that as distress levels increase in cancer survivors, they have a greater use of emergency rooms and specialized medical treatments—regardless of the severity or type of illness.
One of the mechanisms that can lead to increased distress in cancer survivors appears to be emotional suppression. Dr. Owen is examining how online and face-to-face support groups play a role in reducing distress by increasing emotional expression.
Additionally, Dr. Owen is curren
After six months, mice that drank the pomegranate juice had 50 percent less beta-amyloid plaques in their brains and performed better in various learning tests and physical activity.
tly working with the Wellness Community, an international nonprofit organization that provides online support groups for those with cancer, to identify the differences between face-to-face and online support groups. Early results from this line of research suggest that online support groups hold promise for reducing cancer-related distress.
Dr. Owen hopes to contribute to the development of online technologies that will make online support more appealing and more socially dynamic in the future. He has shown, for example, that the facilitators’ experience of participating in an online support group is very similar to face-to-face groups. Additionally, online support groups may even enhance social exchanges by creating an environment in which participants are blind to race, color, appearance, and socioeconomic status.
The research of Kiti Freier, PhD, professor of psychology in the School of Science and Technology, also looks at severe conditions but specifically focuses on children. Dr. Freier is director of Kids FARE (Families Assessment Research and Education), which started in July 1995. Its mission is to develop research as well as provide service to high-risk infants and children.
Psychologists, pediatricians, neurologists, postdoctorate fellows, and graduate students all make up the Kids FARE team. Their fields of expertise include pediatric and neurodevelopment, health and neuropsychology, as well as child and family mental health.
The Kids FARE’s facilities include office space and a laboratory, uniquely designed to fit all the team members and services, as well as provide a first-rate testing environment.
Richard Hartman, PhD, assistant professor of psychology with the School of Science and Technology, is exploring the effects of diet on brain pathology and condition.
His research began with a transgenic mouse model, which was predisposed to develop Alzheimer’s-like pathology and symptoms. These symptoms and pathology include beta-amyloid plaques and impairments in learning ability.
At a young age, the mice were split into two groups; half received water with added pomegranate-juice concentrate and the other half received drinking water with the same amount of sugar as the juice, as a control. The test group drank about one to two cups of pomegranate juice each day.
After six months, the mice that drank the pomegranate juice had 50 percent less beta-amyloid plaques in their brains. Additionally, the mice also excelled better in various learning tests and physical activity.
“At least some of the effects on the brain are attributed to the very high levels of antioxidant compounds, known as polyphenols, that are found in pomegranates. Other foods with high polyphenol content include red wine, blueberries, green tea, and curry spice,” says Dr. Hartman.
His research does not end there. Dr. Hartman and his colleagues are currently planning to test the effects of pomegranate juice and other foods on neuropathology and behavior, in both mice and humans with various forms of brain damage.
Similar to Dr. Hartman, Dr. Boyd is also exploring a specific condition in his research. However, Dr. Boyd is looking at the uncertainties of the medically-unexplained pain of fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS). Dr. Boyd and his colleagues in the division of rheumatology recently compared FMS patients to rheumatoid arthritis pain patients, in order to explore the psychosocial phenomena associated with FMS.
Their main findings were that FMS is associated with childhood abuse, and that the severity of pain in FMS patients is linked to physical abuse and catastrophizing. Dr. Boyd’s research demonstrates the relationship between trauma, attitude, and health.
Also an assistant professor with the department of psychology, Karen Lesniak, PhD, is
a clinical health psychologist with a range of research and clinical interests. These interests include areas of preventive lifestyle behaviors—particularly physical activity and diet, clinical program development, and implementation, such as chronic illness self-management in medical settings, as well as the relationship of spirituality and religion to health.
Dr. Lesniak believes “the integration of behavioral, lifestyle, and psychological services with medical care has an important role in helping patients achieve the best possible health outcomes, regardless of their medical condition.” She also strongly supports the consideration of spiritual and religious factors in terms of health, with her own research having demonstrated salutary health effects.
In her research, Dr. Lesniak found that a unique contribution of discrete aspects of religiosity helps moderate certain types of psychological distress. Intrigued by potential health benefits of complementary and alternative medicine, like a possible role for prayer in healing, Dr. Lesniak also examined the effects of intercessory prayer on wound healing in nonhuman primates.
Dr. Lesniak is also involved in helping shape health psychology training in the psychology department, along with the offering of new health courses. Having just joined the psychology department faculty this year, she has particular interest in building interdisciplinary clinical and research collaborations with faculty members in other departments.
The department of psychology offers two clinical psychology programs for students. Similar to a minor, students can choose a concentration in health psychology in the PhD program or a professional concentration in the PsyD program.
The PhD program places more emphasis on research, but still involves a strong clinical training. This differs from the PsyD, which involves a clinical emphasis and focuses less on research. Additionally, the PsyD can also be completed simultaneously with a DrPH, as part of a joint program. These two-degree programs also offer concentrations in both clinical and pediatric health psychology.
More information may be found on the department of psychology’s growing website: <www.llu.edu/llu/grad/psychology>.
By Kristine Gamboa