Aoife O’Donovan, PhD

2017 Hellman Fellow

Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry & Weill Institute for Neurosciences, University of California, San Francisco

Project Title: Resolving Psychological Stress (RePS): Examining the efficacy of “app”-based attention bias modification training as a treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder

Psychological stress increases the risk of medical and psychiatric illness. A better understanding of the effects of stress on the mind and body could yield new interventions that improve health and well-being. Dr. O’Donovan runs the THRIVE (Trauma and Health Research on Immunity, Vitality and Emotions) Laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco. Work in the lab is focused on uncovering how stress exposure increases risk for illness and on developing and testing interventions to reduce the negative effects of stress. Work in the lab indicates that psychological stress has profound effects on the immune system, increasing levels of inflammatory activity and accelerating biological aging. In turn, these immune system alterations increase risk for multiple chronic diseases of aging and can impact brain structure and function and elicit psychiatric symptoms. Other work in the lab indicates that stress promotes exaggerated threat sensitivity, which may be a key psychological factor contributing to the immune system changes observed in stressed individuals.

The current project is focused on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a chronic and disabling disorder that develops in a minority of people exposed to traumatic psychological stress. Exaggerated threat sensitivity underlies several symptoms of PTSD and may also contribute to the high risk for physical illness seen in people with PTSD. In the current project, we will employ a mobile phone “app” that we developed to reduce threat sensitivity. We will examine if use of this app over a two-week period can reduce levels of threat sensitivity and posttraumatic stress symptoms in individuals with PTSD. Our pilot study of this app confirmed its high level of acceptability to patients with PTSD and suggested that patients are willing and able to engage with the app and complete a training module every day. We are very excited about the potential of the app to improve health in people exposed to trauma and are very grateful for the support of the Hellman Fellows Fund to move this project forward.