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Aoife O’Donovan, Ph.D


Research Interests
My program of research is focused on elucidating the mechanisms by which psychological stress increases risk for chronic diseases of aging. In particular, I examine how severe and prolonged psychological stress impacts neural systems relevant for threat perception as well as indices and mechanisms of cellular aging, a common mechanism across diverse diseases of aging. Findings from my research indicate that psychological stress characterized by high levels of threat or threat sensitivity (i.e., post-traumatic stress disorder, childhood trauma, pessimism, caregiving for a relative with severe illness) is associated with short leukocyte telomere length, a marker of cellular age. Most recently my colleagues and I have found that exaggerated threat appraisals of a standardized stress task are also associated with shorter telomere length. We also found that similar threat-related forms of psychological stress are associated with elevated inflammatory activity, a key mechanism of cellular aging. In my current projects, I aim to combine mobile health technologies with cutting edge methods from cognitive psychology, immunology and cell biology to advance towards a better understanding of how psychological stress affects health and longevity.
University College Cork, B.A., 2001, Applied Psychology
National University of Ireland, Galway, M.S., 2004, Health Psychology
University College Dublin, Ph.D., 2009, Clinical Psychobiology
University of California, San Francisco, Postdoc, 2012, Psychobiology

2010-Present, Branco Weiss Fellow, San Francisco VA and University of California San Francisco
2009, Postdoctoral Scholar, Health Psychology, University of California San Francisco
2007-2009, Fulbright and Rotary International Visiting Scholar, Health Psychology Training Program, University of California San Francisco
2004-2007, Craig Dobbin Newman Scholar, Department of Psychiatry, University College Dublin

Current Research Support

PI: O’Donovan 2010-2015
Society in Science: The Branco Weiss Fellowship
A comprehensive study of psychological stress effects on biological aging.

PI: O’Donovan 2012-2013
UCSF Resource Allocation Program
Resolving Psychological Stress (REPs): a mobile health application for modifying attention bias to threat in post-traumatic stress disorder

PI:Richards 2012-2013
UCSF Resource Allocation Program
A pilot study to assess the effects of threat of shock on cortical hyperarousal during sleep

PI:Neylan 2011-2012
Lightfigher Foundation
Combat PTSD, Cellular Aging, and Atrophy of the Hippocampus

Selected publications

O’Donovan, A., Neylan, T.C., Metzler, T., Whooley, M., & Cohen, B.E. (2012). Lifetime exposure to traumatic psychological stress and inflammation in The Heart and Soul Study. Brain, Behavior, & Immunity, 26(4), 642-649.

O’Donovan, A., Tomiyama, A.J., Lin, J., Puterman, E., Adler, N.E., Kemeny, M., Wolkowitz, O.M., Blackburn, E.H. & Epel, E.S. (2012). Stress appraisals and biological aging: A key role for anticipatory threat in the relationship between psychological stress and telomere length. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 26(4), 573-579.

Tomiyama, A.J., O’Donovan, A., Lin, J., Puterman, E., Lazaro, A., Chan, J., Dhabhar, F.S., Blackburn, E.H., & Epel, E.S. (2012). Allostatic load and cellular aging: Cortisol covaries with telomere length. Physiology & Behavior, 106(1), 40-45.

O’Donovan, A., Epel, E.S., Lin, J., Wolkowitz, O., Cohen, B.E., Maguen, S., Metzler, T., Lenoci, M.A., Blackburn, E.H., & Neylan, T.C. (2011) Childhood trauma is associated with short leukocyte telomere length in young to middle-aged adults with post-traumatic stress disorder. Biological Psychiatry, 70(5), 465-471.

O’Donovan, A., Pantell, M., Puterman, E., Dhabhar, F.S., Blackburn, E.H., Yaffe, K., Cawthon, R.M., Opresko, P.L., Hsueh, W.C., Satterfield, S., Newman, A.B., Ayonayon, H.N., Rubin, S.M., Harris, T.B., & Epel, E.S. for the Health Aging and Body Composition Study (2011). Cumulative inflammatory load is associated with short leukocyte telomere length in the Health, Aging and Body Composition Study. PLoS ONE, 6(5), e19687.

O’Donovan, A., Sun, B. Cole, S., Rempel, H., Lenoci, M.A., Pulliam, L., & Neylan, T.C. (2011) Transcriptional control activity of monocyte gene expression in post-traumatic stress disorder. Disease Markers, 30(2-3), 123-32.

O’Donovan, A., Hughes, B.M., Slavich, G.M., Lynch, L.,4 Cronin, M.T., O’Farrelly, C., & Malone, K.M. (2010). Clinical anxiety, cortisol and interleukin-6: Evidence for specificity in emotion-biology relationships. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 24(7), 1074-1077.

O’Donovan, A., Lin, J., Tillie, J., Dhabhar, F., Wolkowitz, O., Blackburn, E., Epel, E. (2009). Pessimism correlates with leukocyte telomere shortness and elevated interleukin-6 in post- menopausal women. Brain, Behavior and Immunity, 23(4), 446-449.

O’Donovan, A. & Hughes, B.M. (2008). Access to social support in life and in the laboratory: Combined effects on anxiety and cardiovascular reactivity to stress. Journal of Health Psychology, 13 (8), 1147-1156.

O’Donovan, A. & Hughes, B.M. (2008). Social support and loneliness in college students: Effects on pulse pressure reactivity to acute stress. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 19 (4), 523-528.

O’Donovan, A. & Hughes, B.M. (2008). Factors that moderate the effects of laboratory-based social support on cardiovascular reactivity to stress. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 8 (1), 85-102.

O’Donovan, A. & Hughes, B.M. (2006). Your best interests at heart? The Psychologist, 19 (4), 216- 219.

O’Donovan, A. & Hughes, B. M. (2004). The stress-buffering effects of social support on blood pressure and heart rate. The Irish Psychologist, 30 (9), 216-220.

O’Donovan, A. (2004). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An experiential guide to behavior change. The Irish Psychologist, 30 (7), p.157.

Updated: September 12, 2012