Mary-Frances O’Connor, Ph.D.

Brief Biography
Mary-Frances O’Connor completed her doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Arizona in 2004. Her master’s thesis and dissertation focused on the psychophysiological correlates of bereavement, including a

longitudinal study of vagal tone and emotional expression, and fMRI during grief elicitation. Following her internship in Health Psychology at UCLA, she joined the Cousins Center for PNI, where she is integrating vagal tone, fMRI and cortisol measurement in bereavement.

Brief Description of Research Project

The central question of this study is whether traumatic grief confers increased psychobiological risk for women already at high risk for breast cancer. Many women with a family history of breast cancer have experienced a death of a sister and/or a mother. Prior research shows that grief activates particular emotion centers, primarily the limbic system. Specifically, the question is whether grief-driven activation of emotion centers of the brain leads to cortisol dysregulation in those women who are not adjusting well during bereavement. The effects of the chronic stress of traumatic grief, brain activation and cortisol dysregulation may be a pathway to immune system compromise, and, perhaps, higher risk for breast cancer.

The study includes women with traumatic grief and those with normal grief. Both groups of women have fMRI brain scanning during a grief-elicitation paradigm. Before and after the scanning, salivary cortisol levels and vagal tone are obtained. It is expected that the areas of brain activation and the cortisol levels will differ between these two groups. In addition, increased cortisol and decreased vagal tone should predict specific brain activation patterns (e.g., greater limbic activation). The project is designed to systematically examine the psychobiological concomitants of grief at several levels in a sample of women with familial breast cancer.