Sr. Lecturer, Cognitive Science
Alicia Walf's research interests are fueled by the broad question: Why are there individual differences in stress? This question led her to studying hormones' actions for growth and plasticity in the brain and body. She has since refined my pursuit to include consideration of body, brain, and mind relationships as they relate to memory, perception, social cognition and emotions. A current focus is to understand the contextual variables important for these effects of hormones for these behavioral and cognitive processes. Dr. Walf has taken a cross-species and cross-discipline approach. Similarities across species for stress and hormone effects are important to note as they suggest common mechanisms across mammals, likely including humans as well, in the brain and body responses to challenges.
Estradiol has novel actions for brain and body growth:
Dr. Walf has investigated the effects, brain regions, and receptor targets of estradiol across endogenous cycles over the adult rodent lifespan as well as effects of different dosing of estradiol or other estrogenic drugs for affective behavior (e.g. stress, anxiety, fear) in the hippocampus and amygdala (regions of the limbic system). These studies in animal models corroborated what was being found in the clinical literature; that is, variability in the effects of estradiol were due to many contextual variables, including, the individuals' age, previous hormonal and behavioral experiences, stress responsiveness, and health. Despite these promising findings, the growth effects of estradiol required further consideration.
A major consideration in studying steroid hormones, like estradiol, is that they cannot be contained; that is, they move through the circulatory system and cellular membranes in the brain as well as the rest of the body with relative ease. The specificity of steroids' effects lies in where receptors are and how steroids can act on them. Because a basic function of steroids is to induce growth, there is potential for increasing growth in estradiol-sensitive body tissues, associated with reproductive cancers. Studies supported by a grant from the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program demonstrated that estradiol's functional effects in the hippocampus, but not proliferation in the body, involve ERbeta, a newly-discovered type of estrogen receptor. These studies also demonstrated that the mechanisms of estradiol for affect/emotions and memory in the hippocampus are not as distinct as previously argued and may involve novel hormone targets. Dr. Walf's research productivity and use of novel approaches in the field was recognized by her receiving a competitive and prestigious award, the inaugural Luciano Martini Prize for Young Investigators in Neuroendocrinology, named in honor of a trailblazer in the study of neurosteroids.
Hormones' rapid effects to alter behavior and behaviors' rapid effects to alter hormones:
Dr. Walf's work in hormone mechanisms relating to cognitive and emotional aspects of stress focus on the rapid effects of hormones through novel receptor and intracellular signaling targets in brain regions, such as the reward pathway and limbic system. These studies contribute to the field by showing that the effects of hormones for behavior are bidirectional, with hormones altering many behaviors (e.g. reproduction, learning, social interactions, stress) as well as these behaviors themselves changing hormones, such as neurosteroids (steroid hormones made in the brain), and thereby brain plasticity. This is a key finding relating to how hormones may alter brain and behavioral plasticity, and has continued to drive her research.
Individual differences in response to stress and hormones in the context of brain and body health:
Dr. Walf's overarching current research aim is elucidating the mechanisms of hormones in the brain as integrators of the internal and external environment as it relates to stress and well-being. These studies are currently being conducted using different approaches in human subjects. Her drive for pursuing the research goals on understanding described above is not only fueled by curiosity, but to provide hands-on training and mentoring of students in research of these clinically-relevant questions relating to hormones in the brain and body. Students are welcome to contact Dr. Walf about getting involved in these studies.
Short descriptions of current projects:
1) Studies on understanding well-being and mechanisms of contemplative practice within specific contexts are examples of current research investigating body and brain relationships as they are related to well-being and resiliency. For example, studies are ongoing about mindful/attentional practices for stress responding and higher cognitive processes, such as creativity. These are studies done to understand effects and mechanisms, but also to incorporate best practice in supporting growth, resiliency, and well-being in the classroom.
2) Another way to study hormones as integrators of the external and internal environment is to investigate these effects in collaboration with artists and architects. For example, Dr. Walf and collaborators investigate how artistic practice and performance and characteristics of built environments may alter cognitive performance and stress responses in human subjects.
3) To understand risk factors for age-related changes in emotional and cognitive function, in-person and web-based testing is being conducted. A novel risk factor being investigated is changes in sense of smell and whether olfactory training can be a potential prevention technique for Alzheimer's Disease and other neurodegenerative brain diseases.
Dr. Walf's focus on engaging in behaviors that encourage growth is not limited to research endpoints, but also her teaching approach and the behaviors that she engages in to support growth in the various communities she is part of and can support. Dr. Walf is committed to training, mentorship, and educational outreach. She is driven to support a diverse and inclusive environment in the classroom and beyond to promote well-being and resiliency to stress.
Stress & the Brain
Well-being: Cultivating Curiosity
Hormones, Brain, & Behavior
Introduction to Cognitive Neuroscience
Cognition & the Brain
Ph.D., Behavioral Neuroscience, University at Albany