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Journal Brings Zen, and Bio, to Mental Health

Like many scientific disciplines, mental health is a fragmented place, with individual researchers plugging away on their favorite disorders, like depression, often without regard to how the disease connects to, say, physical health, let alone molecular biology.

So just where is it that a group of scientists studying the intersection of Buddhist meditation and human-cell aging is supposed to publish?

Alan Kazdin, a Yale psychologist, has decided it will be in his new journal, Clinical Psychological Science. Started this month by the Association for Psychological Science, the journal is an attempt to provide a high-profile home for interdisciplinary research that pushes the study of mental health in new—and curious—directions.

“We’re doing the science of mental health, broadly conceived,” Kazdin says.

The director of the Yale Parenting Center, Kazdin formerly edited the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, a premier publication in the field. The JCCP is the “Wimbledon” of clinical psychology, he says, but its contributors are largely limited to that specialty. “It will be very hard for them to get out of their mode and open widely to a variety of disciplines,” he says. CPS is intended to fill that void.

Kazdin’s journal will be largely limited to groundbreaking empirical research, in keeping with the data-driven work promoted by the association (The Chronicle, May 27, 2008). These are studies that might have also found a home in Nature or Science, Kazdin tells his prospective authors. He wants the journal to be the equivalent of Broadway, he says, not a Poughkeepsie playhouse.

Quick to spiel, Kazdin rattles off some of the work he’s looking for: It could be a study connecting childhood abuse to adult violence. Perhaps it’s epigenetic influences on the mental development of human beings—or mice. Maybe there’s some basic animal research that could inform studies of Alzheimer’s. All of it would be fair game, he says.

And, of course, there’s the work on aging cells and mindfulness.

Published in the journal’s first issue by a group of psychiatrists and biochemists at the University of California at San Francisco, the study searched for links between the tendency of a subject’s mind to wander and his or her telomere length. (Telomeres are stretches of repetitive DNA that sit at the end of human chromosomes, protecting them from harm.)

Some scientists, though far from all, believe telomere length might serve as a proxy for aging; the shorter they are, the older the person. The UCSF researchers found a tie between shorter telomeres in immune cells and wandering attention, perhaps giving some credence to Buddha’s notions of the importance of mindfulness to a long life.

Of course, the study also points to the challenges of drawing such multidisciplinary connections, even if they are sketched in preliminary terms. The bleeding edge of science—especially psychology—is fraught with correction, error, and bias; combining clinical psychology with the uncertainties of molecular biology may only compound those problems.

But at the very least, Clinical Psychological Science will allow those questions to be asked. It will be open to everyone interested in the empirical study of mental health. And be prepared for tough reviews, Kazin says.

“We have,” he says, “cruel and unusual standards.”

[Photo credit: iStock photo]

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