Kirstin Aschbacher, PhD

headshot of kristin aschbacher

Home Institution: University of California, San Francisco

Field: Clinical Psychology/Psychoneuroimmunology

Current Positions:

My Driving Question

What are the best strategies for reducing stress—and physiological stress-arousal—in order to improve health?

Fellow Project 

The overarching goal of Dr. Aschbacher’s research is to illuminate the psychobiological mechanisms by which chronic and traumatic stress contribute to cardiometabolic disease, in order to develop integrative interventions to restore health.  

While many stress-reduction methods are effective in improving mental health symptoms, in general, they have less consistent and reliable effects on biomarkers of disease. When a “black box” approach is taken – where stress leads to “biomarker disturbances” which lead to disease – this insufficient understanding of the whole system can lead to inconsistent results, which do not progress to new and better treatments for patients in need.

Dr. Aschbacher has employed a novel systems biology-based approach, “Applied Dynamic Systems Analysis,” which uses personalized dynamic systems models to understand the activity of each individual’s system. Several of her studies now find that this approach is more effective than traditional measurements in identifying links between altered stress-system activation and disease symptoms or phenotypes. Her most recent work in this area contributes to understanding how stress may increase risk for obesity and metabolic syndrome.

In 2013, Dr. Aschbacher focused on launching her K23 Career Development Award, gathering data for several pilot studies, completing several papers linking stress and metabolic disease, and raising her new baby. Dr. Aschbacher has helped lead data collection for the K23, which includes flow cytometry and in vitro assays to better understand links between mental health and purported early endothelial progenitor cells (EPCs), or circulating angiogenic cells. These cells play an important role in maintaining and repairing the vasculature, thereby contributing to cardiovascular health, wound-healing and well-being. As part of these efforts, she has led a pilot study focusing on an African American sample, in order to better explore the potential role of social experiences of discrimination as a stressor, which contributes to racial disparities in cardiovascular health.

Dr. Aschbacher published two papers in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology entitled, “Good stress, bad stress and oxidative stress” (2013) and “Chronic stress increases vulnerability to diet-related abdominal fat, oxidative stress, and metabolic risk” (2014). The first paper, which was highlighted by The New Scientist, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Huffington Post, used her theoretical orientation and knowledge gained from her work in dynamic systems to address the question of when stress builds resilience versus when it undermines health, with a focus on oxidative stress biomarkers linked with chronic disease and cellular aging. The second paper extends this work to help understand whether chronic psychological stress is associated with enhanced vulnerability to diet-related metabolic risk.

In a third paper, now under review, she brings together diverse literature from the fields of neuroscience, control systems engineering, psychology and medicine to address a question of critical importance to public health: how do key stress-arousal systems (e.g., the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis) contribute to vulnerability (and resilience) to metabolic disease and obesity?

At the May 2014, International Research Congress for Integrative Medicine and Health, she will present the preliminary results of a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) intervention in a study led by Dr. Elissa Epel, on which Dr. Aschbacher is a collaborator. These results, while still preliminary, explore the extent to which early adversity and stress-susceptibility impact MBSR treatment outcomes. She hopes this body of work will begin to raise awareness that stress-management has a valuable role to play in standard medical health care for prevention and management of chronic disease.

Biography 

Kirstin Aschbacher, PhD, joined the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine as an Assistant Professor in the Spring 2012. 

A Fellow at the Nova Institute for Health since 2011, she is the recipient of a Patient-Oriented Career Development Award through the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Dr. Aschbacher holds a PhD, in Clinical Psychology from the Joint Doctoral Program of the University of California, San Diego, Department of Psychiatry and the San Diego State University Department of Psychology, where she specialized in behavioral medicine and psychoneuroimmunology. She completed a clinical internship at University of Washington-Harborview Hospital and a postdoctoral fellowship in psychology, medicine and complex systems at University of California San Francisco.

Curriculum Vitae

See Dr. Aschbacher’s CV
Education and Training
  • Post-doctoral training: Complex Systems Analysis in Psychobiology; Psychology and Medicine, University of California,
    San Francisco
  • PhD, Clinical Psychology & Behavioral Medicine, Joint Doctoral Program of San Diego State University/University of California,
    San Diego
  • BA,Music Composition, Theory & Technology, Brown University
Selected Honors
  • UCSF Program for Breakthrough Biomedical Research Award
  • Patient-Oriented Career Development Award (K23) from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute / National Institutes of Health
  • Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) Award
  • RAND Summer Institute Scholarship Recipient
  • Best Paper Prize, International Conference on Modeling, Identification and Control
  • Systems Dynamics Track Scholarship, Institute on Systems Science and Health
  • Meritorious Student Poster Award, Annual Society of Behavioral Medicine
  • American Psychological Association Dissertation Research Award
Selected Publications