Deputy Director for Interdisciplinary Research
Rajita Sinha, PhD, has been fascinated by emotions since her youth, when she studied Indian classical dance, a disciplined practice filled with emotional expression. She later studied biological psychology and the physiological manifestations of emotion, working with addicts and people with psychiatric disorders. She was intrigued by brain mechanisms underlying stress, cravings and addiction. “The abundance of choices available in the world, and easy access to commodities, including highly palatable foods and drugs, challenges the body’s motivational systems in novel ways,” she said.
Today, Dr. Sinha is internationally known for her pioneering research on the neural and biobehavioral mechanisms linking stress to addiction. She directs the Yale Stress Center, which was started with one of the largest interdisciplinary Consortium grants from the National Institutes of Health to study the effects of stress and self control effects on addictive behaviors and chronic disease. The collaborative research conducted at the Yale Stress Center by Dr. Sinha and other scientists includes the disciplines of neuroscience, genetics, psychiatry, basic neurobiology, diagnostic radiology, endocrinology, epidemiology and public health and clinical and behavioral outcomes. The Center is also developing and testing interventions to reverse the toxic effects of stress and loss of self control that drive addictive behaviors such as nicotine dependence, excessive alcohol use and overeating of comfort foods. Dr. Sinha is also examining the role of long-term stress and repeated stress exposures in alcohol and substance dependence to develop new therapies to reduce compulsive motivation for alcohol and drugs of abuse.
Dr. Sinha’s work has shown that addiction itself debilitates the ability to handle stress, which has led her to conduct studies on medications to strengthen the brain circuitry involved in the ability to regulate emotions and cravings. Recognizing a reward/motivation component is obesity and food cravings, she is also conducting research in this area.
Stress and addictions are major risk factors for cancer and chronic diseases, prompting Dr. Sinha to explore the biological underpinnings of these relationships. “We tend to divide up the body but that’s not how all diseases work,” she said. “What’s breaking the back of health care are the chronic diseases, which often occur in twos, threes, and fours. The challenge is in identifying the major risk factors and starting to address those, which allows us to think more broadly about these diseases.”
In her interdisciplinary approach, Dr. Sinha utilizes neuroendocrine, physiological, neuroimaging, behavioral, neurocognitive, and clinical outcome approaches to explore stress and addiction interactions and their effect on chronic disease and health outcomes. She has also developed a clinical research core focused on developing large scale data sets to study genetic and environmental interactions that affect the risk of developing addictions and chronic disease. She brings her interdisciplinary focus to her mentees and her leadership role in YCCI, and the most important beneficiaries of this approach are the patients whose health is positively impacted by her work.
For more on Dr. Sinha, click here.