Behind the body, an amazing machine made up of muscle and blood, skin, and bones, is the essence of what makes a person—the mind and influence of emotions. Figuring out the connection between mental and physical health is what keeps Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth doctoral student Yun-Ju Lai up at night.
“People with higher optimism levels have better immunity, especially against heart disease and breast cancer,” she explains. “It also helps patients recover after surgery. But research on optimism, immunity, and stroke recovery has not been done yet, so that’s my project.”
Lai began working at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center after earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Cizik School of Nursing in 2015. “I was in a neurology unit when I started my nursing career. I took care of many stroke patients,” she says. One was a patient of neurologist Louise D. McCullough, MD, PhD.
“I Googled Dr. McCullough to find out more about her,” says Lai. “Then, I asked her if I could join her team in research, and she said ‘Yes’!”
By then, Lai had entered the nursing PhD program at Cizik School of Nursing and needed a research project. She noticed some of her patients had emotional difficulties because their stroke affected their careers and their ability to get around. “That’s very devastating because they are now dependent on someone else,” she says. So she chose optimism and stroke as her research focus.
Lai establishes a research baseline within the first 24 hours after a stroke by using a questionnaire that assesses a person’s level of optimism. She also follows up with patients and monitors their physical recovery for three months.
“We ask 10 questions about the patient’s expectations,” she explains. “We then come up with a final score where the higher number is the highest optimism. The neurologist tests the severity of the stroke and the disability. Then, I correlate those scores with the body’s immunity information. My hypothesis is that a high level of optimism will lower the severity of the stroke symptoms and improve recovery.”
Lai says she hopes her research will help improve everyone’s health. “Even if you don’t have a stroke, optimism helps you become happier. If you start to think of everything in a positive way, you can change your mind to think about things differently, and that will help your body and you feel better.”
There is no doubt that Lai’s optimism will lead to healthier lives for all of us.
Visionary leadership in stroke care
A practicing vascular neurologist and a researcher, Louise D. McCullough, MD, PhD, has a longstanding interest in vascular physiology, neuro-inflammation, gender differences in stroke, and the effects of aging on stroke. As a physician-scientist, what she sees in the clinic focuses how she studies neurological conditions, and, conversely, she applies significant findings from her research to her clinical practice, creating an information loop that informs the way medicine is practiced.
In her research lab at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, McCullough is attempting to reduce age-related inflammation to mitigate the impact of a brain injury (such as a stroke) on the body. To do this, her research focuses on replacing the patient’s bone marrow and manipulating the microbiome, which includes the full collection of genes from the natural microbes that inhabit our bodies. Furthermore, she has extensively studied the differences between males and females in stroke caused by a blocked artery to the brain. Her research demonstrated that males and females display significant differences in the origination, presentation, treatment, and outcome of stroke.