Interview with Yan Ma, MD, HMS Research Fellow in Integrative Medicine

Posted On: September 29th, 2021

Yan Ma, MD (Osher Center)

Interview with Yan Ma, MD, HMS Research Fellow in Integrative Medicine

Dr. Yan Ma is a recent graduate from the HMS Research Fellowship in Integrative Medicine and is continuing her research at the Osher Center. Read about her work in sleep medicine in this interview by Osher Research Assistant, Esme Goldfinger.

Q: Sleep medicine and some of your other interests fall within allopathic medicine. Why is integrative medicine a good place to explore these fields?

A: I was clinically trained in integrative medicine in China, where the education system teaches both allopathic and Chinese medicine. In clinical rotation, I found myself attracted to departments with nonpharmacological interventions. Sleep Medicine was very new in China when I was a medical student. I knew about the advantages of Chinese medicine for sleep and observed their ‘magic’ in clinics, but I found that even top hospitals prescribed sleeping pills as their main treatment. With so much unknown in this new field, I saw room for me to contribute to the integration of Chinese medicine into the treatment of sleep disorders and mental health.

In clinical and research practice, I saw richness in nonpharmacological therapies and sleep data with physiological signals. In addition to my medical training and sleep specialty, I was now capable of using tools of modern biomedicine. With these trained skills, I hope to come back to integrative medicine and understand the efficacy of mind-body practices in chronic sleep disorders.

Q: What is one of your favorite projects you have worked on so far?

A: My favorite project was one of Dr. Peter Wayne’s projects and the one that introduced me to his lab. It was a large study using a systems biology approach to studying Tai Chi, physiological complexity and healthy aging. Dr. Wayne used multiple measurements to understand short- and long-term effects of tai chi on balance, gait, posture control, muscle activities, heart rate, blood pressure, cognitive function, etc. I worked to analyze data and learned from his wisdom. It was the first time I applied nonlinear analysis techniques that I learned from modern biomedicine to a mind-body intervention (MBI) of interest. This project opened many doors to my future projects. Working on that study strengthened my confidence in mind-body approaches. I realized that, sometimes, the benefits or changes of a MBI may not be captured by conventional measurement, but there may be instruments that are more appropriate. For example, I am happy to explore tools from dynamical biomarkers of physiological signals that may be more sensitive show the benefits of MBIs.

Q: What is a question you hope to find an answer for in the upcoming years?

A: My long-term goal is to conduct clinical and translational research developing and implementing mind-body interventions for managing chronic disorders including insomnia. I want to understand the best approach to integrate the richness of nonpharmacological interventions in the management of insomnia. To get there, I am currently working to better understand the physiological and psychological changes associated with mind-body practices (e.g., mindfulness) and their long-term benefits, with specific focus on their impacts on sleep. I am also working to utilize novel, nonlinear analyses of dynamic physiological signals to inform mechanistic understanding.


Yan Ma, MD, was clinically trained in integrative medicine and sleep medicine. As a recent graduate from the Harvard Medical School Research Fellowship in Integrative Medicine, she has continued her research at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Her interest is in mind-body interventions and techniques which are capable of capturing system-level complex physiological dynamics associated with such practice.


1)     Complexity-based measures of heart rate dynamics in older adults following long- and short-term Tai Chi training: Cross-sectional and randomized trial studies.
Scientific Reports. 2019 May 16;9(1):7500.
Ma Y, Wu C-W, Peng C-K, Ahn A, Bertisch S, Lipsitz L, Yeh G, Manor B, Novak V, Hausdorff J, Gow B, Wayne P.

2)     Distinct insular functional connectivity changes related to mood and fatigue improvements in major depressive disorder following Tai Chi training: A pilot study. 
Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience. 2020; 14:25
Xu X, Zimmerman CS, Lazar SW, Ma Y, Kerr CE, Yeung AS.

3)     Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia in Breast Cancer: A Meta-Analysis.
Sleep Medicine Reviews. 2021;55:101376.
Ma Y, Hall D, Liu Q, Ngo L, Bain P, Yeh G.

4)     Nonlinear dynamic analysis of sleep electroencephalography using fractal and entropy approaches.
Sleep Medicine Reviews. 2018 Feb;37:85-93.
Ma Y, Shi W, Peng CK, Yang AC.