Research Assistant, Esme Goldfinger recently interviewed Christina Luberto, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School about her area of research. Dr. Luberto graduated our NCCIH-funded T32 post-doctoral program (HMS Research Fellowship in Integrative Medicine) in 2018. Her research and clinical interests focus on mindfulness-based interventions for emotional and behavioral health promotion in people with chronic illnesses, particularly heart disease.
Q: Tell me about your research interests
CL: I am interested in how mindfulness-based interventions can help people with heart disease and other chronic illnesses improve their health and quality of life. I am particularly interested in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which is an evidence-based, manualized 8-week group program that combines mindfulness meditation training with cognitive-behavioral therapy. MBCT has strong evidence to treat depression and anxiety, and I am interested in how to adapt this program to target the specific needs of people with heart disease, and what the psychological and biological mechanisms are that may lead to improved health. I am also interested in how meditation practices may lead to greater pro-sociality (empathy, compassion), including among people with heart disease given the interesting philosophical overlap between heart-focused emotions and physical heart health.
Q: What has been your most exciting or impactful finding?
CL: Since we are still in the process of collecting data on MBCT for patients with heart disease, so far I’ve been most excited about the results of our meta-analysis of meditation for pro-social outcomes (Luberto et al., 2017; Mindfulness). We systematically reviewed 26 randomized controlled trials of meditation interventions for empathy, compassion, and altruism, and found meaningful effect sizes for improvement in these prosocial outcomes, from some high-quality studies with low risk of bias. It was exciting to see that mindfulness and other meditation practices may not only benefit individual well-being but also collective well-being.
Q: How do you hope your research impacts the populations you study?
CL: I hope that my research identifies new treatments for patients with heart disease that are accessible, enjoyable, and helpful for patients’ whole health (e.g., emotional, physical, and social well-being). I am particularly interested in developing interventions for patients with spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD) as this is a relatively rare but important cause of cardiac events that primarily affects healthy young women. Patients can experience a lot of emotional and social distress, and so far, there are no interventions designed to help them. I hope my research fills this gap to provide an efficacious treatment for SCAD survivors to recover and build resilience.
Q: Can you tell me about what you’re working on currently?
CL: I am currently working on an NCCIH K23 award of group videoconference-delivered MBCT for patients with depressive symptoms after acute coronary syndrome. We are currently conducting a pilot randomized controlled trial, comparing MBCT to a health enhancement program. We are exploring the intervention feasibility, acceptability, and changes in depression symptoms. We are also using a novel dried blood spot collection approach to measure inflammation remotely; participants are asked to prick their finger to take blood samples at home and mail them to the research team, which allows us to conduct a fully remote clinical trial and still collect biological data.
I am also working on an NIA P30 award of group videoconference-delivered MBCT for SCAD survivors. This study is an open pilot trial where we are exploring intervention feasibility and acceptability, and changes in fear of recurrence, physical activity, and sleep. We are using daily diaries and actigraphy before and after the intervention to collect both subjective and objective assessments of sleep and physical activity. We are also collecting data on specific cognitive-emotional processes that may serve as psychological mechanisms by which MBCT improves fear of recurrence, such as cognitive decentering, interoceptive bias, and tolerance of uncertainty.
Q: What lead you to the topics you study today?
CL: I have been interested in the health benefits of meditation since I was an undergraduate student. I worked in a psychology research lab at SUNY Albany that developed and studied Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (a behavioral intervention that incorporates mindfulness and acceptance principles), while at the same time I became personally interested in Eastern philosophies and the practice of mindfulness meditation. I was excited to see that the practices I was studying personally were being integrated into mental health care and research and showing benefit.
I spent several years studying mindfulness and other mind-body interventions for emotional well-being across a variety of patient populations, and then became most interested in heart disease several years ago following a health event in my family. While doing research to understand my family member’s condition, I became aware of the strong relationship between emotional problems and cardiac problems. I found this particularly fascinating because of the ways emotions, like sadness and love, can be felt around the heart; I thought there was something philosophically interesting about a link between emotional problems and cardiac problems specifically. I started as a curious and ambitious first-generation college student at SUNY Albany, and it feels very rewarding to be able to rigorously study mindfulness for health promotion as an NIH-funded researcher today. I am grateful to all of my past and current research mentors and research team members who have supported my ability to conduct this research.
Christina Luberto, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Her research and clinical interests focus on mindfulness-based interventions for emotional and behavioral health promotion in people with chronic illnesses, particularly heart disease. She works as a staff psychologist and clinical researcher at the Massachusetts General Hospital Health Promotion and Resiliency Intervention Research Program, and MGH Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine. She is also staff psychologist and Associate Director of the Advanced Clinical Mindfulness Fellowship at the Cambridge Health Alliance Center for Mindfulness and Compassion, and she teaches mindfulness classes at the Osher Center Clinical Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Dr. Luberto is Principal Investigator on an NCCIH K23 award and Site Principal Investigator on a NIA P30 award to study Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for health promotion in cardiovascular disease, and she provides individual and group therapy using MBCT and cognitive-behavioral therapy approaches.