Aliza Wingo, MD, MSc is a Staff Psychiatrist and Investigator at the Atlanta VA Health Care System. Many veterans whom she sees in her clinic have symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression. Wingo wants to understand the genetic factors contributing to PTSD and depression as well as to protective factors such as resilience, positive emotions, and psychological well-being; these are the factors that help veterans and others cope adaptively with stressful and traumatic life experiences.

Dr. Wingo received a VA Career Development Award (CDA) to study genetic contribution to resilience. During her CDA, she and colleagues published a novel human study to suggest that DICER1 and microRNAs contribute to the molecular mechanisms of PTSD and depression (Wingo et al, Nature communications, 2015). Additionally, Dr. Wingo and colleagues found that expression of the gene PPM1F in the amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex is regulated by stress and linked to anxiety and depression (Wingo et al, Biological Psychiatry, 2018). Interestingly, Dr. Wingo and her group found a genetic variant that contributes to positive emotions, spiritual well-being, and sense of purpose/meaning in life (Wingo et al, Molecular Psychiatry, 2016). That genetic variant, rs322931, influences the expression of miR-181, an important master regulator of synaptic plasticity (a dynamic process that is important for learning and memory) and immune functioning.

Dr. Wingo’s career development award enabled her to obtain three subsequent federal grants (Merit, R01, and U01) as principal investigator or co-principal investigator to continue her line of research. In the VA Merit grant, Dr. Wingo and colleagues will use a systems biology approach and post-mortem brain multi-omics data to investigate the molecular processes underlying individual differences in psychological well-being (having positive emotions, inner peace, or a sense of purpose or meaning in life). Interestingly, psychological well-being may be important for healthy aging as it decreases risk for diabetes, heart attack, stroke, and dementia, and enhances longevity. In her U01 grant, Dr. Wingo collaborates with colleagues at the University of Cape Town in South Africa to understand the molecular processes behind the observed phenomenon that mothers experiencing PTSD or depression during their prenatal period are more likely to have babies with higher risk for depression or anxiety later on in life. Lastly, in the R01 project, Dr. Wingo and colleagues are investigating molecular mechanisms behind the detrimental effects of depression and protective effects of psychological well-being on dementia risk.