First Lady, Academy Award-winning actress visit UIC to discuss women’s health research initiative
UIC hosted First Lady Jill Biden and actress turned women’s health advocate, Halle Berry, at the Neuropsychiatric Institute on January 11, for a press conference to raise awareness of the specific needs and challenges women face within the health care system, particularly during menopause. The event aimed to spotlight the need for expanded research funding around women’s health issues.
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The First Lady and Ms. Berry teamed up to come to UIC to bring continued visibility to the first-ever White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research, and to showcase the work of Dr. Pauline Maki, Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology and Senior Director of Research at the Center for Research on Women and Gender at UIC. Dr. Biden emphasized during her remarks that, “Halle and I are here today because the University of Illinois Chicago is doing groundbreaking research on menopause. Every woman will be affected by menopause; yet there’s a stunning lack of information about how to manage and treat its symptoms. UIC is working to change that.”
Ms. Berry shared her frustration with the lack of information and treatment options, prompting her to advocate for advances in research noting, “Fifty percent of the population are suffering, and it is no longer good enough for this research to take the back seat.”
As she welcomed Dr. Biden and Ms. Berry, Dr. Maki noted: “The White House Initiative will be transformational to women’s health research and therefore transformational to the health of women. Halle, thank you for using your powerful and informed voice to raise awareness about menopause. You have been instrumental in getting the topic of menopause the attention it deserves.” Dr. Maki indicated that what is happening now is that women are insisting that we do better. Citing a 2023 New York Times magazine article on how little we know about menopause and how difficult it is for women to get the care they need – the most shared York Times Magazine article of 2023 – she remarked, “Women need answers and are demanding them.”
For over 25 years, Dr. Maki has led a program of NIH-funded research focused on women’s mental and cognitive health, and the role sex hormones and reproductive transitions (menopause, pregnancy, menstrual cycle) have on women’s overall wellbeing. The broader goal of her work is to improve the lives of women by identifying factors that alter their risk of cognitive decline and affective disorders. “We bring middle-life adults into their later years with the very healthiest brain that they can, so if and when a pathology such as Alzheimer’s strikes, that brain is resilient to that pathology,” Maki said.
“Because of the support from UIC leadership, including that of Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs Bob Barish, and Executive Dean of the College of Medicine, Mark Rosenblatt, we can pursue our research and we can do so through a diverse lens,” Maki continued. “After all, Black and Brown women are more affected by menopause. We at the university’s health enterprise, UI Health, have a longstanding commitment to conducting community-engaged research in women’s health, particularly for marginalized women around the city and state.”
Alexandra Paget Blanc, a PhD student in the UIC neuroscience graduate program spoke about her research during the round table discussion with the First Lady and Ms. Berry. She works in Dr. Maki’s lab conducting clinical research to understand the link between menopause symptoms and memory performance in Black and Hispanic women. Her focus is to build on existing science showing that these women experience more severe and persistent cognitive problems than any other group.
Speaking briefly about her work, she explained her goals. “I wanted to study how hot flashes affect cognition in Black and Hispanic women who experience them longer than any other group of women, and they typically do not get treated. I also wanted to apply my training in sleep to this line of research. Ultimately, I want to understand if there is a link between untreated hot flashes, sleep disturbance and Alzheimer’s disease in Black and Hispanic women.”
When asked how the White House was made aware of her research, Dr. Maki replied that she and Dr. Carolyn Mazure, who leads the White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research, are colleagues through the Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health (BIRCWH) training grant for junior faculty wanting to pursue research careers in women’s health and/or sex/gender differences in health. Consequently, Dr. Mazure invited Dr. Maki and several other leading women’s health researchers across the U.S. to provide insights on high-priority gaps in knowledge on women’s health, with Dr. Maki asked to focus on the subject of menopause. Following that event, the White House team reached out to Dr. Maki to inquire about a visit by the First Lady to Dr. Maki’s lab here at UIC.
Rachel Schroeder was also present and shared her experience as a PhD candidate in the UIC graduate program in psychology, having worked with Dr. Maki for several years. She explained that she came to UIC after training in the use of cutting edge, high-resolution brain imaging techniques drawn to Dr. Maki’s work with Susan Resnick where they first discovered where estrogen binds in women’s brains.
“My graduate research shows that even low levels of estrogen in postmenopausal women affect memory networks in the brain. We need more research dollars to understand how we can use this knowledge to develop interventions that help women maintain their memory functioning as they transition through menopause.”
Following the round table discussion, Dr. Maki led a brief tour for Dr. Biden, Ms. Berry and other guests. They made two stops where they were given lab demonstrations that capture and measure clinical data, such as measuring hot flashes, which guides their research. Additional presentations on the tour explored how Dr. Maki’s research team relates this data to cognition and stages of menopause.
According to the White House, initiative members will make recommendations to the Biden-Harris administration in the coming weeks on improving how women’s health research is conducted. They will also make recommendations on maximizing the administration’s investments in that area, including addressing health disparities and inequities.
The visit by the First Lady to UIC showcasing the research of Dr. Maki and her team is evidence of the current momentum to invest in the resources necessary to address the health care challenges facing women.
Dr. Maki explained that “All women deserve to enter their later years with the healthiest brain possible, one that is resistant to dementia. With greatly expanded funding, and historic leadership from the President and the White House in this area, we can finally help women get the answers they deserve.”