C. Neill Epperson, MD, an expert in women’s behavioral health, particularly the relationship of hormones and the brain, has been named chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus, effective Sept. 1.
Epperson is currently professor of psychiatry and obstetrics and gynecology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. She was recruited to Penn from Yale School of Medicine in 2009 to launch and serve as director of the Division of Women’s Behavioral Health. In that capacity, Epperson founded and serves as the director of two clinical, research, and education programs: the Penn Center for Women’s Behavioral Wellness and Penn PROMOTES Research on Sex and Gender in Health.
“My career mission as a psychiatrist and physician-scientist has been to promote the centrality of the brain, with respect to all other areas of health,” Epperson said. “By doing so, I believe we can substantially reduce the stigma related to psychiatric conditions and improve uptake and utilization of behavioral medicine to improve the health and well-being of individuals, families and our society at large.”
Epperson’s research has been continuously funded for more than 20 years with grants from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Aging, the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Women’s Health (ORWH) and private foundations and companies.
Epperson is committed to educating and training young clinician-scientists who draw their inspiration for research from the patients they treat.
“If our research does not ultimately lead to interventions that improve patient care and outcomes, we are not doing our job as scientists,” Epperson said. “I emphasize that we must listen to our patients and ask ourselves how we can better utilize research to address their particular clinical issues.”
She noted that some health problems, such as autoimmune disorders, migraines, depression, anxiety, and dementia, affect women to a greater degree than men.
Advancing science of gender issues
“So many of our current drug therapies were tested primarily in male populations, which means that we often do not know if these medications work as well or are as well-tolerated by women compared to men,” Epperson said. “This is one of the primary reasons it is critical for women to participate in clinical research studies whenever they can.”
Within two years at Penn, she was awarded one of nine Specialized Centers of Research focusing on sex and gender issues in health-related research from the ORWH and NIMH and is the principal investigator for Penn’s Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health, also funded by ORWH.
“We are fortunate that Dr. Epperson will be joining the CU School of Medicine,” said Dean John J. Reilly, Jr., MD. “She has been a leader in advancing the science of sex and gender issues in psychiatry and improving our understanding of women’s behavioral health. She will continue to make outstanding contributions as a leader at CU Anschutz Medical Campus.”
Epperson said the role of reproductive and stress hormones on lifelong health has been a productive area of research.
“I first became interested in hormonal effects on the brain and behavior when I was a psychiatry resident at Yale and treating my first patient with postpartum depression,” Epperson said. “I had been taught throughout medical school that reproductive hormones are important for menstrual cycles, pregnancy and childbirth as well as breastfeeding. My professors never mentioned the growing literature that reproductive hormones have a profound impact on the brain and complex human behaviors.
Hormones and the brain
“This experience treating a new mother with postpartum depression inspired me to study how hormones affect the brain and behavior during periods of hormonal change across the female lifespan,” she said. “Some 26 years later, I continue to be astounded by the importance of reproductive hormones in complex human behaviors and how millions of women worldwide experience adverse mood and cognitive changes during these periods of hormonal flux.”
Having attended undergraduate and medical school at the University of North Carolina, Epperson said she understands the important role a state medical school plays in promoting health for the citizens of that state. She also connected with executive and faculty leadership at CU School of Medicine and affiliated hospitals, who understand the importance of brain health to all other areas of health.
“In my experience with a number of medical schools and health systems, these key stakeholders at CU School of Medicine, UCHealth, and Children’s Hospital of Colorado are extraordinary in their commitment to expanding and integrating behavioral medicine in primary and specialty care settings as well as in their outreach beyond the boundaries of the Anschutz Medical Campus to promote psychological well-being for all of Colorado’s citizens.”
Finally, Epperson said it is an honor to serve as chair for a Department of Psychiatry with faculty who have demonstrated commitment and accomplishment in all areas of the academic mission: clinical care, education and training, and research. She said she expects to continue interdepartmental and transdisciplinary collaborations with scientists and clinicians on campus to expand knowledge and improve care.
Epperson earned her MD from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 1991 and completed her residency in the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine. She also served as a fellow at the Yale Child Study Center in its National Institute of Mental Health Training Program in Neuropsychiatric Disorders with Childhood-Onset. She was on the Yale School of Medicine faculty from 1999 to 2009.
Guest contributor: Mark Couch, chief of staff and director of communications, CU School of Medicine.