Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A novel look at how stories may change the brain

“We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically," says neuroscientist Gregory Berns.

By Carol Clark

Many people can recall reading at least one cherished story that they say changed their life. Now researchers at Emory University have detected what may be biological traces related to this feeling: Actual changes in the brain that linger, at least for a few days, after reading a novel.

Their findings, that reading a novel may cause changes in resting-state connectivity of the brain that persist, were published by the journal Brain Connectivity.

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study and the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

His co-authors included Kristina Blaine and Brandon Pye from the Center for Neuropolicy, and Michael Prietula, professor of information systems and operations management at Emory’s Goizueta Business School.

Neurobiological research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has begun to identify brain networks associated with reading stories. Most previous studies have focused on the cognitive processes involved in short stories, while subjects are actually reading them as they are in the fMRI scanner.

The Emory study focused on the lingering neural effects of reading a narrative. Twenty-one Emory undergraduates participated in the experiment, which was conducted over 19 consecutive days.

The researchers chose the novel "Pompeii" for the experiment, due to its strong narrative and page-turning plot.

All of the study subjects read the same novel, “Pompeii,” a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris that is based on the real-life eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Italy. “The story follows a protagonist, who is outside the city of Pompeii and notices steam and strange things happening around the volcano,” Berns says. “He tries to get back to Pompeii in time to save the woman he loves. Meanwhile, the volcano continues to bubble and nobody in the city recognizes the signs.”

The researchers chose the book due to its page-turning plot. “It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way,” Berns says. “It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line.”

For the first five days, the participants came in each morning for a base-line fMRI scan of their brains in a resting state. Then they were given nine sections of the novel, about 30 pages each, over a nine-day period. They were asked to read the assigned section in the evening, and come in the following morning. After taking a quiz to ensure they had finished the assigned reading, the participants underwent an fMRI scan of their brain in a non-reading, resting state. After completing all nine sections of the novel, the participants returned for five more mornings to undergo additional scans in a resting state.

The results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the reading assignments. “Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns says. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

Read any mind-altering books lately? Writer Joyce Carol Oates once cited "Alice in Wonderland" as a big influence on her imaginative life.

Heightened connectivity was also seen in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” Berns says. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

The neural changes were not just immediate reactions, Berns says, since they persisted the morning after the readings, and for the five days after the participants completed the novel.

“It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last,” Berns says. “But the fact that we’re detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”

Credits: Top image by iStockphoto.com. Middle and bottom photos by Carol Clark.

Related:
Metaphors activate sensory areas of brain
Novelists, neuroscientists trade mental notes

Monday, December 16, 2013

From novels to neuroscience, a meeting of minds



“Images, Metaphors and the Brain” is the name of one of the many graduate seminars inspired and supported by the Emory Center for Mind, Brain and Culture (CMBC). The seminar was co-taught by Laura Otis, a professor of English who has studied neuroscience, and Krish Sathian, a neurologist who loves literature and the humanities.

The course culminated in a day-long symposium, Metaphors and the Mind, that paired top writers, including Salman Rushdie, with leading neuroscientists, “to talk about the possibilities of language and creativity together,” Otis says.

The CMBC, she adds, is sparking “all kinds of friendships and teaching exchanges between departments that would otherwise be far apart.”

Related:
Novelists, neuroscientists trade mental notes
Metaphors activate sensory areas of the brain

Sunday, December 15, 2013

EPA clean air proposal 'not a war on coal'



Coal-burning plants in the United States emit three percent of the entire world’s greenhouse gases, says Bill Buzbee, an environmental law expert at Emory Law.

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed clean-air rules for how new power plants should be regulated. The proposed rules are the most recent, major step after the Supreme Court confirmed that the EPA has the power to regulate greenhouse gases.

“This is not a war on coal. This is the United States taking steps to address climate change, for which the science continues to be overwhelming,” Buzbee says.

“This does matter a lot to the world,” he adds. “If the United States does, in fact, require coal plants to do better, and it’s shown to be viable, probably pressure will be brought to bear around the world for other coal-burning countries to think about doing better as well.”

Related:
The growing role of farming and nitrous oxide in climate change
Putting people into the climate change picture

A student movement for health insurance outreach

RING executive board (from left to right): Anna Bausum, Dennis Valerstain, Rana Alsiro, Sehe Han, Nick Goodwin, Riana Kahlon, Dana Sand and Ijeoma Okafor. Photo by Stephanie Chan.

By Kimber Williams, Emory Report

The opening day of enrollment for the nation's new Affordable Care Act (ACA) was more harried than usual for Emory senior Nick Goodwin, who faced a personal checklist that seemed daunting, even to him:

Meet with Grady Memorial Hospital officials to discuss ACA launch logistics. Run back to campus for an exam in "Opium to Obamacare" anthropology class. Swing by apartment, change clothes. Race to Norcross to join regional U.S. Health and Human Services reps at a community forum to field questions about the new ACA.

What Goodwin didn't anticipate was the simultaneous launch of a government shutdown that day as Congress argued over appropriations, effectively furloughing some 800,000 federal employees. Instead of a supporting role, Goodwin was suddenly part of the forum's main event, helping lead the discussion on looming health insurance changes.

And so he did, fielding complicated questions from veterans and stay-at-home parents and full-time workers — the insured, the uninsured and the underinsured.

From the man who paid $500-a-month insurance premiums through his employer, yet still had no coverage for his children, to families denied insurance due to pre-existing diseases, that day, Goodwin stood and answered questions until the crowd was satisfied.

For Goodwin, it was a defining moment — the culmination of a journey kick-started by his own curiosity, a desire to reduce economic disparities among those seeking health care, and the need to make a difference.

But what began as a simple idea snowballed, remarkably, into something much bigger, resulting in the creation of RING (Resource and Insurance Navigator Group), a new organization founded by Goodwin and a team of Emory students to train college-aged volunteers in health care outreach that will include educating the public about new insurance options under the ACA. The goal: Create RING chapters on university campuses throughout Georgia, building a network of young advocates who can help link consumers with information about much-needed basic services — helping shape the changing face of health care, one unexpected step at a time.

Read the full story in Emory Report.

Related:
New human health major aims at culture change

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Support mothers to curb the global rise in chronic diseases


By Carol Clark

After decades of studies showing that the chances of a person having a chronic disease in later life can be determined when they are in the womb, it is time to take stronger action, say researchers from Emory University and the University of Southampton in the current issue of Nature.

Rather than primarily focusing on people’s genes, or on their diets and lifestyles in adulthood, “we need a developmental approach to public health” that better supports girls and young women, they write.

The lead author of the commentary article is the late David Barker. He was a visiting professor at Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health, a clinical epidemiologist at the University of Southampton in the UK, and a professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Oregon Health and Science University.

Barker, who co-taught undergraduate courses at Emory, including one on predicting lifespan health, and served as an adviser to graduate students, was widely considered to be one of the most important clinical epidemiologists of our time. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage last August at 75, after finishing the first draft of the Nature commentary. The article summarizes his life’s work, while also calling for action.

Barker essentially “invented” a new field of medicine, now known as Development Origins of Health and Disease, says Michelle Lampl, a co-author of the Nature article and director of Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health.

“He’s responsible for a paradigm shift in medicine through his focus on the science of health in the womb and the early ages,” says Lampl, an anthropologist who focuses on human growth. “The idea that your first cell has a big influence on your later life sounds unbelievable, and he was criticized horribly when he came up with ‘the Barker hypothesis.’ But he opened the door and profoundly changed the way that we think about health and disease.”

The Nature article cites some staggering statistics: Globally, the prevalence of adult-onset diabetes is expected to double by 2030 and cardiovascular disease is expected to rise by about 35 percent.

“More than 30 years of epidemiological studies using data from several hundred thousand people around the world point to factors during prenatal and early childhood development that contribute to these statistics,” the researchers write.

The biology underlying the developmental origins of health and disease has begun to be better understood, and evidence suggests that women need to start eating healthily well before they become pregnant. Women who are obese, and those whose stores of nutrients mean the supply to their growing fetus is less than optimal, risk having babies with a greater likelihood of suffering diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease or cancer in later life.

Watch a video of David Barker speaking to an Emory human health class last spring:


“People working in public health must support girls and young women with low incomes to feel more in control of their lives and so better able to prioritize healthy eating,” the researchers write. “At the same time, better access to quality food is necessary so that it is easier for people to make better choices. This would improve others’ nutrition and thereby the health of future generations.”

The researchers call for personal empowerment activities accompanied by environmental changes that make it easier for women to make better food choices.

They write: “So far, public health advocates have called for regulation and legislation as a means to improve diets — an increased tax on fatty and sugary foods, for instance. Yet this is unlikely to happen because raising the tax on soft drinks, say, is not in the interests of industry, or of politicians, who are sensitive to industry pressures and to a public who want cheap soft drinks.

“Instead of wagging fingers, we need to generate consensus. Empowering consumers to call for better access to better food will put pressure on both politicians to respond to voters, and on the food industry to please their customers.”

Additional co-authors on the paper are psychologist Mary Barker and developmental biologist Tom Fleming, both from the University of Southhampton.

Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health was founded on Barker’s philosophy of predicting and supporting health, instead of just treating disease, Lampl says. “We will continue to build on this legacy, with our focus on empowering young people to make better personal health choices and preparing them to make the next generation of real breakthroughs in human health.”

Photos by iStockphoto.com.

Related:
New human health major aims at culture change
Putting teeth into the Barker hypothesis

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Multi-dog study points to canine brain's reward center

 Tigger, a Boston terrier that was one of 13 dogs in the study.

By Carol Clark

After capturing the first brain images of two alert, unrestrained dogs last year, researchers at Emory University have confirmed their methods and results by replicating them in an experiment involving 13 dogs.

The research, published by the Public Library of Science One (PLOS One), showed that most of the dogs had a positive response in the caudate region of the brain when given a hand signal indicating they would receive a food treat, as compared to a different hand signal for “no treat.”

“Our experiment last year was really a proof of concept, demonstrating that dogs could be trained to undergo successful functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI),” says the lead researcher Gregory Berns, director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy. “Now we’ve shown that the initial study wasn’t a fluke: Canine fMRI is reliable and can be done with minimal stress to the dogs. We have laid the foundation for exploring the neural biology and cognitive processes of man’s best, and oldest, friend.”

Co-authors of the paper include Andrew Brooks, a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Neuropolicy, and Mark Spivak, a dog trainer and the owner of Comprehensive Pet Therapy.

Both the initial experiment and the more recent one involved training the dogs to acclimatize to an fMRI machine. The task requires dogs to cooperatively enter the small enclosure of the fMRI scanner and remain completely motionless despite the noise and vibration of the machine.

Only those dogs that willingly cooperated were involved in the experiments. The canine subjects were given harmless fMRI brain scans while they watched a human giving hand signals that the dogs had been trained to understand. One signal indicated that the dog would receive a hot dog for a treat. The other hand signal meant that the dog would not receive a hot dog.

Pearl, a golden retriever that was in the recent study, was trained as a companion/assistance dog and is now registered as a therapy dog.

The most recent experiment involved the original two dogs, plus 11 additional ones, of varying breeds. Eight out of the 13 showed the positive caudate response for the hand signal indicating they were going to receive a hot dog.

The caudate sits above the brain stem in mammals and has the highest concentration of dopamine receptors, which are implicated in motivation and pleasure, among other neurological processes.

“We know that in humans, the caudate region is associated with decision-making, motivation and processing emotions,” Berns says.

As a point of reference, the researchers compared the results to a similar experiment Berns had led 10 years previously involving humans, in which the subjects pressed a button when a light appeared, to get a squirt of fruit juice.

Eleven of 17 humans involved in that experiment showed a positive response in the caudate region that was similar to the positive response of the dogs. “Our findings suggest that the caudate region of the canine brain behaves similarly to the caudate of the human brain, under similar circumstances,” Berns says.

Six of the dogs involved in the experiment had been specially bred and trained to assist disabled people as companion animals, and two of the dogs (including one of the service dogs) had worked as therapy dogs, used to help alleviate stress in people in hospitals or nursing homes. All of the service/therapy dogs showed a greater level of positive caudate activation for the hot dog signal, compared to the other dogs.

“We don’t know if the service dogs and therapy dogs showed this difference because of genetics, or because of the environment in which they were raised, but we hope to find out in future experiments,” Berns says. “This may be the first hint of how the brains of dogs with different temperaments and personalities differ.”

He adds: “I don’t think it was because they liked hot dogs more. I saw no evidence of that. None of the dogs turned down the hot dogs.”

One limitation of the experiments is the small number of subjects and the selectivity of the dogs involved, since only certain dogs can be trained to do the experiments, Berns says.

 Caylin, a border collie that was one of the study subjects.

“We’re expanding our cohort to include more dogs and more breeds,” Berns says. “As the dogs get more accustomed to the process, we can conduct more complicated experiments.”

Plans call for comparing how the canine brain responds to hand signals coming from the dog’s owner, a stranger and a computer. Another experiment already under way is looking at the neural response of dogs when they are exposed to scents of people and other dogs from their households, compared to the scents of unfamiliar people and dogs.

“Ultimately, our goal is to map out canine cognitive processes,” says Berns, who recently published a book entitled “How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain.”

Even in an increasingly technical era, the role of dogs has not diminished, Berns says. In addition to being popular pets, he notes that dogs are important in the U.S. military, in search-and-rescue missions, as assistants for the disabled and as therapeutic stress relievers for hospital patients and others.

“Dogs have been a part of human society for longer than any other animal,” Berns says. He cites a genetic analysis recently published in Science suggesting that the domestication of dogs goes back 18,000 to 32,000 years, preceding the development of agriculture some 10,000 years ago.

“Most neuroscience studies on animals are conducted to serve as models for human disease and brain functions,” Berns says. “We’re not studying canine cognition to serve as a model for humans, but what we learn about the dog brain may also help us understand more about how our own brains evolved.”

Related:
What is your dog thinking? Brain scans unleash canine secrets
Neuroscientist explores how dogs love us

Monday, December 2, 2013

What sea squirts can teach us about brains

Bluebell tunicates are bottle-shaped sea squirts. Photo by Nick Hobgood/Wikipedia Commons.

John Onians, a professor emeritus of art studies from the University of East Anglia in England, recently spoke at Emory about the links between neuroscience and art history. His eclectic talk also included a reference to sea squirts, which was highlighted in "ThoughtWork," the newsletter of the Academic Exchange:

"Why do we have a brain? I didn't know this previously: The reason we have a brain is because like all other organisms from amoebas to elephants, we need to move in order to reproduce and get food. A plant can reproduce and get food without moving. That's why plants don't have brains. This is illustrated by this marvelous creature the sea squirt. The sea squirt swims around the ocean until it's found a place where it can settle, and then when it settles it attaches itself and then it proceeds to consume its own brain because it no longer needs it, which is often unflatteringly compared to a professor that gets tenure. It is important to remember that the brain is there to help us move in order to get things which are of vital importance to us. The brain isn't primarily consumed with knowledge, the sort of things we were taught about. That was just an idea that the Greeks had because it was a good way of getting young men to forget their emotions. But really everything we do is driven by our emotional needs."

Click here to keep track of more interesting talks sponsored by the Center for Mind, Brain and Culture.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Environmental Sciences: A new name and master's program

Caroline Schwaner, a senior majoring in environmental sciences, tests the water quality of a stream in Madagascar, where she spent last summer conducting research. Photo by Carol Clark.

By Carol Clark

Emory’s Department of Environmental Studies has a new name, the Department of Environmental Sciences, and a new master’s level degree program through the Laney Graduate School, which will start in the fall of 2014.

“We’re not changing our direction with the new name. We’re reaffirming it,” says Uriel Kitron, who has chaired the department since he arrived at Emory in 2008.

“We felt that ‘Environmental Studies’ did not really convey our strong orientation toward research,” he explains. “The majority of our 11 faculty are focused on the natural and health sciences. We also have a few faculty involved in the social sciences, and we plan to increase their number. ‘Environmental Sciences’ encompasses the full range of what we do.”

The department’s emphasis on research gives students many chances to become involved in analysis, lab and field-work early on, Kitron says. The department has projects based in Atlanta and throughout the world.

Another hallmark of the department is extensive collaborations that cut across the University, from public health to business, law, anthropology, biology and other specialties throughout Emory College. The adjacent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention further raises the collaboration quotient and opportunities for research experience.

Caroline Schwaner uses rapid detection tests in the field in Madagascar to screen fecal samples for adenoviruses and rotavirus. Photo by Carol Clark.

The Environmental Sciences masters program (ENVS MS) is being launched due to student demand, Kitron says. Major challenges facing society, including a burgeoning human population, dwindling resources, the growing need for renewable energy and climate change, have heightened interest in the environmental sciences.

“Our masters program will train the next generation of professionals to address the complex interactions between people and their environment, with a goal of advancing ecosystem health, sustainable global development and conservation,” Kitron says.

The program will emphasize research experience and the development of quantitative skills, and will require a thesis. The curriculum will be grounded in the social-ecological systems framework created by Elinor Ostrom. In 2009, Ostrom became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics for her work “showing how common resources, such as forests, fisheries, oil fields or grazing lands, can be managed successfully by the people who use them, rather than by governments or private companies.”

In addition to drawing from resources of Emory College and Laney Graduate School, the ENVS MS will also tap the support of Emory Law, Rollins School of Public Health and Goizueta Business School.

The program will accept applications from environmental sciences majors in the spring of 2014, which will allow students to complete a BS in environmental sciences and an MS degree in five years, plus one summer to conduct research. By the fall of 2015, the ENVS MS program will open for students with a bachelor degree interested in a stand-alone, two-year ENVS MS degree.

The new program complements the existing programs of the ENVS BS/MPH and the joint ENVS/BBA Concentration in Environment and Sustainability Management.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What a big momma alligator in her burrow tells us about dinosaurs

What's safer for offspring than a gated community? A gatored one. Mother alligators fiercely guard their dens.

Emory paleontologist Anthony Martin writes for BBC Earth about his research on the Georgia barrier island of Saint Catherine. Below is an excerpt:

"Birds are dinosaurs. This scientifically correct statement has been said often enough during the past 20 years that even children understand it and have been teaching it to their parents, who somehow missed the memo.

"Yet in my experience, nothing transports people back to the Mesozoic Era quicker – in a retro sort of way – than a massive, scaly reptile with big teeth, powerful jaws, and the ability to make lunch of you.

"This is one of the reasons why I love the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), and you should, too. As a palaeontologist who also is an ichnologist – someone who studies tracks, burrows, nests, and other signs of life – I am fascinated with these reptiles and their traces, and began studying them as analogues for dinosaur-like behaviours. ...

"Fortunately, I live in Georgia (USA), which has no shortage of alligators, and most of my research on them and their traces takes place on the undeveloped Georgia barrier islands, which teem with these large predators."

Read the whole article at BBC Earth.

And check out Martin's blog, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast, for more on his research.

Related:
Tell-tale toes point to oldest known fossilized bird tracks in Australia 

Photo: iStockphoto.com

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Atlanta Science Festival offers chance for interactive outreach

"Group Intelligence," which uses the science of molecular behavior to create a flash mob experience, is one of the many activities planned for the Atlanta Science Festival.

By Carol Clark

“We’re building momentum,” says Jordan Rose, who is heading up community outreach for the first Atlanta Science Festival, set for March 22 to 29. “We have a lot to celebrate in Atlanta and Georgia when it comes to science and innovation. It’s important for the public to be aware of all the activities and career opportunities here related to science, technology, engineering and math.”

Two information sessions about the festival are coming up on the Emory campus, for faculty, staff and students who want to get involved as an exhibitor or as a science ambassador. The first session will be held on Thursday, November 14 at 5 pm in Atwood, room 316. The second session is set for Friday, November 15 at 1 pm in the Whitehead Biomedical Research Building, room 600.

The idea for the Atlanta Science Festival was sparked at Emory, says Rose, one of the co-founders of the event and associate director of Emory’s Center for Science Education. Joining Emory as founding partners are Georgia Tech and the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

More than 57 partners will be putting on events at more than 30 locations during the eight-day festival, including lectures, films, performances, exhibits, trivia contests, demonstrations, workshops, guided walks and more. Events at Emory will include public talks, tours of labs and LEED-certified buildings, and a special Theater Emory performance.

The festival will conclude on March 29 with the Exploration Expo in Centennial Olympic Park. “It will be a big, family-friendly science carnival,” Rose says.

About 100 exhibits, activities, demonstrations and performances are expected for the Expo, and the organizers are accepting proposals for booths through December 13. “We’d really like to see a strong Emory presence,” Jordan says. “We’re hoping for lots of hands-on activities, geared toward kids of different ages, that directly connect to Emory research.”

He notes that Emory exhibitors can apply for special funding being offered through the Center for Science Education and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to cover most of their costs for participating.

Science students and faculty are also being recruited to visit K-12 classrooms during the festival. “The idea is for scientists to talk to kids about their passion for their careers and some of the unsolved questions and problems of the future,” Rose says. “We want to inspire the next generation of students to address some of those problems.”

Financial sponsors of the festival include the founding partners, as well as Mercer University, Mercer Health Sciences Center, the Center for Chemical Evolution, Georgia Bio, the Atlanta Science Tavern, Captain Planet Foundation and Women in Technology.

The Atlanta Science Festival joins a trend for cities across the country holding similar events, including the World Science Festival in New York. “The Atlanta festival is unique in its real focus on local resources and expertise,” Rose says. “We will also have a strong emphasis on the links between science and the arts,” he adds.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Organic chemists now forming global bonds

"When I return to Japan, I'm going to be bringing back a lot of new ideas," says Atsushi Yamaguchi, at work in an Emory lab. Chemistry labs in the NSF Center for Selective C-H Functionalization are boosting their power by collaborating instead of competing. Photo by Carol Clark.

By Carol Clark

Atsushi Yamaguchi, a graduate student of chemistry from Nagoya University in Japan, is spending most of the fall semester as an exchange student, working in the Huw Davies lab at Emory.

“In Nagoya, you only see buildings,” he says. “In Atlanta, I can see lots of trees and squirrels.”

But the best part of the exchange experience, Yamaguchi adds, is the insider’s view he’s getting of top organic chemistry labs throughout the United States that are part of the National Science Foundation’s Center for Selective C-H Functionalization (CCHF).

“Before I came here, I only talked about chemistry with my other lab members, who have my same specialty,” Yamaguchi says.

Now, he’s learning new techniques of hands-on chemistry at Emory, while also joining in regular video conferences with chemists from the 14 top U.S. research universities involved in the CCHF. “When I return to Japan, I’m going to be bringing back a lot of new ideas,” Yamaguchi says.

The CCHF, headquartered at Emory, is pioneering a whole new way for organic chemists to teach and do research. A National Center for Chemical Innovation, the CCHF is funded through a $20 million NSF grant.

“We’ve gotten used to collaborating nationally through video-conferences,” says Huw Davies, the CCHF director and Emory professor of organic chemistry. “Now we’re going international.”

Video conference sessions link the Emory lab to other top organic chemistry labs around the country through the CCHF, which is now poised to connect labs globally.

Boosted this fall by an additional $635,000 from the NSF program Science Across Virtual Institutes (SAVI), the CCHF is expanding to include organic chemistry labs in Nagoya University, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in South Korea, Cambridge University in England and the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

Each year, students and post-docs from Emory and other universities involved in the CCHF can spend several months doing chemistry abroad, while foreign students spend time at labs in the United States.

“The idea is to have cultural exchanges while also building collaborative research,” Davies explains. “It’s an incredibly valuable experience for students, who will ultimately be involved in research in a global environment as organic chemistry enters a new era.”

Traditionally, organic chemistry has focused on the division between reactive, or functional, molecular bonds and the inert, or non-functional bonds carbon-carbon (C-C) and carbon-hydrogen (C-H). The inert bonds provide a strong, stable scaffold for performing chemical synthesis on the reactive groups. C-H functionalization flips this model on its head.

Watch a video on how the CCHF is changing chemistry research and education:


“Governments around the world are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into C-H functionalization research,” Davies says. “In terms of organic synthesis and new methods of synthesis, it’s where the action is.”

C-H functionalization holds the potential to make organic synthesis faster, simpler and greener, and could open up whole new ways to develop drugs and other fine-chemical products, for use in everything from agriculture to electronics.

Many challenges remain, however, before C-H functionalization can be fully optimized for broad applications. The global network forged by the CCHF brings together leading players from around the world, representing a range of specialties that will be required to make the critical breakthroughs necessary to bring C-H functionalization into the mainstream of chemical synthesis.

The CCHF’s new model for research, breaking down individual lab walls to create a global collaboration of chemists taking different approaches to similar problems, has already resulted in dozens of research papers.

The journal Science recently published a CCHF finding that resulted from a collaboration between the Davies lab at Emory and the lab of John Berry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Davies lab has developed a powerful rhodium catalyst to drive chemical reactions for C-H functionalization, and a special class of highly reactive dirhodium carbene intermediates. The lab has been refining these carbenes for more than 25 years, to tame their reactivity so they can be used to perform selective, controllable reactions.

video
Watch a video of the reaction involved in the research paper, above.

Efforts by the Davies lab and others to isolate and study the intermediate steps of the dirhodium metal complex reactions have been hindered by their extreme efficiency and speed, since they react at about 300 times per second.

The Berry lab found a way to freeze and stabilize one step of the process long enough to get an actual glimpse into the workings of the mechanism. Ultraviolet-visible spectrometry showed the formation of a new molecule as the green starting material changed to a blue color that faded over time.

More collaborators helped give an even fuller picture of the intermediate compound. Jochen Autschbach from the University of Buffalo used density function theory to predict the nuclear magnetic resonance features of the compound, and Kyle Lancaster from Cornell University elucidated the compound’s structure using a series of X-ray absorption spectroscopy experiments.

“This is a seminal paper for the fundamental understanding of this chemistry, and it could not have been done without the ability to collaborate across a wide range of specialties,” Davies says. “Our lab has been broadly making C-H bonds functional for years, but there was always this mysterious black box that we couldn’t see into during the reactions. Now we can test the theoretical, computational models we’ve developed against the actual reactions. We can gather more information about bond strength and electron properties, so we’re not doing research in the dark.”

Davies expects the breakthrough to speed up the process of refining and improving the rhodium catalyst, one of the most promising and versatile of the multiple approaches under way to bring C-H functionalization to the forefront of organic chemistry.

Related:
NSF chemistry center opens new era in organic synthesis

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The math of peer pressure


Peer pressure on decision-making begins when individuals directly connected to each other first reach agreement, then – under the influence of peers not directly connected to them – the entire social group eventually tips into a social consensus.

An analysis of this process conducted by Ernesto Estrada, a visiting scholar at Emory’s Institute for Quantitative Theory and Methods (QuanTM), was recently published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.

“Consider a teenager who is pressed by her friends into binge-drinking on a Saturday night,” says Estrada, noting that this represents direct pressure from peers. “However, she is also under indirect pressure, by seeing that many teenagers are doing the same thing every Saturday.”

This indirect pressure can make the difference in whether an individual copies a given attitude.

Using mathematical models, Estrada analyzed data taken from 15 networks – including U.S. school superintendents and Brazilian farmers – to outline how peer pressure shapes consensus, leadership and innovations in social groups.

“Reaching consensus about vital topics – such as global warming, the cost of health care and insurance systems, and healthy habits – is crucial for the evolution of our society,” says Estrada, who is a mathematician based at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland.

Read more at the University of Strathclyde’s web site.

Related:
New institute taps the power of ‘big data’

Image: iStockphoto.com 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Grandiose narcissism reflects U.S. presidents' bright and dark sides

Narcissus was doomed to pine away his life, riveted by his own reflection.

By Carol Clark

Narcissus, the physically flawless character of Greek mythology who wound up falling in love with his own reflection, hardly seems like a good role model. For those dreaming of becoming president of the United States, however, some narcissistic traits may be worth fostering, suggests an analysis by Emory psychologists.

They found that grandiose narcissism in U.S. presidents is associated with ratings by historians of overall greatness of presidencies, as well as high marks for public persuasiveness, crisis management, risk-taking, winning the popular vote and initiating legislation. On the flip side, the study showed that grandiose narcissism is also associated with some negative outcomes, such as presidential impeachment resolutions, cheating and bending rules.

The journal Psychological Science is publishing the results of the analysis, led by Ashley Watts, a graduate student of psychology at Emory, and Scott Lilienfeld, Emory professor of psychology. Co-authors included Emory psychologist Irwin Waldman and graduate student Sarah Francis Smith, as well as University of Georgia psychologists Joshua Miller and Keith Campbell, both recognized experts on narcissism.

“Most people think of narcissism as predominantly maladaptive,” Watts says, “but our data support the theory that there are bright and dark sides to grandiose narcissism.”

Lyndon B. Johnson scored highest on markers of grandiose narcissism, followed by Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

Lyndon B. Johnson was known both for getting tough legislation passed, and for being "a bit of a bully," Lilienfeld says.

“It’s interesting to me that these are memorable presidents, ones that we tend to talk about and learn about in history classes,” Watts says. “Only rarely, however, do we talk about most of those who had low ratings for grandiose narcissism, like Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore.”

The researchers also found that presidents exhibit elevated levels of grandiose narcissism compared with the general population, and that presidents’ grandiose narcissism appears to be rising over time.

“As the importance of television and other media has grown in presidential elections, this could be giving an edge to those with the attention-seeking, outgoing personalities associated with grandiose narcissism,” Lilienfeld says.

In psychology terms, narcissism comprises at least two largely distinct patterns of behavior associated with different traits. Vulnerable narcissism is marked by excessive self-absorption, introversion and over-sensitivity. Grandiose narcissism, on the other hand, is characterized by an extroverted, self-aggrandizing, domineering and flamboyant interpersonal style.

“We don’t believe there is a specific dividing line between normal and clinical narcissism,” Lilienfeld says. “It’s probably inherently blurred in nature.”

A queen obsessed with being "the fairest of them all" illustrates a worst-case scenario of narcissism and leadership in the classic fairy tale "Snow White."

Their analyses drew upon personality assessments of 42 presidents, up to and including George W. Bush, compiled by co-authors Steven Rubenzer and Thomas Faschingbauer for their book “Personality, Character and Leadership in the White House.” More than 100 experts, including biographers, journalists and scholars who are established authorities on one or more U.S. presidents, evaluated their target presidents using standardized psychological measures of personality, intelligence and behavior.

For rankings on various aspects of job performance, the analysis relied primarily on data from two large surveys of presidential historians: One conducted by C-SPAN in 2009 and a second conducted by Siena College in 2010.

Lyndon Johnson’s mixed presidential legacy reflects both positive and negative outcomes tied to grandiose narcissism, Lilienfeld says. “Johnson was assertive, and good at managing crises and at getting legislation passed. He also had a reputation for being a bit of a bully and antagonistic.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt, he adds, was also a highly assertive, dominant personality, but not particularly antagonistic or impulsive.

“In U.S. history, there is an enormous variety in presidential leadership style and success,” Lilienfeld says. “One of the greatest mysteries in politics is what qualities make a great leader and which ones make a disastrous, failed leader. Grandiose narcissism may be one important part of the puzzle.”

The study of narcissism and the presidency follows an earlier analysis by Lilienfeld and colleagues that showed that the fearless dominance associated with psychopathy may be an important predictor of U.S. presidential performance.

Related:
Psychopathic boldness tied to U.S. presidential success

Credits: Top image shows detail from painting "Echo and Narcissus" by John William Waterhouse; LBJ photo from official White House photo collection; engraving of "Snow White" queen from the Project Gutenberg archives.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Tell-tale toes point to oldest-known fossilized bird tracks from Australia

The bird tracks were found on a slab of sandstone. Photo by Alan Tait.

By Carol Clark

Two fossilized footprints found at Dinosaur Cove in Victoria, Australia, were likely made by birds during the Early Cretaceous, making them the oldest known bird tracks in Australia.

The journal Palaeontology is publishing an analysis of the footprints led by Anthony Martin, a paleontologist at Emory University who specializes in trace fossils, which include tracks, burrows and nests. The study was co-authored by Patricia Vickers-Rich and Michael Hall of Monash University in Victoria and Thomas Rich of the Museum Victoria in Melbourne.

Much of the rocky coastal strata of Dinosaur Cove in southern Victoria were formed in river valleys in a polar climate during the Early Cretaceous. A great rift valley formed as the ancient supercontinent Gondwana broke up and Australia separated from Antarctica.

“These tracks are evidence that we had sizeable, flying birds living alongside other kinds of dinosaurs on these polar, river floodplains, about 105 million years ago,” Martin says.


An illustration showing how the landing track was probably made as a bird set down on the moist sand of a river bank. Drawing by Tony Martin.

The thin-toed tracks in fluvial sandstone were likely made by two individual birds that were about the size of a great egret or a small heron, Martin says. Rear-pointing toes helped distinguish the tracks as avian, as opposed to a third nearby fossil track that was discovered at the same time, made by a non-avian theropod.

A long drag mark on one of the two bird tracks particularly interested Martin.

“I immediately knew what it was – a flight landing track – because I’ve seen many similar tracks made by egrets and herons on the sandy beaches of Georgia,” Martin says.

The landing track fossil.
Martin often leads student field trips to Georgia’s coast and barrier islands, where he studies modern-day tracks and other life traces, to help him better identify fossil traces. (Check out Martin's blog, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast.)

The ancient landing track from Australia “has a beautiful skid mark from the back toe dragging in the sand, likely caused as the bird was flapping its wings and coming in for a soft landing,” Martin says. Fossils of landing tracks are rare, he adds, and could add to our understanding of the evolution of flight.

Today’s birds are actually modern-day dinosaurs, and share many characteristics with non-avian dinosaurs that went extinct, such as nesting and burrowing. (Martin previously discovered the trace fossils of non-avian dinosaur burrows, including at a site along the coast of Victoria.)

The theropod carnivore Tyrannosaurus rex had a vestigial rear toe, evidence that T. rex shared a common ancestor with birds. “In some dinosaur lineages, that rear toe got longer instead of shorter and made a great adaptation for perching up in trees,” Martin says. “Tracks and other trace fossils offer clues to how non-avian dinosaurs and birds evolved and started occupying different ecological niches.”

Modern-day landing tracks of a tri-colored heron, on the beach of Jeckyl Island off the coast of Georgia, show the similarity to the fossil tracks. Photo by Anthony Martin.

Dinosaur Cove has yielded a rich trove of non-avian dinosaur bones from dozens of species, but only one skeletal piece of a bird – a fossilized wishbone – has been found in the Cretaceous rocks of Victoria.

Martin spotted the first known dinosaur trackway of Victoria in 2010 and a few other tracks have been discovered since then. Volunteers working in Dinosaur Cove found these latest tracks on a slab of rock, and Martin later analyzed them.

The tracks were made on the moist sand of a river bank, perhaps following a polar winter, after spring and summer flood waters had subsided, Martin says. “The biggest question for me,” he adds, “is whether the birds that made these tracks lived at the site during the polar winter, or migrated there during the spring and summer.”

One of the best records of the dinosaur-bird connection has come from discoveries in Liaoning province of Northeastern China, including fossils of non-avian dinosaurs with feathers. Samples of amber have also been found in Liaoning, containing preserved feathers from both birds and non-avian dinosaurs going back to the Cretaceous.

“In contrast, the picture of early bird evolution in the Southern Hemisphere is mostly incomplete,” Martin says, “but with these tracks, it just got a little better.”

Read more about the discovery on Martin's blog.

Related:
Polar dinosaur tracks open to trail to past
Dinosaur burrows yield clues to climate change

Friday, October 25, 2013

The psychology of screams



By Carol Clark

Pay no mind to those bone-chilling sounds of terror and anguish coming from the lab of Emory psychologist Harold Gouzoules. He’s harvesting screams.

He gets the sounds from Hollywood movies, TV shows and YouTube videos. His collection includes classic performances by “scream queens” like Jaime Lee Curtis and Fay Wray, along with the screams of non-actors reacting to actual events. “It seems everything these days is recorded and shared,” Gouzoules says.

As one of the few scientists researching human screams, he’s amassed an impressive library of high-intensity, visceral sounds. In one of his clips, a woman shrieks in fear as aftershocks from the meteor that exploded over Russia shake a building. Another of his YouTube finds is a little girl’s prolonged, ear-splitting squeal of delight as she opens a Christmas present.

“The ability to belt out a scream is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history, and is no doubt critical to our survival,” he says.

Actress Drew Barrymore in Wes Craven's original "Scream."

Gouzoules first began researching monkey screams, decades ago. He learned that, during fights, rhesus monkeys make particular screams depending on the situation. The different screams communicate to the screamer’s nearby relatives and allies whether it’s a serious fight, requiring their assistance, or just a minor squabble.

More recently, Gouzoules began studying human screams. Study participants come to his “scream lab” and listen to various audio files on a computer, without any visual cues for context. The preliminary results show that participants tend to agree on what sounds should be classified as a scream, as opposed to a moan or a yell. In addition, most participants tend to be good at telling whether different screams come from the same person.

“We’ve also found that people can distinguish different types of screams: A happy scream, a frightened scream, a scream given in pain,” Gouzoules says. “Some people are better at this than others. What we found is that these differences correlate with measures of empathy.”

Gouzoules has no trouble recruiting study participants. “People find screams inherently interesting,” he says. “Most of us live fairly ordinary lives and screaming is not that common. I don’t think that was true evolutionarily – there were lots of things that prompted us to scream.”

Despite our fascination with screams, science knows relatively little about them. Gouzoules is honing in on tone, pitch and frequency to try and uncover the hidden patterns and complexities carried in the most intense sounds of human terror, joy and pain.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Emory-Tibet science project rolls out bridges to inner and outer worlds

Emory psychology professor Philippe Rochat, left, sparks a connection with the Dalai Lama during a panel discussion on ethics, as religion professor Wendy Farley looks on. Emory Photo/Video.

By Carol Clark

If you want to make a significant contribution for a better world, “take care of both the brain and the heart.” That was the overriding message of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Emory’s Presidential Distinguished Professor, during his recent visit to campus.

The Robert A. Paul Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI) is one way the Dalai Lama would like to incorporate that message into education. He presided over a luncheon celebrating the full implementation phase of the ETSI, an initiative started in 2007 to exchange knowledge between modern scientists and Tibetan monastics trained in ancient, contemplative methods of developing empathy, compassion and other beneficial mental states.

“The ETSI bridges two worlds that are too often separate: Science and the inner world of human values, beliefs and emotions,” said Robin Forman, dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences. “His Holiness realizes that both hold great value.”

Emory faculty and Tibetan scholars collaborated to develop introductory Tibetan-English science textbooks in neuroscience, biology and physics, and to lead classes for Tibetan monastics. Nearly 100 monks and nuns have participated in the development phase of the ETSI. Last May, six Tibetan monks completed a three-year science instruction program at Emory, and they will now lead the teaching efforts back in India, the seat of the Tibetan diaspora, with the continued support of Emory science faculty. With funding from the Dalai Lama Trust and Emory College, 36 more monastic teachers will be trained at Emory over the next 10 years.

The first group of Tibetan monks to compete a three-year science-teaching program at Emory poses at commencement with Dean Robin Forman (standing, center), and Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, director of the ETSI (in business suit). Emory Photo/Video.

“What a joyful experience it has been,” Forman said of the ETSI. He noted that the Tibetan monastics see a comprehensive science curriculum not as a threat to their Buddhist tradition, but as “a way of protecting, preserving, enhancing and even energizing their unique culture and civilization.”

The Dalai Lama called the large-scale implementation of the curriculum, set for 2014, as “the most critical phase.” The roll-out will include: The development of 19 high-level bilingual science textbooks; annual six-week intensives taught by international science faculty in three major monastic institutions in south India, with a total student body of more than 10,000; and year-round distance learning classes for monasteries and nunneries.

The ETSI grew out of the Emory Tibet Partnership, founded by Robert Paul, an Emory professor of anthropology and interdisciplinary studies, and Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, a senior lecturer in Emory’s Department of Religion and director of the ETSI. Watch the video, below, to learn more about the ETSI formation:


So far, the ETSI has hosted five International Conferences on Science Translation into Tibetan and coined more than 2,500 new science terms for the language.

“Translation is one of the most important sources of knowledge for every evolving civilization,” said Tsondue Samphel, a member of the ETSI translation team. Samphel trained as a novice monk in Dharamsala, India, before returning to secular life and earning a physics degree from Emory in 2006.

Samphel described how translators played a role in bringing Buddhism from other countries to Tibet, and in helping the religion evolve into a form of Buddhism unique to the Himalayan kingdom.

“Now, more than 1,000 years later, another historic event is taking place,” Samphel said of the effort to promote the cross-fertilization of ancient Tibetan wisdom and modern scientific understanding. “This could advance the welfare of all humanity to a higher level."

Emory biologist Arri Eisen, center, says helping Tibetan monastics gain a scientific view of the world has made him a better teacher.

The cross-fertilization is already contributing to science discoveries at Emory. For instance, Cognitively Based Compassion Training, a secular meditation protocol based on Tibetan traditions, has demonstrated significant beneficial effects on immune and hormonal response to psychosocial stress among Emory undergraduate students. These promising research results led to an ongoing NIH-funded study on the health benefits of compassion training.

The ETSI “changed my life,” said Arri Eisen, a professor of biology, who is among the Emory faculty who has spent summers in India teaching the monastics. He said the experience of engaging in intense discussions with the monastics made him a better teacher.

Most of his Tibetan students do not have a goal of becoming a scientist. “They are learning science to help them understand Buddhism better, to make them better Buddhists, and to become more enriched citizens,” Eisen said.

“I’m representing just a small piece of the power of this thing,” he said. “This project has transformed me, it’s transformed many monks and nuns, and I think that’s just the beginning.”

Related:
Compassion meditation may boost neural basis of empathy
Monks + scientists = new body of thought
Tibetan monks learn about science and 'riding shotgun'
Tibetan translator loves language quarks

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The growing role of farming and nitrous oxide in climate change

A farmer fertilizes his field in India, where consumption of nitrogen from fertilizer has shot up by 50 percent during the past 10 years.

By Carol Clark

Most people know nitrous oxide as laughing gas, used as a mild anesthetic for dental patients. What’s less well-known is that nitrous oxide is the leading cause of the depletion of the protective layer of ozone in the Earth’s atmosphere, and the third-largest greenhouse gas, after carbon dioxide and methane.

“Not many people know about the impact of nitrous oxide, and very few people are studying the nitrogen cycle,” says Eri Saikawa, an assistant professor in Emory’s Department of Environmental Studies.

Nitrous oxide is released naturally from the soil, as part of the process of microbes breaking down nitrogen. However, human activity, especially agriculture, has boosted the emission levels in recent decades. Livestock manure and fertilizers containing nitrates, ammonia or urea all generate nitrous oxide as they decompose.

“Nitrous oxide emissions stay in the atmosphere for 125 years, similar to carbon dioxide. So it’s very important that we take action now,” Saikawa says.

Saikawa, whose research is focused on emissions linked to air pollution, ozone depletion and global warming, will give an overview of her work on nitrous oxide as part of Environmental Studies’ fall lecture series. Her talk, “Laughing Gas: No Laughing Matter for Climate Change and the Environment,” is set for 4 pm on Monday, October 21 in the Math and Science Center, room N306.

Over-fertilization can degrade soil quality.
Until fairly recently, the United States was the main nitrogen consumer from fertilizers. Since 2000, however, U.S. consumption has declined about 9 percent, according to data from the International Fertilizer Industry Association.

Meanwhile, China’s nitrogen consumption from fertilizers has shot up 40 percent during the past 10 years, making it the number one consumer. And India has moved into the number two spot, with a 50 percent increase.

As the two most populous nations rapidly industrialize, they are also using more fertilizer, in an attempt to boost yields, Saikawa says. “Actually, over-fertilization wastes money and can sometimes degrade soil quality, while also creating more nitrous oxide emissions.”

In her previous position with MIT’s Center for Global Change Science, Saikawa developed a computer model, based on local soil temperatures and moisture content, to estimate global nitrous oxide emissions from natural sources in different regions of the world, from 1975 to 2008. The simulation was checked against the few available actual nitrous oxide measurements, including 25 locations in the Amazon, North and Central America, Asia, Africa and Europe.

The results, verifying the simulation model’s accuracy, were recently published in the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles, and are highlighted in this month’s issue of Nature Geoscience.

Watch a data visualization of the findings, below:



“We wanted to see if we could reproduce natural soil emissions first,” Saikawa says. “Our next step is to include the agricultural components, so we can understand more about how much nitrous oxide is coming from the activities of people. We can then use the model to simulate possible future scenarios.”

Saikawa is continuing to collaborate with her former colleagues from MIT for the research into the impact of nitrous oxide on climate change and the stratosphere, which is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Her computer simulation revealed that El Niño weather events decrease nitrous oxide emissions in tropical South Asia, while the opposing weather pattern, La Niña, causes a spike. This variation is likely due to the change in the rainfall associated with El Niño and La Niña, and the fact that warm, wet soil boosts emission levels, Saikawa says.

The simulation also showed that in temperate regions, snow cover appears to have an effect on emissions.

“There are so many variables, and things that we don’t know about nitrous oxide emissions,” Saikawa says. “We have to get as many measurements as possible to refine and validate our model, and to determine if there are optimal agricultural practices and other ways to potentially minimize emissions. Without more knowledge, it’s difficult to make recommendations, or to regulate the emissions.”

Related:
Fertilizer runoff and the Gulf Dead Zone
Putting people into the climate change picture
Crime may rise along with Earth’s temperatures

Photos: iStockphoto.com 

Fertilizer runoff and the Gulf Dead Zone

Dead Zone graphic by NOAA.
Kristopher Hite, a post-doctoral fellow in biology at Emory, wrote about the “Dead Zone” in a guest blog post for Scientific American. Below is an excerpt:

“Each summer, after the famers of the American Midwest spread manure or spray anhydrous ammonia over their emerging crops, summer rains (usually) come and carry much of that fertilizer down a massive web of tributaries into the mighty Mississippi River. The annual spike in nutrient (mostly nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium – NPK) causes massive algal blooms. As the algae decompose bacteria feast on the detritus only to die when there is no more food taking with them dissolved oxygen. The resultant area of low oxygen or hypoxia is eerily named the ‘Dead Zone.’ This is a slight misnomer as the area is not completely dead although the lower oxygen levels do threaten large portions of the aquatic food web. In addition to oxygen deprivation a small percentage of the blooming algae also produce lethal toxins to fish, birds, and mammals. The size of the Dead Zone varies summer to summer from about the size of Delaware to New Hampshire depending on the amount of rainfall. …

“It varies. The American Midwest experienced two straight years of drought in 2011 and 2012. Less rain meant less nutrient run-off. Though the Dead Zone was smaller than predicted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2012, the increased rains throughout the Mississippi watershed in 2013 resulted in a Dead Zone twice as big as last year’s. Fertilizer accumulated during the drought was released with vengeance during the heavy summer rainfall this year. I am curious to see if the horrific flooding we’ve seen recently in Colorado will have any latent effect on the Gulf’s Dead Zone this fall.”

Read the whole article at Scientific American.

Related:
The growing role of farming and nitrous oxide in climate change
A social catalyst for science outreach

Monday, October 7, 2013

Neuroscientist explores how dogs love us



“The heart of my interest is the dog-human relationship,” says Emory neuroeconomist Gregory Berns, director of the university's Center for Neuropolicy. His latest research involves training dogs to enter a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner (fMRI) and hold perfectly still, so that he can scan their brain activity.

Berns' research began with his own pet, Callie, adopted from an animal shelter, and has expanded to include a dozen “MRI-certified” canines. Only positive training methods are used on the dogs. They remain awake and unrestrained in the fMRI as they respond to stimuli like hand signals indicating food and smells of familiar humans.

The results Berns has gathered so far are the subject of his new book, “How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain.”

“The idea behind the book is essentially my deep-seated desire to know what my dogs are thinking, and whether they love us for something more than food,” Berns says. “I think the answer is definitely, yes. They love us for things far beyond food, basically the same things that humans love us for. Things like social comfort and social bonds.”

Related:
What is your dog thinking?

Monday, September 30, 2013

Celebrating 50 years of psychology at Emory

The old psychology building on the Quad, which served as headquarters for the department for decades.

By Carol Clark

In 387 BC, Plato proclaimed that the brain is the seat of mental processes. In 335 BC, Aristotle countered that all emotions originate in the heart, opening classical debates about the human mind and behavior.

“And the conversation continues,” said Marshall Duke, Candler Professor of Psychology.

Nowhere is that conversation livelier than Emory’s Department of Psychology, which recently celebrated its 50th year in its modern form with presentations on its evolution. Clinical work and research into depression, schizophrenia, autism-spectrum disorders, early childhood development, the mental health of families and the origins of human morality — those are a few of the areas in which Emory has, and continues, to make major contributions.

Duke, who joined the Emory faculty in 1970, kicked things off with a talk that sped through centuries of science.

During the 1830s, as German physician Ernst Weber laid a foundation for experimental psychology with his law of “just notable differences,” Emory College was founded.
Diagram of Phineas Gage's injury.

During the 1840s, Emory handed out its first diplomas and “Phineas Gage got impaled and his personality changed,” said Duke. Gage was a Vermont railroad worker, whose horrific injury revealed how damage to a specific area of the brain changes behavior.

Fast-forward to the 1860s, when Emory temporarily closed to serve as a Civil War barracks and hospital. Keep moving through the decades as scientists in Europe identified the Broca and Wernicke areas of the brain, data-based psychology began, Freud published his “Interpretation of Dreams” and Pavlov experimented with his dogs.

In 1911, a “professor of mental science” joined the Emory faculty, and in 1919, the college moved from Oxford, Georgia, to Atlanta.

Goodrich C. White, a native Georgian who graduated from Emory in 1908, returned as Emory’s first professor of psychology in 1927. “He ultimately became the dean of psychology and later the president of the university,” Duke said. “He transformed this place.”

Under White’s leadership, the college grew into a university. Emory launched graduate degree programs (psychology’s began in 1957) and acquired what is now called the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.
Goodrich C. White


Meanwhile, clinical psychology came of age in the aftermath of World War II. Long before the term post-traumatic stress disorder was coined, the Veteran’s Administration recognized it needed help offering mental health care to returning soldiers and began investing in university’s that offered applied, clinical programs.

During the 1960s, Irwin Jay Knopf was named Emory’s chair of psychology, charged with establishing a department of the first rank. The newly formed department established the basis of three programs that are today known as Clinical Psychology, Neuroscience and Animal Behavior and Cognition and Development.

“The modern era began,” Duke said.

Stephen Nowicki, Emeritus and Candler Professor of Psychology, joined the clinical program in 1969. “The history of the clinical program is also my history. I lived it,” Nowicki said in his presentation. “I have met and worked with all of the people who have ever been on the faculty then or are on it now. We have much to be proud of in the clinical psychology program. We have built a tradition of excellence that rivals any program in the country.”

Over the years, the faculty has published more than 1,000 studies and dozens of books. More than 300 of their students have completed their clinical PhDs and have gone on to impact all aspects of clinical psychology, spread over 40 states and five foreign countries.

Polaroid snaps from 1975 show long-time friends and colleagues Duke and Nowicki, left, and faculty and students in front of the old psychology building.

But it wasn’t all work, Nowicki recalled. Early in the department’s formation many members of the psychology faculty were not much older than their students. “I think we had more fun, or at least we did different things for fun than faculty and students do now,” he said.

Among his most vivid memories was the clinical program’s annual gong show. “I remember a faculty member dancing in a tutu, an ugly dog named Pepper who supposedly was dressed as Linda Lovelace form the pornographic movie “Deep Throat,” and my all-time favorite, the Egg Man. He put his egg cartons down, took off his tie, and then proceeded to take one egg at a time and crush it against his body to the cheers of the audience.”

Darryl Neill, Goodrich C. White Professor of Psychology, talked about how he studied “biopsychology” at the University of Chicago, to become what was then known as a “physiological psychologist.”

When Neill joined the budding Neuroscience and Animal Behavior program at Emory in 1971, he recalled that the department had much less emphasis on biology and animal research. The NAB program has since grown to comprise about 30 percent of the department’s research, Neill said.

Last spring, the department opened the Facility for Education and Research in Neuroscience, housing a Siemens Trio 3-Telsa functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. Known as FERN, the facility is geared for using fMRI to explore the neural mechanisms of thoughts and behaviors, while also training students and faculty in the technology.

“We’ve made it,” Neill said of the burgeoning field of neuroscience. “We’re so successful, that the backlash is under way.”

He noted that Emory psychology professor Scott Lilienfeld is among the neuro-critics. Lilienfeld recently co-authored “Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.” The book acknowledges the promise of brain imaging technology, while cautioning that it should be used in conjunction with other experimental techniques and face-to-face evaluations of people.

“It’s a thoughtful read, I recommend it,” Neill said.

Robyn Fivush, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology, joined the department in 1984. She talked about how the early years of what is now called the Cognition and Development program were greatly influenced by two faculty: Boyd McCandless and Dick Neisser.

McCandless had written “Children, Behavior and Development,” which Fivush described as “the seminal textbook that defined the field of developmental psychology.” He also founded the journal Developmental Psychology.

At Emory, he strived “to establish a program that approached educational and social issues in a truly scientific way,” Fivush said. “This was while Jay Knopf was establishing an accredited clinical program.”

In 1983, Dick Neisser joined the department. “Dick wrote the book that gave our field its name, ‘Cognitive Psychology,’ in 1966,” Fivush said. “Dick’s vision allowed us to create an amazing intellectual community of faculty from multiple departments, especially philosophy and English, and graduate students, to come together over important issues in cognition, most centrally memory and self.”

Another pivotal figure was Mike Tomasello, who started his career at Emory in 1980 before eventually leaving to become the director of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig. “Mike was one of the first developmental psychologists to scientifically study relations between human and non-human primate development in controlled studies,” Fivush said. “He also was instrumental in creating more interaction between our programs in Cognition and Development and Neuroscience and Animal Behavior, something that we continue today.”

The names of many Emory psychology faculty are synonymous with cutting-edge specialties that they helped pioneer, Fivush said, as she flashed a few dozen examples across the screen.

The state-of-the-art Psychology and Interdisciplinary Studies building (PAIS) was completed in 2009.

“I knew that our department was rich in research, but I didn’t realize how rich,” said Cory Inman, one of several graduate students of psychology who gave presentations.

Among the highlights of his varied Emory experience is assisting with patients undergoing deep-brain stimulation for severe depression. “I’ve worked with 11 patients so far and it’s incredible,” Inman said. “I get to literally witness miracles. It’s influencing what I want to do with my future.”

Inman’s talk focused on networks, both neural and social ones. “Psychology and science in general are becoming more collaborative,” he said. “Innovations stem from connections. New niches bubble up and we gain new knowledge.”

So why has Emory forged such strong connections? “I think it’s about caring for one another more than you do your research,” Inman said. “My Emory network has shaped me in countless ways. When I come back for the 70th anniversary (of the psychology department), I hope to see continued commitment to working with and helping others succeed.”

Visit the department's web site to listen to podcasts with more details about the history of Emory psychology. 

Related:
Psychology expansion boosts Emory's power for behavioral research
fMRI facility signals new era for neuroscience