Category: Health

The relationship between relationships and health

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French_Quarter_Kiss.jpgHow important is it to have a caring and supportive partner? We all understand, perhaps intutively, that being a part of a couple has dramatic impacts on our quality of life, and now sociology researchers have published evidence on this question:

Published in the Journal of Family Psychology, the research explores the connection between romantic relationships and health. Using data from primarily African-American couples, the findings include evidence for the importance of positive partner behavior in predicting health. The study also found that interracial couples-whether dating, cohabiting or married-tend to report worse health than couples of the same race.

"There is a great body of research that says romantic relationship quality matters, though much of that research is on married couples," said Ashley Barr, a recent doctoral graduate in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences' sociology department and lead author on the study. "We approached the question from a different angle, asking how romantic relationships, in their varied forms, matter for young people in the transition to adulthood."

The study used data from the Family and Community Health Study, a UGA research project in operation since 1995. The results about the importance of quality in the relationship no matter the status matched the researchers' hypotheses. They also found that having a hostile partner-being in a low-quality relationship-was more disadvantageous in cohabiting or married relationships.

While the racial components of this work are a bit disconcerting - we still have far to go for mixed-race couples to have the positive health outcomes of their relationships match that of same-race couples - it's important to acknowledge this disparity so that we can work to overcome it. Soon there will likely be similar research supporting the impacts of same-sex couples, though likely that research, too, will reflect lingering biases in American society. But here's to giving new meaning to the term 'healthy relationships.'

New approach for early diagnosis of dementia

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psychology.jpgResearchers in the department of psychology have developed a unique method for diagnosing the earliest stages of dementia by applying tasks commonly used to gauge levels of impulsive or risky behaviors related to financial decisions:

This approach, which has been used in the past to evaluate the decision-making processes of problem gamblers and other impulse control disorders like substance abuse, may help diagnose many forms of dementia before more obvious symptoms emerge. They reported their findings in the Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology.

"The brain is so good at compensating for losses associated with dementia that disorders like Alzheimer's disease can progress for years before anyone notices symptoms," said Cutter Lindbergh, lead author of the study and doctoral candidate in psychology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "By the time people realize something is wrong, the disease has become irreversible, so we need better diagnostics to give medical interventions the best chance of success."

The number of people living with dementia worldwide is estimated at 35.6 million, resulting in more than $600 billion in annual costs, according to the World Health Organization. But as people live longer and elderly populations increase worldwide, the number of dementia sufferers will double by 2030 and more than triple by 2050.

Great work that will have real impact on millions by homing in on the decision-making processes that present another view to conventional testing by neuropsychologists - not a different view, but a way to evaluate symptoms differently. Congratulations to our researchers on the publication of this new study.

NIH supports UGA glycoscience training program

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Glycogen_structure.pngComplex carbohydrates are the key to cell behavior, and the ability to study them at UGA and train the next generation of researchers just received a great boost:

University of Georgia researchers have received a five-year $850,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish a glycoscience training program for pre-doctoral graduate students that will help train a new generation of carbohydrate researchers.

The award makes UGA one of only 26 NIH-funded universities to offer specialized training designed to bridge gaps between biology and chemistry, and it is the only program focused especially on the science of complex carbohydrates.

Complex carbohydrates, more commonly known as glycans, cover the surface of every living cell in the human body-allowing those cells to communicate, replicate and survive. But they are also involved in the development and spread of many diseases, including cancer, viral and bacterial infections, diabetes and cardiovascular disorders.

"UGA is home to a powerful glycoscience research program, so our faculty are uniquely qualified to lead this new initiative," said Michael Pierce, Distinguished Research Professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and co-principal investigator for the project. "This field is revolutionizing our understanding of fundamental biological processes and disease treatment, and we need to support rigorous training for new generations of researchers."

Mentoring students in chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology; special training in glycomics; specially designed courses, public seminars and an annual retreat developed specifically for the new program; all of these innovations are made possible by past investments in people and facilities that not only come to fruition in the form of breakthrough discoveries, but leading-edge training programs as well. These programmatic innovations help the university continue to draw the brightest graduate students to campus to work, teach, learn and train. Congratulations to our Franklin teams at the CCRC. 

Yellow pigment in the eye and greater visibility

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1920px-Eye_iris.jpgHow our eyes absorb light and achieve great definition in visibilty is a fascinating subject and the focus of one of the best neuroscience researchers in the country, a faculty member in our department of psychology:

[People] with more yellow in their macula may have an advantage when it comes to filtering out atmospheric particles that obscure one's vision, commonly known as haze. According to a new University of Georgia study, people with increased yellow in their macula could absorb more light and maintain better vision in haze than others.

Billy Hammond, UGA professor of brain and behavioral sciences and director of the Vision Sciences Laboratory, conducted the study published in the September issue of Optometry and Vision Science. He explored how yellow light in increased macular pigment helps filter out shortwave light called blue haze, which is damaging to retinal tissue.

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"We've found that the yellow filters out the effects of blue haze," Hammond said. "The pigment affects how far people can see outdoors and how they can adapt to their environment."

Hammond's recent findings support his philosophy on eating healthy and regular exercise. Through his research, Hammond has found that the amount of macular pigment in the eye depends on a person's diet. The macular pigments, known as lutein and zeaxanthin, are most commonly found in leafy, green vegetables. Hammond recommends that in order to maintain healthy eyes, people eat more vegetables.

Dr. Hammond is unfliching about the connections between diet, exercise and good health, which sounds obvious but represents an indefatigable conundrum in American society. Walk more. Eat green vegetables and fruit. The impediments we have created to good health - the keys to vitality and creativity - are mostly a product of passive, sedentary lifestyles and, importantly, workstyles. It's all in our hands to change. Thanks to Hammond for continuing to draw attention to the unnatural ways we live and their deleterious effects on living well.

Expanding the fight against Infectious Diseases

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CEIGD.pngThe UGA Faculty of Infectious Diseases is comprised of many Franklin College faculty members and departments, researchers who have garnered significant resources in the fight against a variety of global health challenges:

"The board of regents investment in infectious disease research provided a unique opportunity to recruit strategically to bridge existing strengths in veterinary medicine, ecology, tropical and emerging diseases, and vaccine development as well as the rapidly expanding the new College of Public Health at UGA," said Duncan Krause, director of UGA's Faculty of Infectious Diseases and a professor of microbiology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "The resulting synergy has been exceptional."

Their studies promise to continue to enhance the research enterprise at UGA and foster new partnerships, both within the UGA Faculty of Infectious Diseases, which brings together researchers across UGA colleges and schools, and with researchers globally.

"A particular strength of the faculty members recruited through the board of regents initiative is their ability to identify promising collaborative opportunities that enable new research capabilities and often spawn new research directions," Krause said.

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Don Harn and Biao He study very different infectious agents, but both expand UGA capabilities in vaccine development. A major research focus of the Harn lab is schistosomiasis, a disease caused by worm-like organisms found in water. This work builds upon UGA's global leadership efforts to control this disease, including the Gates Foundation SCORE program here under the direction of Dan Colley. Harn's research also explores how schistosomiasis can limit the effectiveness of vaccines against HIV and other viral diseases.

He has identified a virus with potential as a delivery vector for vaccines and gene therapy. This discovery has spawned multiple new collaborations with researchers at UGA and beyond.

Having met an Infectious Diseases researcher from another Franklin department earlier today, I can vouch for this program's broad reach across our campus. The nature of fighting emerging and established global diseases dictates an interdisciplinary mix of specialties plus an ability to synthesize voluminous amounts of data even as they expand on it. Data management and sharing is an emerging challeneg itself for scientists and researchers in the digital age, one will revisit soon.

 

Genetics researchers unveil fully functional lab-grown thymus

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Manley_Nancy-portrait.jpgA major advance from researchers in the department of genetics:

A team of scientists including researchers from the University of Georgia have grown a fully functional organ from scratch in a living animal for the first time.

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The researchers created a thymus, a butterfly-shaped gland and vital component of the human immune system. Located beneath the breastbone in the upper chest, the thymus is responsible for producing T-lymphocytes, or T-cells, which help organize and lead the body’s fighting forces against threats like bacteria, viruses and even cancerous cells.

“We were all surprised by how well this works,” said Nancy Manley, professor of genetics in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and co-author of the paper describing their finding in Nature Cell Biology.

“The general idea in science is that to make cells change their fate, you need to reprogram first to a stem-cell like state and then coax them to change into what you want,” said Manley, who is also director of UGA’s Developmental Biology Alliance. “But we jump-started the process just by expressing a single gene that was sufficient to initiate the entire process and orchestrate organ development.”

Congratulations to the research team on this fantastic news, a very big step along the way to clinical trials and treatments which, while they might be still far out in the future, seem to have just become significantly closer.

Nature article highlights UGA malaria researcher

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R_cellbio2012_01.jpgCongratulations are in order to University of Georgia professor Vasant Muralidharan, an assistant  professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of cellular biology. His research was recently highlighted in the journal Nature.  Muralidharan, who studies the biology of the deadly malaria eukaryotic parasite, worked with with a group of researchers as a post-doc at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis to investigate a means to trap and kill the parasite. You can read more and hear an accompanying audio piece about this published research here

Scientists may be able to entomb the malaria parasite in a prison of its own making, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis report July 16 in Nature.

As it invades a red blood cell, the malaria parasite takes part of the host cell’s membrane to build a protective compartment. To grow properly, steal nourishment and dump waste, the parasite then starts a series of major renovations that transform the red blood cell into a suitable home.

But the new research reveals the proteins that make these renovations must pass through a single pore in the parasite’s compartment to get into the red blood cell. When the scientists disrupted passage through that pore in cell cultures, the parasite stopped growing and died.

Muralidharan now works on his research here at UGA and his work is a great addition to the collaborative efforts of researchers at the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases. His lab website describes the crux of his research interests as follows:

Investigating Pneumonia

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Duncan-Krause-pneumonia.jpgA collaborative group of researchers at the University of Georgia has received a grant to study the leading cause of pneumonia in older children and young adults.  Researchers will study Bacterium Mycoplasma pneumoniae with a five-year, $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

A fundamental goal of the new research project is to better understand how the bacterium eludes the immune system and common antibiotic treatment, which can often lead to persistent infection or life-altering conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

"These bacteria have evolved to live in the human respiratory tract and have developed ways to avoid the natural defenses that keep us safe," said Duncan Krause, principal investigator for the project and professor of microbiology in UGA's Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "We want to understand the chemical features of Mycoplasma pneumoniae and the conditions inside the human body that cause these persistent infections so we can one day develop more effective treatments."

Alongside Krause is a team of co-investigators from various departments and colleges on the UGA campus including Thomas Krunkosky, associate professor of veterinary biosciences and diagnostic imaging in the College of Veterinary Medicine; Jason Locklin, associate professor in the Franklin College and the College of Engineering; Michael Tiemeyer, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Franklin College; and Bingqian Xu, associate professor in the College of Engineering.

Working together, these researchers will employ a series of experiments to determine how M. pneumoniae moves within the human airways.

M. pneumoniae travels like a rock climber, attaching and releasing chemical bonds as it traverses human tissues one foothold at a time. Eventually, the bacteria reach areas of the respiratory tract where new chemical bonds allow it to stick and multiply, leading to infection and illness.

The research team will examine the molecular features of both M. pneumoniae and the surface of the human airway to determine why they glide over certain areas and are static on others.

"The human airway is lined with complex sugar molecules called glycans that contribute to the chemistry of mucus membranes in those tissues," said Krause, who is also director of UGA's Faculty of Infectious Diseases. "The differences in these glycans may be the key to understanding how and where M. pneumoniae moves and why it causes these chronic infections that are so difficult to treat."

New research tracks Amazon River microbial activity, effects on global carbon budget

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Amazon-River-Plume.jpg

New research from the University of Georgia Franklin College of Arts and Sciences  departments of microbiology and marine sciences could have a major impact on the study of microbial activity in the Amazon River, as well as the effects on the global carbon budget.. The Amazon River, the largest in the world in terms of discharge water, transfers a plume of nutrients and organisms into the ocean that creates a hotspot of microbial activity.  This affects many global processes, including the storage of atmospheric carbon.

The new study further reveals detail about the microbial activity of the Amazon River Plume as part of a broad project to understand the global carbon budget and its possible impacts on a changing ocean. The study, "Microspatial gene expression patterns in the Amazon River Plume," was published July 14 in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"By collecting data from genes and gene transcripts in the water samples, taking billions of sequences of DNA and RNA from organisms at various places in the plume, we were able to construct the most detailed look that's ever been put together of the microbial processes in a drop of seawater," said Mary Ann Moran, Distinguished Research Professor of Marine Sciences at UGA.

UGA researchers from the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences departments of marine sciences and microbiology took samples from the plume 300 miles offshore from the Amazon River mouth, then isolated the genes of organisms using the nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon being carried into the ocean by the river plume.

Discharge from the plume, more than 200,000 cubic meters of fresh water per second, delivers nitrogen and phosphorus to microscopic phytoplankton that live in the upper sunlit layers of the ocean. Via photosynthesis, phytoplankton capture carbon dioxide that dissolves into the ocean from the atmosphere, a mechanism that captures a larger proportion of CO2 than is consumed by the world's rainforests.

Until now, quantitative data about the microbial activity underlying this mechanism has been elusive.

Data in the paper will used be as part of a larger model of the Amazon and will be available to researchers around the world.

"The scientific community as a whole can draw new conclusions or study different aspects from the data sets," said Brandon Satinsky, a doctoral student in microbiology at UGA and lead author on the study. "It's such a large amount of water and material, and the location of the plume moves over the course of the year, from the Caribbean virtually over to Africa."

"It's first time we've had this kind of data, at this level of detail, and so now we can share with teams of modelers to help them make better predictions about the future of the system," Moran said.

The project is part of two major UGA research initiatives: ROCA, the River Continuum of the Amazon; and ANACONDAS, Amazon iNfluence on the Atlantic: CarbOn export from Nitrogen fixation by DiAtom Symbioses, both of which are led by associate professor of marine sciences Patricia Yager. The initiatives are supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation through grant GBMF2293 and the National Science Foundation.

For more on UGA research in the Amazon, see http://amazoncontinuum.org/.

New nanoparticle treatment for stroke victims

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nano-biocleanroom zhaoGreat new work from Franklin College researchers that should garner significant attention:

Researchers at the University of Georgia and their collaborators have developed a new technique to enhance stroke treatment that uses magnetically controlled nanomotors to rapidly transport a clot-busting drug to potentially life-threatening blockages in blood vessels.

The only drug currently approved for the treatment of acute stroke—recombinant tissue plasminogen activator, or t-PA—is administered intravenously to patients after the first symptoms of ischemic stroke appear. The protein in the drug dissolves blood clots that cause strokes and other cardiovascular problems, like pulmonary embolisms and heart attacks.

"Our technology uses magnetic nanorods that, when injected into the bloodstream and activated with rotating magnets, act like stirring bars to drive t-PA to the site of the clot," said Yiping Zhao, co-author of a paper describing the results in ACS Nano and professor of physics in UGA's Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "Our preliminary results show that the breakdown of clots can be enhanced up to twofold compared to treatment with t-PA alone."

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Stroke is the second leading cause of death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one American dies from stroke every four minutes.

"We're dealing with a huge population of patients who desperately need new treatments," said Leidong Mao, paper co-author and associate professor in UGA's College of Engineering.

Medical advances can sometime appear quite far removed from the source of their greatest need - either only focused on a small aspect of a condition or only remotely connected to a future treatment regime. Zhao, Mao and their colleagues have a special intuition about getting to the essence of a problem, drug delivery in this instance, and forging solutions with the use of technology developed in their labs. Congratulations to this team of perceptive researchers as they seek to utilize technology to improve the efficiency of the t-PA drug to help stroke and heart attack victims.

Image: Professor Yiping Zhao