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March 20, 2013

In Brief

‘Mean girls’ be warned: ostracism cuts both ways

sad girl by lockersA new study shows that individuals who deliberately shun another person are equally distressed by the experience.

“In real life and in academic studies, we tend to focus on the harm done to victims in cases of social aggression,” says coauthor Richard Ryan, professor of clinical and social psychology. “This study shows that when people bend to pressure to exclude others, they also pay a steep personal cost. Their distress is different from the person excluded but no less intense.”

Researchers found that complying with instructions to exclude another person leads most people to feel shame and guilt along with a diminished sense of autonomy, says Nicole Legate, lead author of the Psychological Science paper and a doctoral candidate at the University. The results also showed that inflicting social pain makes people feel less connected to others. “We are social animals at heart,” says Legate. “We typically are empathetic and avoid harming others unless we feel threatened.”

The findings point to the hidden price of going along with demands to exclude individuals based on social stigmas, such as being gay, write the authors. The study also provides insight into the harm to both parties in cases of social bullying.

To capture the dual dynamics of social rejection, the researchers turned to Cyberball, an online game developed by ostracism researcher Kipling Williams of Purdue University. Before and following the game, participants completed the same 20-item survey to assess their mood as well as their sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Consistent with earlier research on ostracism, the study found that being shunned, even by faceless strangers in a computer game, was upsetting and lowered participant’s mood. “Although there are no visible scars, ostracism has been shown to activate the same neural pathways as physical pain,” says Ryan. But complying with instructions to exclude others was equally disheartening, the data shows, albeit for different reasons. Read more at www.rochester.edu/news.

Study suggests thinking about brain injury as autoimmune disorder

Most scientists are starting to agree that repeat, subconcussive hits to the head are dangerous and linked to neurological disorders later in life. A new collaborative study, though, attempted to find out why—and discovered that damage to the blood-brain barrier and the resulting autoimmune response might be the culprit.

Published in journal PLoS ONE by the Medical Center and the Cleveland Clinic, the research suggests a new way of thinking about concussions: That the brain degeneration observed among professional football players (including the much-publicized chronic traumatic encephalopathy) could result from an out-of-control immune response similar to what multiple sclerosis patients experience. If so, the finding could open the door to investigating a vaccine or drug therapy to prevent head trauma.

Coauthor Jeffrey Bazarian, associate professor of emergency medicine at Rochester, worked with lead investigator Damir Janigro, professor of molecular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, and 67 college football players from northeast Ohio and Rochester who agreed to participate in the research. “Our theory is plausible as an explanation for how routine head hits that come with playing football can lead to severe neuro-degeneration later in life,” says Bazarian, a national expert who has served on an Institute of Medicine committee for brain injury. “If others confirm this, it could present options with drugs that influence the immune response.” Read more at www.urmc.rochester.edu/news.

Older and African-American men at higher risk for aggressive prostate cancer

Even for people diagnosed with asymptomatic, early prostate cancer, the odds that their disease is high or intermediate risk and thus more aggressive is increased for people 75 and older and for African-American men, according to a large, population-based study led by the Medical Center.

The findings represent the first suggestion that these two demographic groups might benefit the most from PSA (prostate-specific antigen) testing, which is designed to detect the cancer at an early stage. Physicians usually can’t feel tumors at this point, and they do not show up on imaging studies or cause symptoms. The Medical Center study indicates that a significant number of elderly and black men might be harboring an aggressive cancer that can only be diagnosed through a PSA test.

Lead author Hong Zhang, associate professor of radiation oncology and chief of radiation oncology at Highland Hospital, presented the data at a Genitourinary Cancers Symposium organized by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) in conjunction with the American Society of Radiation Oncology and the Society of Urologic Oncology last month in Orlando.

PSA screening is a controversial issue. In 2012 the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended against PSA screening in all men— although a subsequent report from ASCO said that for men with a life expectancy of more than 10 years, the test has benefits that might outweigh the drawbacks. “If we stop PSA testing altogether we’d have no other way to detect aggressive prostate cancer sufficiently early in this group of high-risk patients,”

Physicists make first direct measurements of polarization states of light

Researchers at Rochester and the University of Ottawa have applied a recently developed technique to directly measure for the first time the polarization states of light. Their work both overcomes some important challenges of Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principle and also is applicable to qubits, the building blocks of quantum information theory. They report their results in a paper published in Nature Photonics.

The direct measurement technique was first developed in 2011 by scientists at the National Research Council of Canada to measure the wavefunction—a way of determining the state of a quantum system.

Such direct measurements of the wavefunction had long seemed impossible because of a key tenet of the uncertainty principle—the idea that certain properties of a quantum system could be known only poorly if certain other related properties were known with precision. The ability to make these measurements directly challenges the idea that full understanding of a quantum system could never come from direct observation.

The researchers, led by Robert Boyd, who has appointments at both universities, measured the polarization states of light—the directions in which the electric and magnetic fields of the light oscillate. The key result, like that of the team that pioneered direct measurement, is that it is possible to measure key related variables, known as “conjugate” variables, of a quantum particle or state directly. The polarization states of light can be used to encode information, which is why they can be the basis of qubits in quantum information applications.

“The ability to perform direct measurement of the quantum wavefunction has important future implications for quantum information science,” says Boyd, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Quantum Nonlinear Optics at the University of Ottawa and professor of optics and physics at Rochester. “Ongoing work in our group involves applying this technique to other systems, for example, measuring the form of a “mixed” (as opposed to a pure) quantum state.”

Read more at www.rochester.edu/news.

Support cells found in human brain make mice smarter

astrocyteGlial cells—a family of cells found in the human central nervous system and, until recently, considered mere “housekeepers”—now appear to be essential to the unique complexity of the human brain. Scientists reached this conclusion after demonstrating that when transplanted into mice, these human cells could influence communication within the brain, allowing the animals to learn more rapidly.

The study in the journal Cell Stem Cell suggests that the evolution of a subset of glia called astrocytes—which are larger and more complex in humans than other species—may have been one of the key events that led to the higher cognitive functions that distinguish humans from other species.

“This study indicates that glia are not only essential to neural transmission, but also suggest that the development of human cognition may reflect the evolution of human-specific glial form and function,” says Steven Goldman, the Edward A. and Alma Vollertsen Rykenboer Chair in Neurophysiology and co-senior author of the study. “We believe that this is the first demonstration that human glia have unique functional advantages. This finding also provides us with a fundamentally new model to investigate a range of diseases in which these cells may play a role.”

In recent years, scientists have begun to understand and appreciate the role that glia cells—and more specifically astrocytes—play in brain function.

“The role of the astrocyte is to provide the perfect environment for neural transmission,” says Maiken Nedergaard, cosenior author of the study and director, along with Goldman, of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine. “At the same time, we’ve observed that as these cells have evolved in complexity, size, and diversity—as they have in humans— brain function becomes more and more complex.” Read more at www.urmc.rochester.edu/news.

‘Virtual’ house calls for Parkinson’s patients effective

A study in JAMA Neurology shows that telemedicine checkups for people with Parkinson’s disease can not only provide effective care but also generate a significant economic benefit. The “virtual” visits with physicians— in which the patient participates from their home— demonstrate that quality specialized care can be effectively delivered to individuals in remote locations.

“This study shows that providing specialty care to people with Parkinson’s disease directly into their homes is feasible, saves patients substantial time and travel, and may offer comparable clinical benefits to in-person care,” says Kevin Biglan, associate professor of neurology and the senior author of the study.

One of the major challenges in providing care to Parkinson’s patients is geography. The multifaceted nature of the disease with its complex combination of behavioral, cognitive, and physical symptoms often demands that patients receive care from a physician who focuses on treating neurological disorders. In fact, studies have shown that access to specialized neurological care improves outcomes.

However, specialists who treat movement disorders such as Parkinson’s tend to be found at larger medical centers. Individuals with the disease who live in rural or underserved areas are less likely to have access to a neurologist nearby. Furthermore, the nature of the disease—particularly the impact on muscle control and coordination—can make it difficult to travel long distances to see a specialist.

The study recruited 20 patients from upstate New York and Maryland who were seen by Biglan and E. Ray Dorsey of Johns Hopkins University. Over the next seven months, half of the patients received in-person care, meaning they visited the doctor’s office for their checkups. The other half of the participants received care in their homes using a secure Internet video technology akin to Skype.

While video-based evaluations can have limitations, the researchers have found that Parkinson’s disease is an ideal candidate for telemedicine. “Parkinson’s is a very visual disease,” says Biglan. “You don’t necessarily have to physically touch patients to understand how they are doing.”

At the end of the seven months, the researchers measured the patients’ perception of their quality of life and the level of care they were receiving. They found that the patients who received virtual house calls did as well as those who received in-person care. Read more at www.urmc.rochester.edu/news.

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