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December 01, 2015

In Research

What ‘drives’ curiosity research?

little boy, holding a magnifying glass while sitting cross-leggedScientists have been studying curiosity since the 19th century, but combining techniques from several fields now makes it possible for the first time to study it with full scientific rigor, according to the authors of a new paper.

Benjamin Hayden and Celeste Kidd, researchers in brain and cognitive sciences, are proposing that scientists use those techniques to focus on curiosity’s function, evolution, mechanism, and development, rather than on what it is and what it isn’t.

“Curiosity is a long-standing problem that is fascinating but has been difficult to approach scientifically,” says Hayden, an assistant professor and coauthor of a “Perspective” article published in Neuron.

“Researchers have developed formal and quantifiable techniques for studying curiosity, and we think it’s worth getting the word out,” Hayden says. “There are people working in a number of disciplines who may not be aware of each other’s work, but who should be.”

The authors also noted that the study of curiosity overlaps with ADHD and other attentional disorders. For most of us, curiosity helps us to learn things with personal relevance. But these disorders could impair attention in a way that prompts interest in unimportant information.

“Everything in life involves trade-offs,” says coauthor Kidd, assistant professor and codirector of the Rochester Baby Lab and Rochester Kid Lab. “If we spend time watching a TV show because we are curious about what happened, then we spend less time working on our jobs. So there is definitely a balance, and too much curiosity can be harmful.”

Hayden and Kidd hope that in addition to the understanding of how curiosity is affected by disease, future research will bring new information about how curiosity is controlled, how it differs between childhood and adulthood, and the link between curiosity and learning.


Formula for pi turns up in quantum mechanics

Two Rochester scientists were surprised to find the mathematical constant pi lurking in a quantum mechanics formula for the energy states of the hydrogen atom.

“We didn’t just find pi,” says Tamar Friedmann, a visiting assistant professor of mathematics and coauthor of a paper published in the Journal of Mathematical Physics.
“We found the classic 17th-century Wallis formula for pi, making us the first to derive it from physics, in general, and quantum mechanics, in particular.”

The Wallis formula—developed by British mathematician John Wallis in his book Arithmetica Infinitorum—defines pi as the product of an infinite string of ratios made up of integers. For Friedmann, discovering the Wallis formula for pi in a quantum mechanics formula for the hydrogen atom’s energy states underscores pi’s omnipresence in math and science.

“The value of pi has taken on a mythical status, in part, because it’s impossible to write it down with 100 percent accuracy,” Friedmann says. “It cannot even be accurately expressed as a ratio of integers, and is, instead, best represented as a formula.”

Friedmann did not set out to look for pi nor for the Wallis formula. The discovery began in a quantum mechanics course taught by Carl Hagen, a professor of physics.
While the quantum calculations developed by Danish physicist Niels Bohr in the early 20th century give accurate values for the energy states of hydrogen, Hagen wanted his students to use an alternate method—called the variational principle—to approximate the value for the ground state of the hydrogen atom.

Like the Wallis formula, the variational principle dates to the 17th century, one of its first appearances being the principle of least time of mathematician Pierre de Fermat, a contemporary of Wallis. Hagen also started thinking about whether it would be possible to apply the method to states other than the ground state. Hagen got Friedmann involved to take advantage of her ability to work in both physics and mathematics. Their calculations resulted in an expression involving special mathematical functions called gamma functions, leading to the formula for pi.

“What surprised me is that the formula occurred in such a natural way in the calculations, with no circles involved in determining the energy states,” says Hagen, coauthor of the paper.


Study identifies patient priorities in treating rare muscular dystrophy

A new study of individuals with myotonic dystrophy type 2 (DM2)—a rare form of muscular dystrophy—has helped pinpoint the symptoms of the disease that are most important to patients. The findings, published in the journal Neurology, could help create a road map for physicians to prioritize treatment of the complex, multisystem disease.

“This study represents the first large-scale attempt to obtain direct patient input to identify the most prevalent and life-altering symptoms of myotonic dystrophy type 2,” says lead author Chad Heatwole, associate professor of neurology. “This information helps us to better understand the complexities of the disease from a patient’s perspective and may ultimately prove useful in the clinical management and early diagnosis of patients with this condition.”

Myotonic dystrophy has been characterized as one of the most complex and diverse genetic diseases with a constellation of symptoms ranging from fatigue, muscle stiffness, muscle weakness, cognitive impairment, depression, difficulty sleeping, impaired vision, pain, difficulty swallowing, and gastrointestinal problems. The severity and onset of symptoms vary from patient to patient.

The new study represents the first effort to understand both the prevalence of the range of symptoms that patients experience and which symptoms had the greatest impact on their lives.

The researchers found that the most common symptoms weren’t necessarily the same ones that the patients identified as priorities. For example, while “inability to do activities,” “limitations with mobility and walking,” and “hip, thigh, or knee weakness” were very prevalent symptoms, patients identified “fatigue” and “pain” along with an “inability to do activities” as the elements of the disease that had the greatest impact on their daily lives.


Harnessing the brain’s immune system to fight Alzheimer’s

A new study appearing in the Journal of Neuroinflammation suggests that the brain’s immune system could potentially be harnessed to help clear the amyloid plaques that are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

“This research confirms earlier observations that, when activated to fight inflammation, the brain’s immune system plays a role in the removal of amyloid beta,” says lead author M. Kerry O’Banion, professor of neurobiology and anatomy. “We have also demonstrated that the immune system can be manipulated in a manner that accelerates this process, potentially pointing to a new therapeutic approach to Alzheimer’s disease.”

The findings are the culmination of years of investigation that were triggered when O’Banion and his colleagues made a surprising discovery while studying mouse models of Alzheimer’s. They observed that amyloid beta plaques—which scientists believe play a major role in the disease—were being cleared in animals with chronic brain inflammation.

“While we still need to fully understand the complexity and potential unintended consequences of this approach, it is clear that microglia play an important role in the removal of amyloid beta from the brain and may represent a novel approach to treating this disease,” O’Banion says.


Study sheds light on health needs of adults with autism

While the spotlight of autism research generally shines on children, research at the Medical Center shows that adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are more likely to suffer serious health problems like seizure disorders and depression. The study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, reveals a need for greater advocacy and awareness to ensure that adults with autism have access to appropriate and effective care.

“Autism is one of the most common neurodevelopmental conditions in childhood, estimated to affect 1 in 68 children. Although it has been extensively studied in children, little is known about health conditions in adults with autism,” says lead author Robert Fortuna, assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics in primary care at the School of Medicine and Dentistry.

“This study highlights the importance of careful monitoring of their health status and urges us to examine best practices to facilitate their access to high-quality health care,” says senior author Philip Davidson, professor emeritus of pediatrics, environmental medicine, and psychiatry.

Comparing information from 255 adults ages 18 to 71 with ASD to a similar group of the general population, researchers found that adults with autism are more likely to suffer seizure disorders and depression. The higher prevalence of seizure disorders is noteworthy because it is associated with shorter life expectancy in adults with ASD and an increased need for assistance with daily living activities. Young adults with autism also had higher rates of hypertension, high cholesterol, allergies, and anxiety.

“Adults with autism frequently face barriers to accessing health care and receiving recommended treatments for common problems,” Fortuna says. “Therefore, greater awareness is needed to ensure that adults with autism are treated for conditions that are more prevalent with autism as well as conditions that are commonly encountered with advancing age.”


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