Friday, September 28, 2012

Ig Nobel Prizes give cheeky nod to science

Emory primatologist Frans de Waal can add to his long list of honors the 2012 Ig Nobel Prize for Anatomy, for a study about how chimpanzees can identify other individual chimpanzees simply from looking at photographs of their rear ends. Here's a link to the 2008 study: "Faces and Behinds: Chimpanzee Sex Perception."

The Ig Nobel Prizes are handed out each year at Harvard University to recognize research "that first makes you laugh, then makes you think." The Guardian provides a great summary of this year's winners.

Scientific American's Scicurious Brain blog reports that de Waal was happy to win an Ig Nobel Prize, because scientists tend to take themselves too seriously. Scicurious Brain notes that the chimpanzee study was actually less about their butts and more about "gender constructs" and how chimpanzees recognize one another: "What they found that was chimps could easily match the sample butt to the sample face and showed good sex matching, but ONLY in the case of chimps that they knew personally. When it came to the random Facebook friend request, the chimps couldn’t match butt to face." 

Monkeys can recognize faces in photos
Finally, 'Noble Prizes' for animals


Monday, September 24, 2012

The drama over water

Water is now known as the new oil. Blue gold. The axis resource on which the development of all others turns. That humble liquid gushing out of your tap is a strategic commodity, the subject of a U.S. intelligence report that warns of a rising risk of political unrest and war over its increasingly scarce supply worldwide.

It’s also a theatrical headliner. A dance-for-camera drama called “Bend” explores our relationship to water, a relationship set to change dramatically in the face of climate change and other pressures. The video, above, shows a preview of the project, created by Lori Teague, choreographer and director of Emory’s Dance Program, and her husband, Mark Teague, videographer and stage manager at the Schwartz Center.

The public is invited to free, special showings of “Bend” on Thursday, September 27, at 7 pm, 8:30 pm and 10 pm in the Dance Studio of the Schwartz Center. Click here for details.

Behaviors of tiniest water droplets revealed
From Atlanta to Accra: The growing sewage problem
A few things you may not know about water

Friday, September 21, 2012

West Nile virus detected in metro-Atlanta mosquitoes and birds

A total of 3,142 human cases of West Nile virus in the United States, including 134 deaths, have been reported to the CDC so far this year.

Emory students trap mosquitoes for testing.
Cooler weather may reduce the spread of the mosquito-borne virus, but we’re not out of the woods yet. Students from Emory’s Department of Environmental Studies West Nile virus lab are finding a high number of mosquitoes infected with the virus in metro Atlanta parks.

Some birds infected with the virus have also been found in the lab's research sites, including Tanyard Creek Park and Grant Park, says Uriel Kitron, a disease ecologist and chair of the Department of Environmental Studies.

The mosquito that transmits West Nile virus is an evening mosquito, coming out an hour before sunset and staying active through the night, Kitron told Channel 2 Action News. Click here to read more at Channel 2 news web site about the Emory research, and how you can protect yourself from West Nile virus.

Mosquito hunters invent better disease weapon
Mosquito monitoring saves lives and money

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Measuring the healing power of touch

Many people agree that getting a massage makes them feel good. Researchers at Emory University are now quantifying the biological benefits of frequent massage, with the aim of developing potential therapies.

"We really don't know the precise biology of massage right now, but what I can tell you is this: Even in normal individuals, we're able to decrease the production of stress hormones," says Mark Hyman Rapaport, chair of Emory's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. "What we're able to demonstrate now is that repeated massage has an added effect." Watch the video, above to learn more.

The research is funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health.

"The only way we're going to discern what goes on with complementary or alternative treatments," Rapaport says, "is if an impartial funding agency like the federal government is involved in investigating whether there are true biological, beneficial effects associated with these atypical interventions. There may be many different ways to help individuals."

Frequent massage boosts biological benefits
Are hugs the new drugs?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Psychologist takes on ballet's special demons

Nadine Kaslow is the Atlanta Ballet's first resident psychologist. Photo by Ann Borden.

By Sylvia Wrobel, Emory Health

For years, Nadine Kaslow kept her dancing a secret from professors and academic colleagues, fearful they would take her less seriously as a scholar if they knew.

As a fast-track science student at the University of Pennsylvania, she took daily ballet classes and taught in the university’s dance program. During her doctoral studies at the University of Houston, she was invited to join the Houston Ballet. No audition necessary, the director said—he had seen her dance—but she had to lose 15 pounds, a loss that would have left her, at almost 5’ tall, more than 30 pounds lighter than ideal body weight. Later while building her psychology career on the faculty at Yale, she continued ballet classes. And later still as a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory—where she directs the postdoctoral fellowship program in professional psychology and serves as chief psychologist at Grady Hospital—she enrolled in demanding classes at the Atlanta Ballet’s Centre for Dance Education.

"Ballet breeds perfectionism."
There she met Centre Director Sharon Story and Atlanta Ballet Artistic Director John McFall. Soon after, Kaslow was named the Atlanta Ballet’s first resident psychologist. There is no job description. But in consultations and therapy sessions, Kaslow tackles psychological issues faced by the dancers. She also works with parents of younger students and with McFall and Story on employment issues that involve psychological factors. It’s a broad turf that she understands well.

"Dancers are incredible athletes," says Kaslow, "and they face many of the same psychological issues that can interfere with any athlete’s performance—for example, anxiety, injury, or excess competitiveness."

But ballet has its special demons, in part because it is an art in which the dancer’s body is the instrument, finely tuned and incredibly visible.

"Ballet breeds perfectionism," says Kaslow. A little can be good; too much and dancers become so focused on technique, expectations, and mistakes that they can’t enter the flow of the dance itself. Kaslow tries to lead dancers away from a quest for perfectionism toward one for excellence.

For many, perfectionism involves fretting about the body. The classic, streamlined ballet body is long-limbed, flat-chested, and lean. Very lean. The Atlanta Ballet’s nutritionist, Emily Harrison, also a former dancer, helps members of the troupe understand nutrition and deal with their sometimes love/hate relationship with food. For her part, Kaslow helps the dancers deal with guilt associated with food.

Body image issues, prevalent in the larger society, start early in ballet, so Kaslow frequently discusses the subject with parents of pre-professional students. Another issue that begins at an early age: balancing dance with friendships and activities off stage. And a big issue that football players don’t have to face? Many young male dancers have to decide either how to come out to family and friends if they are gay or, even more challenging, how to deal with the constant assumption that they are gay when they aren’t.

The tight-knit ballet company members in Atlanta and elsewhere have their share of romantic entanglements, too, all with the usual potential for psychological fallout but with an extra twist. How do you dance an intimate, highly sexualized pas de deux with a former romantic partner with whom you don’t want to exchange glances, much less publically intertwine?

Professional dancers also have to think about life after ballet—and soon. Most ballet careers end when dancers approach their late 30s. What makes it worse emotionally as well as practically, says Kaslow, is how little most dancers make, how hard even successful dance companies struggle financially.

Today, Kaslow no longer worries how others see her dual life of psychologist and ballerina. She encourages friends and patients alike to find a way to keep their passions alive in their lives.

Former Miss America discusses anorexia
Colleges still a hot spot for eating disorders

Image of ballet slippers: 

Monday, September 17, 2012

NSF chemistry center opens new era in organic synthesis

"Today, more than ever, new products and materials need to be made efficiently, and in an environmentally sustainable way,” says Huw Davies, director of the new center. Photo by Bryan Meltz.

 By Carol Clark

The National Science Foundation has awarded $20 million to Emory University’s Center for Selective C-H Functionalization, which brings together scientists from leading research universities across the country working to revolutionize the field of organic synthesis.

“We believe that C-H functionalization will have a huge impact on the development of new drugs and other fine-chemical products, by breaking new ground for organic synthesis, and making it faster, simpler and greener,” says Huw Davies, professor of chemistry at Emory and the director of the Center for Selective C-H Functionalization, or CCHF.

“The center is at the forefront of a major paradigm shift in organic chemistry,” Davies adds. “We’re not just driving new methods of synthesis, we’re building new models for teaching and research.”

Most of the synthetic products of modern daily life – from our coffee cups and clothes to medications – are derived from organic synthesis. Chemists start with simple, bulk chemicals that are readily accessible, like petroleum and plant extracts. These bulk materials are converted into commodity chemicals and then into finer chemicals through step-by-step transformations. These steps eventually lead to more elaborate structures like plastic, nylon and drugs.

“The challenge, and the art, of organic synthesis is controlling the reaction at each stage of the process,” Davies says. “You want to modify just one reactive site at a time.”

"Our approach could lead to the kind of paradigm shift that would require rewriting the organic chemistry textbooks," Davies says.

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.

“We are designing tools to make the scaffolding functional,” Davies says. “We ignore the reactive groups and do synthesis at the inert C-H sites. We can now get reactions to occur at these sites.”

Ultimately, the CCHF aims to open new chemical space for exploration. “It’s like a farmer being able to grow crops in the desert, or in Antarctica,” Davies explains. “C-H functionalization represents a whole new way for chemists to synthesize materials in what were once barren sites. It opens the possibility for materials that are completely different from anything we’ve known.”

C-H functionalization is also more efficient, stripping out steps from the linear process of traditional organic synthesis, and reducing unwanted byproducts. “Every organic chemical has multiple C-H bonds, like the branching of a tree,” Davies says. “That makes it possible to have convergence, a tremendously fast and powerful way to join two compounds together and build new molecules.”

Emory competed with more than 50 other universities to win a $1.5 million NSF grant in 2009, which funded phase one of the CCHF. “The work of the center is right in the middle of my scientific passion,” says Davies, whose lab developed a rhodium catalyst that can selectively activate C-H bonds.

In addition to the Davies lab, the Emory CCHF team includes chemists Simon Blakey and Cora MacBeth, and computer scientist Jamal Musaev, director of Emory’s Cherry Emerson Center for Scientific Computation. World-class investigators of C-H activation from Stanford, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Scripps Research Institute round out the center’s inaugural team.

“Organic chemistry tends to be incredibly competitive, with people mostly working in isolation,” Davies says. “But we all recognized the grand challenge before us, and developed the trust needed to become an effective team.”

The CCHF recently expanded to include a total of 25 scientists from 15 universities, representing the most comprehensive group of top experts in C-H functionalization ever assembled. The center has also forged alliances with companies in a range of industries, from pharmaceuticals to farming, that are eager to tap sustainable methods for the synthesis of fine chemicals. The collaboration has been prolific, resulting in 25 published papers so far.

“We are changing the field by working together,” says Davies, who holds weekly video-conferencing sessions that unite the center’s far-flung members. “We’re pulling together the range of expertise needed to go beyond our individual research programs and develop broad applications of C-H functionalization.”

Graduate students serve as liaisons, bridging labs and specialties. Felicia Fullilove, a PhD candidate in the Davies lab, is collaborating with a chemical engineer at the Scripps Research Institute, where she will spend some time this fall.

“It’s great experience to venture outside of our group and bounce ideas off of someone with a different perspective,” Fullilove says. “It’s changed the way I think about chemistry. Most big science problems now require more of a team effort, so it’s important to learn how to communicate across specialties.”

Fullilove especially appreciated the chance to travel with a CCHF team to Washington DC, to help make the case for the $20 million grant to move the center into its second phase. “We had to make presentations and answer some tough questions before a panel,” she says. “I learned a lot by seeing the inner workings of the grant process.”

The CCHF is now poised to help C-H functionalization enter the mainstream of organic chemistry, Davies says. “We will keep building on the synergy and trust we’ve created,” Davies says. “Collaboration will help us to make advances faster.”

Many hurdles remain, he adds, before C-H functionalization can be fully optimized for broad applications. “Our goal is to make available a suite of chemical transformations for bond formation that are predictable, general and utilitarian,” Davies says. “It’s going to be an incredibly difficult thing to achieve completely, but even if we partially achieve it, that will be a huge advance for chemistry and for society. Today, more than ever, new products and materials need to be made efficiently, and in an environmentally sustainable way.”

Take a video tour of the Huw Davies lab at Emory
NSF Center aims to simplify drug synthesis

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Your brain in love, and in lust

By Lisa Newbern

Why does love make us do crazy things?

In the new book "The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex and the Science of Attraction," Emory neuroscientist Larry Young and journalist Brian Alexander draw on human stories and research from around the world to flesh out the behaviors that govern our lives, such as physical attraction, infidelity and mother-infant bonding, and explain how our brains exert control over some of the most important and tumultuous decisions and events of our lives.

Their book expands on Young’s research on the social neuroscience of bonding, most famously in voles, suggesting that what we call love is really the result of neurochemicals acting on defined brain circuits.

They move from that simple premise to profound concepts about gender, sexuality, monogamy, infidelity, lust, parenting and the social and cultural implications of them all. The authors explain the science behind questions such as:

Why is there a female and a male brain – and what does that mean for our understanding of gender and sexuality?

What’s the difference in brain chemistry between a woman with a new baby and one with a new boyfriend? (Hint: Not much.)

Why do we cheat on our spouses, and are some of us genetically more likely to cheat?

Young is chief of the division of behavioral neuroscience at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, the director of the Center for Translational Social Neuroscience at Emory and a professor of psychiatry at Emory’s School of Medicine.

Alexander is the author of several books, including "Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion" and "America Unzipped: The Search for Sex and Satisfaction."

“This lively book by a great neuroscientist and a savvy writer is the first popular account to tie together what we have learned about the chemistry of sex, love and family bonds," says Emory psychologist Frans de Waal. "Progress in this field has been nothing short of breathtaking, and Larry Young is recognized as its leading pioneer. The way our brains react when boy meets girl determines the stability of marriage and the future of the human family.”

Young's work focuses on understanding the genetic and neurobiological mechanisms underlying complex social behaviors, including social bonding and social attachments. This work has important implications for psychiatric disorders characterized by disruption in social cognition, including autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia. Young and his colleagues not only want to better understand the social brain, they want to develop new treatment strategies for improving social functioning.

The science of love
How early nurturing affects adult love

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Psychopathic boldness tied to U.S. presidential success

After a gunman shot him in the chest in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt went ahead and delivered a scheduled speech, blood leaking onto his shirt. "Friends," he began, "I don't know whether you fully understand that I've just been shot. But it takes more than that to bring down a Bull Moose." Click on the medical X-ray, above, for a better view of the bullet (lower left).

By Carol Clark

The fearless dominance associated with psychopathy may be an important predictor of U.S. presidential performance, suggests an analysis published this week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“Certain psychopathic traits may be like a double-edged sword,” says lead author Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist at Emory University. “Fearless dominance, for example, may contribute to reckless criminality and violence, or to skillful leadership in the face of a crisis.”

In fact, fearless dominance, linked to low social and physical apprehensiveness, appears to correlate with better-rated presidential performance for leadership, persuasiveness, crisis management and Congressional relations, the analysis showed.

Theodore Roosevelt ranked highest in fearless dominance, followed by John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Rutherford Hayes, Zachary Taylor, Bill Clinton, Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson and George W. Bush.

John F. Kennedy in PT-109 during his Navy years.
The analysis drew upon personality assessments of 42 presidents, up to George W. Bush, compiled by 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.

The rich historical data on presidents, combined with detailed expert rankings, provided a window into an emerging theory that some aspects of psychopathy may actually be positive adaptations in certain social situations.

“The way many people think about mental illness is too cut-and-dried,” Lilienfeld says. “Certainly, full-blown psychopathy is maladaptive and undesirable. But what makes the psychopathic personality so interesting is that it’s not defined by a single trait, but a constellation of traits.”

A clinical psychopath encompasses myriad characteristics, such as fearless social dominance, self-centered impulsivity, superficial charm, guiltlessness, callousness, dishonesty and immunity to anxiety. Each of these traits lies along a continuum, and all individuals may exhibit one of more of these traits to some degree.

“You can think of it like height and weight,” Lilienfeld explains. “Everyone has some degree of both, and they’re continuously distributed in the population.”

Andrew Jackson, shown standing on a parapet during the Battle of New Orleans, earned the nickname "Old Hickory," due to his toughness and aggressive personality.

The results of the analysis raise the possibility that the boldness often associated with psychopathy may confer advantages over a variety of occupations involving power and prestige, from politics to business, law, athletics and the military.

The findings also add to the debate over the idea of the so-called “successful psychopath,” an individual with psychopathic traits who rises to a position of power in the workplace.

“We believe more research is needed into the implications of boldness for leadership in general,” Lilienfeld says.

The analysis found that the link between fearless dominance and political performance was linear, Lilienfeld notes, but he added that at the extremes, boldness might veer into a form of recklessness that would be detrimental.

Lyndon B. Johnson giving "the treatment" to Georgia Senator Richard Russell. Johnson would dominate an encounter by standing inches away from a visitor's face, bombarding his guest with an intense monologue.

The researchers also looked at presidential scores for self-centered impulsivity, which in contrast to boldness, was linked to some negative job performance indicators, including Congressional impeachment resolutions, tolerating unethical behavior in subordinates and negative character. 

Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, ranked the highest for fearless dominance, but lower than average for self-centered impulsivity, suggesting that he was far from being psychopathic.

Lyndon Johnson, however, ranked relatively high for fearless dominance (15th) and was among the top-five scorers for self-centered impulsivity. “That’s consistent with what we know about Johnson,” Lilienfeld says. “He was a very dominant, socially bold person, at times even ruthless about getting his way. In some sense, these traits may have made him an effective leader, able to push through civil rights legislation, but they may not have been so positive in terms of personal relationships.” 

Other co-authors of the analysis include Emory psychologist Irwin Waldman, former graduate student Kristin Landfield, and Ashley Watts, now a first-year graduate student in Emory’s clinical psychology program.

Does lack of fear drive psychopaths?

Credits: All images via Wikipedia Commons.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

When doing favors, monkeys don't keep score

By Lisa Newbern

While exchanging favors with others, humans tend to think in terms of tit-for-tat, an assumption easily extended to other animals. As a result, reciprocity is often viewed as a cognitive feat requiring memory, perhaps even calculation. But what if the process is simpler, not only in other animals but in humans as well?

Humans may not be unique in the ability to assist strangers.
Researchers at Emory’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center have determined monkeys may gain the advantages of reciprocal exchange of favors without necessarily keeping precise track of past favors. Malini Suchak, an Emory graduate student, and psychologist Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at Yerkes, led the study. Their findings will appear online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week.

"Prosocial is defined as a motivation to assist others regardless of benefits for self,” Suchak explained. "We used a prosocial choice test to study whether direct reciprocity could promote generosity among brown capuchin monkeys. We found one monkey willing to do another favors if the first monkey was the only one to choose, and we found the monkeys became even more prosocial if they could alternate and help each other. We did not find any evidence that the monkeys paid close attention to each other's past choices, so they were prosocial regardless of what their partner had just done.”

Suchak and de Waal suggest the synchronization of the same actions in alternation creates a more positive attitude the same way humans who row a boat together or work toward a shared goal develop a more positive attitude about each other.

The capuchin monkeys were prosocial whether they were paired with a familiar partner from their own group or a partner from a different social group.

"This research has several implications for better understanding human behavior,” de Waal said. “First, we observed an increase in prosocial behavior as a result of reciprocity, but the monkeys did not develop a contingency between their own and their partners' behaviors. Like humans, the capuchins may have understood the benefits of reciprocity and used this understanding to maximize their own benefits. Second, that the capuchins responded similarly to in-group and out-group partners has implications for the commonly held view that humans are unique in their ability to cooperate with strangers.”

The researchers tested 12 brown capuchin monkeys in pairs on a prosocial choice task. The monkeys had the choice between a selfish token that benefited only them and a prosocial token that benefited themselves and a partner. By comparing each monkey's behavior with a familiar partner from the monkey's own group and a partner from a different social group, the researchers examined the influence of each monkey's relationship outside the experimental context on prosocial behavior. There was no difference between in-group and out-group pairs in any of the test conditions. To test the role of reciprocity, the researchers allowed the monkeys to take turns making choices and found this greatly increased prosocial behavior, but the researchers did not observe any tit-for-tat behavior.

The researchers also tested whether the monkeys could overcome their aversion for inequity by creating a situation in which both individuals could provide each other with superior rewards, making reciprocity an even more attractive strategy. The monkeys did, but again without keeping track of each other's choices.

Finally, through a series of control conditions, the researchers established the monkeys were responding to their partners' behaviors, rather than the rewards delivered by their partners, and that the monkeys understood the values of the tokens and were flexibly responding to changing conditions throughout the test sessions.

Capuchin economics: Monkeys respond to unequal pay
Hugs go way back in evolution