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September 11, 2008


Carbon sequestration research begins

Bill Harbert, working with researchers at the Department of Energy/National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in Pittsburgh, has initiated a seismic reflection study to investigate the effectiveness of carbon dioxide injection as a means of carbon sequestration and enhanced oil production.

Harbert, professor in the Department of Geology and Planetary Science, was awarded grants totaling nearly $1.4 million from NETL during the past year in addition to an earlier donation from WesternGeco of a seismic truck worth $1 million.

In this project, reflection seismic methods will be used to image CO2 migration at an injection site before and at six-month intervals following injection.

Working with the Southwest Regional Partnership on Carbon Sequestration, Harbert and his team will construct geodatabases related to risk assessment of CO2 sequestration.

Rock core materials from previously interpreted oil field wells will be tested in the NETL core flow laboratory to determine acoustic velocities. The measurements will be correlated with the seismic reflection survey, providing a bridge between the geological units and their representation in the collected reflection seismic datasets. Continued work will add subsurface, reflection seismic, well lithology, wire line log and other information to the database.


Grant funds blindness research

The Research to Prevent Blindness organization has awarded a $110,000 grant to the School of Medicine’s Department of Ophthalmology. Department chair Joel Schuman received the grant to direct department-wide research into the causes, treatment and prevention of blinding diseases.


Might hookahs hook even nonsmokers?

A School of Medicine study examining water pipe usage among college students has found the use of a hookah to be about as common as cigarette smoking.

A survey of 647 undergraduate and graduate students at Pitt found 41 percent had tried smoking tobacco from a water pipe, slightly higher than the 39.6 percent who said they had smoked cigarettes.

In addition, survey responses showed that 30.5 percent had smoked tobacco from a hookah in the past year and that 9.5 percent had done so in the past 30 days.

Interestingly, of those who had smoked tobacco from a water pipe in the past year, 35.4 percent had never smoked a cigarette.

The results raise concern because hookah smoking engages many young students who would otherwise have been tobacco-free, noted Brian Primack, assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics and lead author of the study. “Clearly young people believe hookah smoking is somehow different than smoking cigarettes, but water pipe smoke has many of the same chemicals as cigarette smoke and likely poses many of the same health risks,” he said.

The study noted, “The effects of water pipe use in non-smokers are particularly worrisome because it engages them in tobacco use when they may have otherwise remained tobacco naive.” Whether water pipe use puts those who do not smoke cigarettes at risk for nicotine dependence — either from water pipe tobacco itself or as a “gateway” to cigarette use — is unknown, the researchers reported.

About one-third of respondents believed that hookah smoking was less harmful than cigarette smoking, and more than half believed that water pipe smoking was less addictive than cigarette smoking. Of the sample, 36.4 percent considered hookah smoking as “very socially acceptable.” More than 40 percent of the participants said they intend to smoke tobacco from a water pipe in the future. Intention to smoke in the future was stated by 87.8 percent of annual users and 20.5 percent of non-users.

The perception of reduced risk may help explain why some nonsmokers use water pipes. Interestingly, researchers found that perceived harm was less strongly related to hookah use than perceived addictiveness.

“Future research should investigate whether perceived harm may be less influential than perceived addictiveness in a student’s decision to smoke a water pipe,” researchers stated. Perceived peer acceptability and perceived popularity of water pipe smoking also were strong predictors of use. “These results suggest that educational interventions aimed at reducing perceived peer acceptability and popularity may be effective,” the researchers stated.

Other Pitt co-authors of the study were Jaime Sidani, Student Health Service; Aaron A. Agarwal, Center for Research on Health Care, and Eric C. Donny, Department of Psychology.


Center awarded $10M to study schizophrenia

Pitt has received a $10 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to support the new Conte Center for the Neuroscience of Mental Disorders (CCNMD). The center, which links investigators from Pitt’s School of Medicine and School of Arts and Sciences as well as the Pitt-Carnegie Mellon University Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, will focus on developing new treatments for schizophrenia. 

CCNMD director David A. Lewis, UPMC endowed professor of translational neuroscience at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, said, “The center provides a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the neurobiology of schizophrenia and includes specialists in molecular neurobiology, systems and computational neuroscience, brain imaging and clinical psychiatry. Our goal is to understand how schizophrenia affects brain function, to identify new treatments and to develop better ways to assess the effectiveness of those treatments.” 

The center’s research is based on the widely replicated observation that expression of a gene that synthesizes the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is reduced in the brains of individuals with schizophrenia. GABA is essential for core cognitive processes such as working memory.

CCNMD investigators are working to understand how reduced GABA could lead to impairments in brain function that are typical of schizophrenia.

Pitt project and core leaders on the grant include Raymond Cho, Guillermo Gonzalez-Burgos, Gordon Frankle and Mary Phillips of the Department of Psychiatry; Chester Mathis, Department of Radiology; Allan Sampson, Department of Statistics, and Bard Ermentrout, Department of Mathematics.


Hot or cold? Cravings impact quitting

A new study by researchers at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University sheds light on why smokers’ intentions to quit often don’t stick.

If smokers aren’t yearning for a cigarette when they make the decision to kick the habit — and most aren’t — then they aren’t able to foresee how they will feel when they need a nicotine buzz.

Published in the September issue of Psychological Science, the study, “Exploring the Cold-to-Hot Empathy Gap in Smokers,” bolsters the theory that smokers who are not craving a cigarette will underestimate and underpredict the intensity of their future urge to smoke.

Pitt psychology professor Michael Sayette, the study’s lead investigator, said: “We have observed previously that the idea of smoking a cigarette becomes increasingly attractive to smokers while they are craving. This study suggests that when smokers are not craving, they fail to appreciate just how powerful their cravings will be. This lack of insight while not craving may lead them to make decisions — such as choosing to attend a party where there will be lots of smoking — that they may come to regret.”

The study looked at the tendency for people in a “cold” state (not influenced by a craving) to mispredict their own behavior when in a “hot” state, in part because they can’t remember the intensity of their past cravings.

The researchers divided 98 smokers into “hot,” “cold” and comparison groups for two study sessions.

Members of the “hot” group had been asked to abstain from smoking for 12 hours prior to the first session, then were induced to crave a cigarette by holding, but not smoking, a lit one. Members of the “cold” group were not asked to abstain prior to the session and did not hold a lit cigarette. The comparison group did not attend the initial session.

Smokers in all three groups were required to abstain from smoking for 12 hours prior to the second session and all had to hold, but not smoke a lit cigarette.

During the first session, participants were asked to indicate the minimum amount of money they would need to delay smoking for five minutes in the second session, when all participants would be in a “hot” state.

During the second session, when the subjects in all three groups were craving, they were given the chance to revise the amount of money they would need to delay smoking for five minutes. As expected, the “cold” smokers from the first session were much less likely to predict accurately how much the craving would mean to them.

In the second session, nearly half of the “cold” smokers requested an amount of money higher than what they had initially predicted, while only a quarter of the “hot” group did so.

Study co-author George Loewenstein, the Herbert A. Simon Professor of Economics and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon, said, “These findings suggest that smokers are likely to underpredict their own future desire to smoke when they’re not craving a cigarette. The research not only has implications for helping smokers quit, but it also enlightens us on how nonsmokers may pick up the habit. If smokers can’t appreciate the intensity of their need to smoke when they aren’t currently craving, what’s the likelihood that people who have never smoked can do so?” 


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