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September 29, 2016

Research Notes

Does preconception stress affect neurodevelopment?

young worried woman suffering stress doing domestic accounting pThe effects of stress on childhood development during gestation are well studied, but a team of researchers now will examine the effects of preconception stress with a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) of about $14 million over seven years. The grant is part of NIH’s $157 million just-announced Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program.

Said Alison E. Hipwell, study co-principal investigator and faculty member in psychiatry in the School of Medicine and psychology in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences: “Our goal is to test the hypothesis that preconception environmental-stress exposure will predict deficits in offspring neurodevelopment through alterations in the mother’s capacity to regulate stress during pregnancy. However, we also expect that the mother’s nutrition status prior to pregnancy will buffer these negative effects on offspring outcomes.”

The study will build on the Pittsburgh Girls Study, a longitudinal study of 2,450 urban-living young women for whom the timing and chronicity of multiple stress exposures such as family difficulties and exposure to violence have been robustly measured for the past 16 years spanning childhood through early adulthood.

Hipwell has been involved in the scientific direction and day-to-day operations of the Pittsburgh Girls Study for the past 15 years, first as a co-investigator and more recently as co-principal investigator.

Biomarkers of preconception stress exposure and nutrition will be assessed in early adulthood. Study participants who become pregnant over the period of award will complete three psychophysiological assessments of stress regulation during pregnancy, and placental function will be assessed. The children’s neurodevelopment then will be assessed across the first three years of life.

“The findings from this study will advance knowledge on important periods of vulnerability to optimize prenatal health and child growth and development, especially among those living in stressful environments,” said Hipwell.

Hipwell and a co-principal investigator from the University of Chicago will be joined by Pitt faculty Susan Perlman, Stephanie Stepp, Theodore Huppert, Hyagriv Simhan and Robert Krafty.

set of colored activity trackers or fitness bracelets, 3D renderActivity trackers not reliable tools for weight loss

Wearable devices that monitor physical activity are not reliable tools for weight loss, says a new study from the School of Education’s Department of Health and Physical Activity. The study specifically investigated whether regular use of commercially available activity trackers is effective for producing and sustaining weight loss.

At the conclusion of a 24-month trial, researchers observed that usage of a wearable device in combination with a behavioral weight loss program resulted in less weight loss when compared to those receiving only the behavioral weight loss program. In fact, participants without physical activity trackers showed nearly twice the weight loss at the end of the 24 months. Participants who used wearable devices reported an average weight loss of 7.7 pounds, while those who took part only in health counseling reported an average loss of 13 pounds.

The researchers concluded that devices that monitor and provide feedback on physical activity do not offer an advantage over standard weight loss approaches that include behavioral counseling on physical activity and diet. Thus, while these devices allow for ease of tracking of physical activity along with feedback and encouragement, they may not enhance adherence to the tenets of a healthy lifestyle, which is the most important aspect of any weight loss regimen.

Said John Jakicic, the study’s lead researcher and chair of the health and physical activity department: “While usage of wearable devices is currently a popular method to track physical activity — steps taken per day or calories burned during a workout — our findings show that adding them to behavioral counseling for weight loss that includes physical activity and reduced calorie intake does not improve weight loss or physical activity engagement. Therefore, within this context, these devices should not be relied upon as tools for weight management in place of effective behavioral counseling for physical activity and diet.”

The study appears in JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. It followed 470 individuals 18-35 with a body mass index of 25-39 at the start of the trial. Approximately 77 percent of participants were women and 29 percent were from minority communities.

All participants were placed on low-calorie diets, prescribed increases in physical activity and received group-counseling sessions on health and nutrition. They participated in weekly health-counseling sessions for the initial six months and less frequent counseling for the last 18 months. Weight was assessed at six-month intervals throughout the 24-month trial.

At the first six-month mark, participants were divided into two subgroups: Both continued health-counseling sessions but members of one group also received a wearable device to monitor diet and physical activity. The multisensor device used within the study was to be worn on the upper arm and provided feedback on energy expenditure and physical activity. A website was designed to monitor results.

Over the subsequent 18 months, both groups showed significant improvements in body composition, fitness, physical activity and diet, with no significant difference between groups. However, those who received health counseling throughout the study lost nearly twice as much weight as those who used wearable devices for three-quarters of it.

“The findings of our study are important because effective long-term treatments are needed to address America’s obesity epidemic,” said Jakicic. “We’ve found that questions remain regarding the effectiveness of wearable devices and how to best use them to modify physical activity and diet behaviors in adults seeking weight loss.”

Other Pitt faculty researchers participating in the study were Kelliann K. Davis, Renee J. Rogers, Wendy C. King, Abdus S. Wahed and Steven H. Belle. Colleagues from Bastyr University and Slippery Rock University also contributed.

How do liquids interact in solids?

The collapse of Washington State’s Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940 is a textbook example of how harmonic resonance can cause structural failure. Likewise, in principle, similar phenomena could occur in the delicate vessels and arteries in the human body. Researchers at the Swanson School of Engineering are using a $121,027 National Science Foundation (NSF) award to study the interaction of a viscous liquid within a solid body and investigate which mathematical models best describe the phenomena.

Principal investigator of the three-year study is Giovanni P. Galdi, Leighton E. and Mary N. Orr Professor of Mechanical Engineering and faculty member in mathematics.

Said Galdi: “The study of the motion of a viscous liquid in the presence of rigid or deformable bodies has become one of the main focuses of applied research. However, there is a lack of a rigorous explanation of the phenomena [to] identify the good versus bad mathematical models. Our first goal is to study the blood flow model, and then to examine when a liquid is impinging on an elastic framework.”

In the context of modeling of arterial blood flow, it is important to determine whether, for a given model, the pulsatile action of the heart pumping blood would produce an unrealistic high-amplitude oscillation of the arterial wall. While under normal circumstances such a condition would not occur, better understanding the models would give researchers more insight into how the circulatory system operates.

The second goal will be to examine the vortex-induced oscillations of a structure in the uniform stream of a viscous liquid.

“Just like blood flowing through an artery, wind acts like a fluid when it impacts a solid structure,” Galdi said. “For example, you can see it in action when a flag waves in a strong wind. We utilize mathematical models to determine the quantitative relation between magnitude of upstream velocity and frequency of oscillation, which are critical when designing larger structures like bridges and office towers.

“Fluid mechanics plays such an important role in everything from the human body to construction to even the potential for nano-sized robots, so this research can help to identify the most appropriate models to use,” he said.

teen reading.Sleep habits of adolescents linked to drug, alcohol use

A study led by researchers from the Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine and the Department of Psychology in the Dietrich school has identified a possible link between adolescent sleep habits and early substance abuse. The study, published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, found that both sleep duration and sleep quality during late childhood predict alcohol and cannabis use later in adolescence.

Said Brant P. Hasler, faculty member in psychiatry and psychology and lead author of the study: “Treating problems with drugs and alcohol once they exist and preventing them can be challenging, and we are always looking for modifiable risk factors. Doing what we can to ensure sufficient sleep duration and improve sleep quality during late childhood may have benefits in terms of reducing the use of these substances later in life.”

Researchers analyzed 186 boys from western Pennsylvania whose mothers completed the child sleep questionnaire as part of a larger longitudinal study of low-income boys examining factors associated with vulnerability and resilience. Based on questionnaire results from when the boys were 11 years old, their sleep time and sleep quality were calculated. At ages 20 and 22, the young men were interviewed about lifetime cannabis and alcohol use.

After accounting for race, socioeconomic problems, neighborhood danger, self-regulation and internalizing and externalizing problems, both sleep duration and sleep quality at age 11 were associated with early substance use throughout adolescence.

The study participants who slept the least, compared to the participants who slept the most, were more likely to report earlier use, intoxication and repeated use of both alcohol and cannabis. Every hour less of sleep at age 11 was associated with a 20 percent acceleration to the first use of alcohol and/or cannabis, Hasler added.

Worse sleep quality was associated with earlier alcohol use, intoxication and repeated use. Worse sleep quality also was associated with earlier cannabis intoxication and repeated use, but not first use.

“After considering other possible influences, we were able to determine that sleep problems are preceding the substance use problems,” Hasler added. “Addressing sleep may now be something we can add into the package of our substance abuse prevention and treatment efforts.”

The research was funded by NIH.

bambooBamboo’s building properties studied

Although bamboo has been used as a building material for millennia, only recently have public and private organizations studied the plant’s mechanical properties and worked toward developing construction standards. To further that research, engineering faculty at the Swanson school and the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez received a $300,000 NSF award to develop materials- and mechanics-based models for the behavior of full-culm (hollow tube) bamboo as a functionally graded, fiber-reinforced material.

Principal investigator of the grant is Kent Harries, faculty member in civil and environmental engineering.

The research is part of the recently formed Nonconventional Engineering Materials Initiative at Pitt.

Said Harries: “In its natural full-culm state, bamboo has evolved to efficiently resist a variety of environmental loads, which is why it makes a superb building material. However, only in the past few decades have we begun to apply engineering principles to its use so that we can expand its application as a sustainable construction material. This award will enable us to apply materials and mechanical engineering principles to modeling, field tests and design equations, thereby placing bamboo on the same engineering footing as more conventional materials such as wood.”

Harries noted that, in developing regions, standardization of non-conventional building materials serves technical, ecological and social goals that let rural communities directly participate in construction of safe and reliable housing as well as sustainably develop local economies. In particular, this project will leverage local resources in Puerto Rico and Haiti to sponsor a variety of training and educational activities deployed in four languages — English, Spanish, French, and Haitian Creole.

Harries said, “Full-culm bamboo provides the potential of utilizing a sustainable, durable and affordable resource for housing, emergency shelters and other traditional building applications.”

Newer radiation technique has fewer side effects for recurrent head & neck cancer

When a patient’s cancer comes back, he or she is often left with limited treatment options and higher odds of debilitating side effects. But a University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) study presented at the American Society for Radiation Oncology 2016 annual meeting had positive news for people with recurrent head and neck cancer.

Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT), a technique for delivering pinpoint radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors, resulted in only half as many patients with recurrent head and neck cancer suffering severe, long-term side effects as compared to previously reported studies using more traditional treatment techniques.

This discovery by UPCI scientists was made in the largest and longest follow-up analysis to date of patients with recurrent head and neck cancer treated with SBRT. The findings make SBRT a more attractive possibility for patients with few options left.

Said researcher Diane Ling, a resident in UPCI’s radiation oncology residency program: “We’re hoping that data like this will help physicians and patients understand and weigh their individual risks and benefits when deciding whether to pursue SBRT.”

Ling and her colleagues reviewed the outcomes of 291 patients treated by UPMC CancerCenter who had recurrent, previously irradiated head and neck cancer between April 2002 and March 2013.

In particular, they were looking for acute toxicity, such as severe difficulty swallowing or painful irritation of the mucosal lining while undergoing SBRT, or late toxicity, such as long-term difficulty swallowing or deterioration of the jawbone that begins anywhere from three months to more than five years after radiation.

Overall, 11.3 percent of patients experienced acute toxicity and 18.9 percent experienced late toxicity. Previous studies using older treatment techniques put those rates at closer to 40 percent.

The analysis also revealed that the location of the cancer recurrence was an important factor in the severity of the patient’s side effects. When it is on the larynx (voice box) or hypopharynx (beside and behind the voice box), the rate of long-term, severe side effects is typically worse by about 50 percent.

“Toxicity, particularly late toxicity, can significantly affect the quality of life in patients who survive cancer,” said Ling. “We can treat somebody’s cancer and possibly cure them, but if they are left with severely debilitating quality-of-life issues, what did we accomplish? It’s very encouraging to know that we can offer a treatment option with a relatively low rate of severe toxicity for most patients.”

Additional authors from both cancer centers were John Vargo, Robert L. Ferris, James Ohr, David A. Clump, Wai-ying Wendy Yau, Umamaheswar Duvvuri, Seungwon Kim, Jonas T. Johnson, Julie E. Bauman, Barton Branstetter and Dwight E. Heron.


—Compiled by Marty Levine

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