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September 16, 2010

Research Notes

Brains differ in depressed new moms

Certain areas of the brain in women with postpartum depression react less to images of scared or angry faces compared to mothers who are well, according to a study by School of Medicine researchers to be published in the September issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry. The researchers also found a reduction in brain activity that was associated with greater impairment of maternal attachment processes.

Eydie L. Moses-Kolko, lead author and psychiatry faculty member, said: “The birth of a child is a greatly anticipated and desired life event, but it is paradoxically accompanied by maternal depression in 15 percent of new moms. With our research, we are hoping to gain greater mechanistic understanding of postpartum depression, namely what is going on in the brains of depressed mothers.”

For the study, researchers compared 14 depressed and 16 healthy mothers, all of whom delivered a healthy term infant in the preceding 12 weeks, were medication-free and had given birth previously to another child. Mothers were assessed using functional MRI to look at brain activity in relationship to prenatal depression, anxiety and function, as well as with a questionnaire to determine attachment quality, hostility and pleasure in interaction with their infants.

To fully engage the brain regions involved in emotion processing, the researchers used a well-known face-matching test. The mothers were shown images of angry and scared faces and the researchers examined their neural reactions to the images. Researchers found that negative emotional faces activated the left dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which is a social cognition region of the brain, significantly less in depressed mothers than in healthy mothers. Deficits in this region, therefore, might represent diminished awareness of the emotions of others and less empathy for them.

The researchers also found that while negative images were viewed, communication between the left dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and the left amygdala was present in healthy moms but not in the depressed ones, suggesting that this might be an important neural circuit that regulates emotional response to unpleasant stimuli, such as a crying baby.

“We also discovered that greater infant-related hostility and more severe depression were associated with reduced face-related amygdala activity, which may be a mechanism for the reduced attune-ment and empathic responses in some depressed moms that is described in the literature,” noted Moses-Kolko. “We need studies whereby brain responses can be directly related to live mother-infant behavior in order to definitely clarify brain mechanisms of mother-infant attachment. Ultimately, this information has the potential to guide the development of more effective treatments for postpartum depression.”

Co-authors of the study included Susan B. Perlman, Katherine L. Wisner, Jeffrey James, A. Tova Saul and Mary L. Phillips, all from the Department of Psychiatry.

This study was supported in part by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression.

EMS safety cultures vary

A survey of emergency medical services (EMS) agencies from across the country found wide variation in perceptions of workplace safety culture, providing a tool that might point to potential patient safety threats, according to researchers at the School of Medicine.

The study, to be published in the October/December issue of Prehospital Emergency Care and available online at, analyzed survey results from 61 EMS agencies in the United States and Canada. Researchers adapted a survey used in other health care settings to measure paramedic and emergency medical technician (EMT) perceptions of safety climate, teamwork, stress recognition and other components of workplace safety culture.

P. Daniel Patterson, a faculty member in emergency medicine and lead author of the study, said: “While others have characterized safety culture in ambulatory care, the intensive care unit and other in-hospital settings, this is one of the first studies of its kind in the high-risk EMS environment. This study helps us begin to know how safe EMS care is — and how widely safety cultures vary from agency to agency.” His comments come on the heels of another fatal helicopter ambulance crash in Arkansas, where three crew members, including EMS personnel, were killed.

Notably, the researchers found that air-medical EMS agencies tended to score higher across all six domains of safety culture than did ground-based agencies. Most of the EMS agencies participating in the study were private, rural, ground units employing fewer than 50 people. Most respondents were men who were full-time career employees of the agencies. The mean score on safety climate, one of the domains studied, was highest in agencies with fewer employees, lower annual patient contacts and higher proportions of acute patients.

Patterson emphasized that there is no common mechanism for classifying and reporting errors and adverse events in EMS. “The study provides benchmarking data for EMS agencies and a reliable and valid tool that EMS officials can use to evaluate safety within their agencies. We continue to collect data and report on variations through our network of EMS agencies affiliated with the EMS Agency Research Network,” said Patterson.

The study was supported by the MedEvac Foundation International and the Pittsburgh Emergency Medicine Foundation. During the study, Patterson was supported by the Emergency Medicine Patient Safety Foundation and a Society for Academic Emergency Medicine Patient Safety research fellowship.

Nanotube safety project funded

Chemistry faculty member Alex Star was selected for a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Outstanding New Environmental Scientist Award, which consists of an NIH R01 grant for five years at $411,112 per year. His project, “Investigations and Mitigation of Carbon Nanomaterial Toxicity,” will examine ways to remove carbon nanotubes from the environment.

Nanotubes have been found to exhibit toxic effects to the body including inflammation, oxidative stress and apoptosis similar to that witnessed from asbestos.

His proposal outlines ways to degrade carbon nanotubes through enzymatic catalysis.

Preliminary data show that a natural enzyme, horseradish peroxidase, along with low concentrations of hydrogen peroxide can degrade these nanomaterials, as can human myeloperoxidase.

NSF grants awarded for PSC research

The Three Rivers Optical Exchange (3ROX), the advanced network research group at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, has received two grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF): a $1.535 million Academic Research Infrastructure (ARI) award and a $980,000 Software Development for Cyberinfrastructure (SDCI) award.

Effective Sept. 1 and extending for four years, the ARI award supports a major upgrade of the southwestern Pennsylvania region’s research and education network environment, which 3ROX maintains and manages.

3ROX network infrastructure connects many universities and schools in Pennsylvania and West Virginia — including Pitt, Carnegie Mellon, Penn State, Waynesburg University, West Virginia University and Pittsburgh Public Schools — to national high-performance network resources such as Internet2 and National LambdaRail. The award will enable 3ROX to renovate and upgrade this infrastructure, said PSC director of networking Wendy Huntoon, including upgrading 3ROX’s fiber-based optical capability to increase high-end transmission rates tenfold, from 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) to 100 Gbps.

The upgrade also will include a pool of circuits (called transponders) that can be made available at no cost on an as-needed basis for data-intensive research. The pool of transponders will enable researchers to experiment with bandwidth without having to include equipment costs in their grants, allowing them to be less encumbered by bandwidth limitations that affect data-intensive research. Examples of such Pittsburgh-based projects include detector development for the Large Hadron Collider and seismology and earthquake engineering — along with numerous projects nationwide that use PSC resources through the NSF cyberinfrastructure known as the TeraGrid.

The ARI award project is entitled “Regional Network Renovation: Upgrading the 3ROX Virtual Research Environment,” and is under the direction of Huntoon and PSC network engineers Janet Brown and Kenneth Goodwin.

The SDCI award from NSF’s office of cyberinfrastructure is for a three-year project called “Web10Gig” that will develop network software to enable ordinary users to use advanced networks effectively.

Web10Gig builds on an earlier project called Web100 that ended in 2003 and produced prototype software that still is used heavily.

PSC partnered on Web100 with the National Center for Atmospheric Research and with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign, and is partnering on Web10Gig with NCSA, which received a $200,000 award from NSF for the new project.

Web100 addressed a problem that affects many advanced network users. Though many networks can transfer data at high rates — 10 Gbps or higher — many researchers who use these networks don’t realize data-transfer rates near the network’s maximum capacity because many computer operating systems aren’t “tuned” to exploit the available bandwidth.

Web100 instituted refinements to the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), making it much easier for non-experts using the Linux operating system to tune the operating system to the network automatically and achieve much higher transfer rates.

Web10Gig will correct weaknesses in Web100’s prototype installation and eliminate barriers to its wide use. Web10Gig will produce an implementation of standard TCP based on the Web100 prototype and refine it so it can be included in the “main line kernel” of Linux, from where it will enable network measurement and diagnosis tools to operate underneath all types of network-based research.

NIA funds insomnia research

University researchers have received a $9.8 million grant from the National Institute on Aging to study insomnia in older adults.

Timothy H. Monk, the study’s lead research investigator, also is director of the human chronobiology research program at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. He said, “Insomnia in seniors can result from biological clock problems, sleep intensity problems, stress and arousal issues, the functional anatomy of the patient’s brain and particular issues of her or his genetic makeup. All of these different research issues will be covered in our AgeWise study.”

Monk stresses the need for this research in older adults given the prevalence of insomnia in this population, age-related changes in physiology and brain structure that are relevant to sleep-wake processes, and the many co-morbidities that often accompany advancing age. He points to a societal imperative, too, as the baby boom generation reaches its seventh decade of life.

Other Pitt investigators involved in the study include Daniel Buysse, Anne Germain, Martica Hall and Vishwajit Nimgaonkar of psychiatry; Robert Krafty of statistics, and Sati Mazumdar of biostatistics.

Comp sci awards announced

The Department of Computer Science announced grants to the following PIs:

• Sangyeun Cho received a $150,000 National Science Foundation grant for the project, “Enabling Fast and Versatile Packet Processing for Future Larger-Scale Networks.”

• Milos Hauskrecht was awarded $1.52 million from the National Institutes of Health for “Detecting Deviations in Clinical Care in ICU Data Streams” and $1.1 million from the NIH for “Using Medical Records Repositories to Improve the Alert System Design.”

• Adam Lee received an NSF grant of $78,802 for the project, “Towards Formal, Risk-Aware Authorization.”

• Kirk Pruhs was awarded $60,000 from NSF for the project, “Science of Power Management Workshop.”

• Janyce Wiebe received a $225,000 NSF grant for the project, “Word Sense and Multilingual Subjectivity Analysis.”


The University Times Research Notes column reports on funding awarded to Pitt researchers as well as findings arising from University research.

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