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October 27, 2011

Research Notes

Pop music touts alcohol brands

Researchers in the School of Medicine have found that the average U.S. adolescent is heavily exposed to alcohol brand references in popular music, according to a study published online in the international journal Addiction. Branded alcohol references are most common in rap, R&B and hip hop songs and often are associated with a luxury lifestyle characterized by degrading sexual activity, wealth, partying, violence and the use of drugs, the study found.

Researchers analyzed 793 of the most popular songs in the youth market between 2005 and 2007 and reported that a brand name was included in a song about 25 percent of the time alcohol was mentioned, representing about 3.4 alcohol brand references per song-hour. Given that the average adolescent is exposed to about 2.5 hours of popular music per day, young people’s annual exposure to alcohol brand references in popular music is substantial, the study reported. Consequences associated with alcohol were more often positive than negative (41.5 percent vs. 17.1 percent). Alcohol brand appearances were commonly associated with wealth (63.4 percent), sex (58.5 percent), luxury objects (51.2 percent), partying (48.8 percent), other drugs (43.9 percent) and vehicles (39 percent).

Study leader Brian Primack, a faculty member in medicine and pediatrics, said, “Frequent exposure of young people to brand-name references in popular music may constitute a form of advertising and could encourage substance use among adolescents.”

Brand-name references to alcohol typically are aligned strongly with positive associations, which often are the goal of advertisements. The brands found in music represent the same distilled spirits brands that increasingly are named as favorites by underage drinkers, especially women.

The authors suggested that the relatively high level of brand-name alcohol appearances in popular music may be a consequence of strengthening ties between the alcohol and music industries.

Some alcohol companies formally have entered the music industry, such as Seagram’s ownership of Universal and Polygram between 1995 and 2001. Individual artists, particularly those in the rap and hip-hop communities, have begun to establish and promote their own alcohol lines.

According to the authors, most instances of brand-name references in song lyrics seem to be unsolicited and unpaid for by advertising companies. However, the authors noted that the line between paid advertising and brand references is difficult to distinguish because advertising companies have begun to reward artists retroactively with product, sponsorship or endorsement deals after a song containing their product’s name becomes popular.

Alcohol trade associations such as the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States have developed self-regulation codes that specify inappropriate marketing practices, such as a guideline forbidding marketing to audiences below legal drinking age. However, because rap music is popular among high school students, the authors suggested that advertising campaigns that focus on rap artists are inconsistent with the alcohol industry’s stated intent to avoid marketing to underage drinkers.

Pitt collaborators were Erin Nuzzo and Kristen Rice, both of medicine.

NIMH funds $9 million in depression research

The Center for Late Life Depression Prevention and Treatment Research has received nearly $9 million from the National Institute of Mental Health. Under the direction of Charles F. Reynolds III, the federally funded Center of Excellence will conduct three new research studies in depression prevention among vulnerable older adults, in addition to continuing existing research.

“Depression erodes quality of life, productivity in the workplace, and fulfillment of social and familial roles,” said Reynolds, a faculty member in psychiatry and behavioral and community health science at the School of Medicine and Graduate School of Public Health. “In knowledge- and service-driven economies, the population’s mental capital becomes both more valuable and vulnerable to depression’s impact across the life cycle, including late life. Depression prevention research and practice have progressed from a pioneering stage to one in which investments on a larger scale are necessary and appropriate to diminish depression’s global illness burden. This center will push the field forward to the benefit of older adults and their caregivers.”

The first of three new depression prevention studies will look at the use of learning-based interventions to help seniors who receive supportive services and face a variety of psychosocial vulnerabilities that put them at risk for depression. One group at high risk is older adults receiving aging services through Medicaid waiver programs. This three-year study will test the effectiveness of enhancing problem-solving skills and of teaching ways to sleep better as a means of preventing depression in these seniors.

The second study will adapt problem-solving strategies for use by people living with mild cognitive impairment and for their caregivers as an intervention for preventing major depression. In addition, an exercise intervention will be used in both groups to enhance protection from depression.

The third study focuses on osteoarthritis pain and associated disability as risk factors for major depression. The first stage will compare the relative effectiveness of treating pain with either cognitive behavioral therapy or physical therapy. The second stage will adapt interventions based on a participant’s response to stage one.

Each study will collect information about biomarkers, such as measures of inflammation, which may enhance the identification of older adults at high risk for depression and provide information about whether and how interventions may be protective against the onset of depression. Data from the three clinical trials will be pooled to further develop models of personalized intervention.

Collaborators included Steven Albert of behavioral and community health science; Howard Aizenstein, Meryl A. Butters, Mary Amanda Dew, Anne Germain, Ariel Gildengers, Jordan Karp, Frank Lotrich, Jennifer Morse, Paul Pilkonis, Richard Schulz and Etienne Sibille of psychiatry; Stewart Anderson and Abdus Wahed of biostatistics;

Elizabeth Skidmore of occupational therapy; Kirk Erickson of psychology; Linda Garand of health and community systems; Julie Donohue of health policy and management; Kelley Fitzgerald of physical therapy; Debra Weiner of geriatric medicine, and Oscar Lopez of neurology.

Melatonin delays Huntington’s

Melatonin, best known for its role in sleep regulation, delayed the onset of symptoms and reduced mortality in a mouse model of Huntington’s disease, say researchers at the School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School. Their findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, show for the first time that certain receptors for the hormone reside in the mitochondria, and that mice and humans with Huntington’s disease (HD) have fewer of these receptors in their brains.

HD is an inherited, lethal disorder of involuntary movement, emotional problems and progressive loss of intellectual function, explained senior investigator Robert M. Friedlander, chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery and UPMC Endowed Professor of Neurosurgery and Neurobiology.

A mutant protein, called huntingtin, kills neurons in the brain’s striatum and then the cortex. “In earlier work, we screened more than 1,000 FDA-approved drugs to see which ones could block the release of a small protein called cytochrome c from the mitochondria to interrupt a key step in a chain reaction known as apoptosis, or programmed cell death,” Friedlander said. “Melatonin, which we know to be a potent antioxidant, was one of the agents that could do this in the test tube, but we needed to determine if it would also be neuroprotective in a transgenic animal model of HD.”

The researchers injected HD mice daily with either melatonin or a placebo, evaluated them weekly for signs of the disease and examined their brain tissue after death. They found that melatonin treatment delayed the onset of disease by 19 percent, slowed disease progression and prolonged lifespan by 18 percent.

The researchers determined also that type 1 melatonin (MT1) receptors are found on mitochondria, which supplies energy for the cell, and that they were depleted in both HD-affected human and mouse brain tissue samples. In lab experiments, administration of an agent that prevents melatonin from binding to the MT1 receptor encouraged cell death, while gene-engineering to increase the number of receptors led to greater neuroprotection, even when melatonin levels were normal.

“Extra melatonin might help fill all the available MT1 receptors, allowing the hormone to counter the programmed cell death cascade and thus protect neurons,” Friedlander said. “This suggests that melatonin or similar agents that influence the MT1 receptor have potential as an HD treatment, which we’ve never had before.”

Low levels of circulating melatonin have been seen in other neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. The research team is continuing to explore what might cause the loss of MT1 receptors and to assess other drugs that block cytochrome c and cell death.

“Perhaps the best approach will be to develop a cocktail of drugs that target different molecular pathways that are responsible for creating HD,” Friedlander said.

The team includes researchers from Harvard Medical School, where Friedlander began the research effort prior to joining Pitt, as well as researchers from the Bedford Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Bedford, Mass.; Boston University School of Medicine, and Seoul National University Hospital.

Grants from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the Huntington’s Disease Society of America and the U.S. Veterans Administration funded the research.

Nursing grants received

The School of Nursing recently announced the following grants:

Susan Albrecht of health and community systems received a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration funding award for the nursing faculty loan program.

Betty Braxter of health promotion and development received a Civilian Research and Development Foundation award for her grant entitled, “Doulas as Change Agents: My Doula and Me Project.”

Yvette Conley of health promotion and development received an NIH nursing research award for her grant entitled, “Targeted Research and Academic Training of Nurses in Genomics.”

Sandra Founds of health promotion and development has been awarded a 2011 Vision Grant by the Preeclampsia Foundation. Founds, also a member of the Magee-Womens Research Institute, leads a team that aims to develop a set of discovery-based genes from first-trimester placentas of women who subsequently developed preeclampsia. The Vision Grant will support translation of these predictive biomarkers to a multiplex serum profile of proteins for an early clinical screening test that could save lives and improve the health of mothers and babies by preventing preeclampsia.

Julius Kitutu, assistant dean for student services, received an award from the Health Resources and Services Administration for his work on studies entitled “Scholarships for Disadvantaged Students” and “Advanced Education Nursing Traineeships.”

Faith Luyster of health and community systems received an award from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute for her grant entitled, “Enhancing Motivation for CPAP Adherence in Obstructive Sleep Apnea.”

Ann Mitchell of health and community systems received a Health Resources and Services Administration grant entitled, “Nurse Education, Practice, Quality and Retention Grant: SBIRT Training for Emergency Room Registered Nurses,” which teaches emergency room nurses how to screen and intervene for alcohol and other substance use.

Brain power moves prosthetic arm

A paralyzed man has moved a prosthetic arm with his thoughts.

Tim Hemmes, 30, is the first participant in a trial assessing whether a person’s thoughts can be used to control the movement of an external device, such as a computer cursor or a prosthetic arm. He was paralyzed when his spinal cord was damaged in a motorcycle accident.

The project, one of two brain-computer interface (BCI) studies underway at the School of Medicine and UPMC Rehabilitation Institute, used a grid of electrodes placed on the surface of the brain to control the arm, designed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

Co-principal investigator Michael Boninger, chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the School of Medicine and director of the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute, said, “This first round of testing reinforces the great potential BCI technology holds for not only helping spinal cord-injured patients become more independent, but also enhancing their physical and emotional connections with their friends and family.”

On Aug. 25, an electrocortigraphy (ECoG) grid about the size of a large postage stamp was placed on the surface of Hemmes’s brain during a two-hour operation performed by co-investigator Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara of the Department of Neurological Surgery. After determining where Hemmes’s brain processed signals for moving his right arm, the grid was placed over that area of motor cortex. Connecting wires were hooked up to computer cables enabling the researchers to test the technology. With practice, Hemmes learned to guide the image of a ball from the middle of a large television screen either up, down, left or right to a target, within a time limit. He then performed a similar task with the arm, reaching out to touch a target on a large, desk-mounted panel.

Co-principal investigator Wei Wang of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, said, “He mentally associated specific motor imageries with desired movement direction. It required concentration and patience, but this process seemed to get easier for him with practice.”

Hemmes later tackled more complicated tasks. While wearing special goggles to view a three-dimensional TV screen, he moved the ball in the previous directions, and also to the front or back.

Hemmes’s participation in the trial can be viewed at

The researchers now are analyzing the data and are seeking at least five more adults with spinal cord injuries or brainstem strokes who have very little or no use of their hands and arms for additional studies.

They also are looking for participants for a year-long trial of a BCI made up of tiny electrode points that penetrate the brain tissue and pick up signals from 100 individual neurons.

Co-principal investigator Andrew Schwartz of the Department of Neurobiology said, “We anticipate that these penetrating grids can pick up very clear signals from the brain to reveal what motion is intended by the participant,” adding that this approach could enable finer movement of the fingers and hand.

In his other experiments, a monkey implanted with the penetrating grid has been able to use a robotic arm to reach out and hold a doorknob-like object, building on earlier work in which a monkey was able to grasp and eat a marshmallow, using a gripper device on a less-sophisticated arm.

The team plans to make the technology wireless, and to include sensors in the prosthesis that can send signals back to the brain to simulate sensation.

Funding comes from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, UPMC and the Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

Proteins predict IPF mortality

Blood proteins can predict which patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) are likely to live at least five years or to die within two years, say researchers from the Department of Medicine and Radnor-based Centocor R&D.

The findings, published online in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, could help doctors determine which patients are in imminent need of a lung transplant.

With IPF, breathing becomes increasingly impaired as the lungs progressively scar. Half of IPF patients die within three years of diagnosis, but others will do well for long periods of time, said investigator Naftali Kaminski, professor of medicine, pathology, human genetics and computational biology and director of the Simmons Center for Interstitial Lung Disease at UPMC.

Researchers measured the levels of 92 candidate proteins in blood samples from IPF patients and found that higher concentrations of five particular proteins that are produced by the breakdown of lung tissue predicted poor survival, transplant-free survival and progression-free survival regardless of age, sex and baseline lung function. They then developed an index that incorporates gender, lung function and blood levels of the protein MMP7. Patients with a low score were more likely to live more than five years while the median survival for patients with high scores was 1.5 years.

Lead author was Thomas Richards, head of the Simmons Center biostatistics team.

Other members of the Pitt research team included Jiin Choi, Louis J. Vuga, Kathleen O. Lindell, Melinda Klesen, Yingze Zhang and Kevin F. Gibson, all of the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine.


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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