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October 11, 2012

Research Notes

Popular Mechanics award goes to research here

A School of Medicine/UPMC research project in which a quadriplegic man moved a robot arm just with his thoughts has won a Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award for 2012.

The magazine honored Tim Hemmes, the trial participant who sustained a spinal cord injury in a 2004 motorcycle accident that left him unable to move his limbs, and a research team led by Wei Wang, faculty member in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R). The project will be featured in the November issue of Popular Mechanics, available on newsstands Oct. 16.

“When Tim reached out with the robot arm to touch my hand, everyone who was watching burst into applause and cheered,” Wang said. “It was an amazing moment for him and our research team.”

In the trial, a grid of sensors was placed on the surface of Hemmes’s brain and the wires needed to connect with a computer were placed under the skin of his neck and chest by neurosurgeon Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara of the Department of Neurological Surgery and Children’s Hospital. Research team member Alan Degenhart, a doctoral candidate in PM&R and the Department of Bioengineering, worked with a computer program to record neural signals from Hemmes’s brain while he imagined or observed arm motion. Those patterns were used to translate his thoughts to guide the actual movement of a sophisticated robot arm, which was developed by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

On Sept. 21, 2011 — the last day of a 30-day trial protocol before the brain grid and wiring were removed — Hemmes was able to high-five Wang, illustrating his ability to control the device in three dimensions: up/down, right/left and in/out.

“If continued testing and development is successful, we hope that one day this technology will be able to give people who are unable to use their own arms greater function and independence,” said research team member Michael Boninger, chair of PM&R and director of UPMC Rehabilitation Institute.

Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Awards  are given in two categories: innovators, whose inventions will make the world smarter, safer and more efficient in the years to come, and products, which are setting benchmarks in design and engineering today.


Trust your gut

The more people trust their feelings, the more accurately they can predict the outcomes of things that range from the mundane, like the weather, to the significant, like the outcome of elections and future stock market levels, according to research published in the October edition of the Journal of Consumer Research.

The phenomenon — studied by a team comprising Andrew Stephen, faculty member in the Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration, and two faculty members from Columbia — is something they call the “emotional oracle effect.”

Through a series of eight studies, researchers asked participants to predict the outcomes of events like the 2008 U.S. Democratic Party presidential primary, movements of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the winner of a college football championship game and the weather. The results across all studies consistently revealed that people with higher trust in their feelings were more likely to correctly predict the final outcome than those with lower trust in their feelings.

In the study where respondents were asked to pick the winning candidate in the 2008 primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, high-trust-in-feelings respondents correctly predicted Obama’s winning about 72 percent of the time compared with low-trust respondents, who predicted Obama’s winning about 64 percent of the time — a striking result given that major polls reflected a very tight race between Clinton and Obama at the time the study was conducted.

For the winner of television’s “American Idol” competition, the difference was 41 percent for high-trust-in-feelings respondents compared to 24 percent for low-trust respondents.

In another study, participants were asked to predict future levels of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Those who trusted their feelings were 25 percent more accurate than those with low trust in their feelings.

The researchers explain their findings through a “privileged window” hypothesis. This hypothesis is based on the idea that people’s feelings serve as meta-summaries of prior experience, where the brain encodes life experiences, and feelings catalogue the information.

“We are encoding experiences every second of every day. Actually tapping into that is a challenge, because it’s mostly unconscious,” said Stephen. “Trusting your feelings is how you access that catalogued information.”

Researchers caution that some amount of relevant knowledge appears to be required to more accurately forecast the future.

For example, in one study participants were asked to predict the weather. From the 175 online participants across 46 states, those participants who trusted their feelings were better able to predict local weather. While they were able to predict the weather within their own zip code areas, they could not predict the weather in Beijing or Melbourne.

Stephen says the emotional oracle effect isn’t an invitation for people to disregard reason-based judgment. Instead, it shows that intuition is a valuable complement. People who heed their feelings have a broader perspective than those who don’t. The reason? Because those feelings are based on prior experiences, not just the immediate facts in front of them.

“It’s a reminder that it’s not wrong to go with your gut,” Stephen said. “However, the effectiveness is not so much just that you have feelings — it’s whether you trust them or not. Your feelings give you a more general view and can be a relevant input.”


More options not always better

Ordinary investors are bewildered by too much choice, according to a study from a team that included J. Jeffrey Inman, Albert Wesley Frey Professor of Marketing and associate dean for research and faculty in the Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration.

“The research shows that people get overwhelmed by choice. It is one thing to be faced with a big assortment of mustards at the grocery store, where the stakes are low. The order of magnitude is greater with mutual funds, where you feel less informed,” said Inman. The paper, “Investing for Retirement: The Moderating Effect of Fund Assortment Size of the 1/N Heuristic,” was published in the Journal of Marketing Research. Researchers at Rutgers, the University of Texas-Austin, and Boston College contributed to the study.

According to the research, when only a handful of funds are offered, it is easier to choose funds; however, if a large number of funds are available, people tend to select more funds, but spread their money evenly between them.

For the study, four experiments were conducted to map the behavior of investors. The aim was to assess how fund-assortment size influenced the way investors allocate their contributions across funds.

In one experiment, retirement data from financial service organization TIAA-CREF was analyzed, showing what happened after the University of Oregon increased its investment options from 10 to 19 funds. In two additional experiments, researchers manipulated the assortment size of hypothetical 401(k) plans, showing the effect when funds increased from three to 15, or from five to 25, respectively. Finally, researchers tested investors’ “cognitive load,” adding more stress to their decision-making processes by asking them also to memorize a five-digit code.

All tests proved the point that a “larger fund assortment represents a more cognitively taxing decision context, which should increase investors’ reliance on simplified decision strategies.”

“We argue that if there are a lot of fund choices you have to wade through — say, the difference between five funds versus 15 — looking at five is not so hard, but at 15, people become mentally fatigued by the task of choosing funds and end up allocating their money evenly across the funds they chose,” Inman says.

Researchers noted the danger of investing in more funds simply for the sake of appearing diversified. “Investing in more funds allows investors to construct what they may perceive to be a more diversified portfolio without having to carefully evaluate and compare the attractiveness of the available funds,” they wrote.

Another risk is that investors commonly exhibit “decision inertia”: After they make their decision, they are unlikely to revisit the choice anytime soon.

“Unfortunately, investors often do not adequately diversify their retirement plans, holding just one or two funds in their 401(k) plans, overinvesting in an employer’s stock, concentrating their portfolios in particular fund ‘styles,’ or ‘pseudodiversifying,’ by choosing investments whose returns are highly correlated,” the researchers wrote.

Inman says employers should give employees more guidance. He suggests target-date funds, which are those that set a retirement date and have people input all their money into the fund, as an alternative to a piecemeal approach.

“One possible solution might be for marketers of financial products to offer investors a larger number of funds to satisfy their desire for choice and variety, but to clearly categorize the options to help the investor perceive the set of offerings at a higher, more abstract level,” the researchers wrote.


NSF grant funds “flipped learning”

Engaging engineering students in the development of low-cost, high-efficiency solar cells through innovative instruction is the focus of a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant awarded Swanson School of Engineering faculty members.

Paul W. Leu, industrial engineering; Guangyong Li, electrical engineering; Jung-kun Lee, materials science, and Sam Spiegel, chair of the disciplinary literacy in science team and associate director of outreach and development, are conducting the research. The project was developed with help from the Engineering Education Research Center, directed by Mary Besterfield-Sacre.

The project, “Flipping Learning Models to Illuminate Nanomanufacturing and Nanomaterials for Photovoltaics,” will establish an interdisciplinary education and research framework to prepare future engineers to take on the challenge of manufacturing low-cost, high-efficiency solar cells through the scalable integration of nanomaterials.

“Flipped learning” is a method of teaching that utilizes the Internet to leverage learning skills. Rather than being lectured to in a class and then completing homework, students first study a given topic online, then return to the classroom or laboratory to apply the knowledge to solve problems. The students work alone or in groups while the instructor provides guidance but not immediate solutions.

The grant will include high school and undergraduate students, as well as minority populations.

According to the grant abstract, given the critical role of nanotechnology in next-generation photovoltaics and the need for educational programs to prepare future engineers to develop new innovations for this application, the principal investigators propose to develop an interdisciplinary education and research framework for illuminating photovoltaic devices, nanomanufacturing, and nanomaterial concepts and experimental practices.


Lymph nodes provide home for variety of cells, tissues

Lymph nodes can provide a suitable home for a variety of cells and tissues from other organs, suggesting that a cell-based alternative to whole organ transplantation might one day be feasible, according to researchers at the  School of Medicine and the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

In a report published online in Nature Biotechnology, the research team showed for the first time that liver cells, thymus tissue and insulin-producing pancreatic islet cells, in an animal model, can thrive in lymph nodes despite being displaced from their natural sites.

Hepatitis virus infection, alcoholic cirrhosis and other diseases can cause so much damage that liver transplantation is the only way to save the patient, noted senior investigator Eric Lagasse, pathology. Children with DiGeorge syndrome lack functional thymus glands to produce essential immune cells, and diabetes can be cured with a pancreas transplant.

“However, the scarcity of donor organs means many people will not survive the wait for transplantation,” said Lagasse. “Cell therapies are being explored, but introducing cells into tissue already ravaged by disease decreases the likelihood of successful engraftment and restoration of function.”

His team tested the possibility of using lymph nodes, which are abundant and have a rich blood supply, as a new home for cells from other organs in what is called an “ectopic” transplant. They injected healthy liver cells from a genetically-identical donor animal into lymph nodes of mice at various locations. The result was an enlarged, liver-like node that functioned akin to the liver; in fact, a single hepatized lymph node rescued mice that were in danger of dying from a lethal metabolic liver disease. Likewise, thymus tissue transplanted into the lymph node of mice that lacked the organ generated functional immune systems, and pancreatic islet cell transplants restored normal blood sugar control in diabetic animals.

“Our goal is … to provide sufficient cell mass to stabilize liver function and sustain the patient’s life,” Lagasse said. “That could buy time until a donor organ can be transplanted. Perhaps, in some cases, ectopic cell transplantation in the lymph node might allow the diseased organ to recover.”

Co-authors of the paper included Junji Komori, Lindsey Boone and Aaron DeWard, all of the Department of Pathology and the McGowan Institute, and Toshitaka Hoppo of the McGowan Institute.

NIH funded the project.


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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