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February 5, 2009


TV teens may risk depression

Teenagers who watch the most TV are more likely to show signs of depressive symptoms in young adulthood, according to a School of Medicine study in the February edition of Archives of General Psychiatry.

The study also found that boys reporting the most exposure to television were at greater risk for developing depressive symptoms than their female counterparts.
The study’s lead author, Brian A. Primack, faculty member in medicine and pediatrics, said: “Each extra daily hour of television use in adolescence was associated with an 8 percent increase in the odds of developing depressive symptoms by young adulthood.”

Primack and his team analyzed study data from 4,142 adolescents who reported their exposure to various media and their baseline depressive symptoms. The subjects were reassessed seven years later for depressive symptoms. While those who reported a higher exposure to television were more likely to have developed depressive symptoms, there was no association between these symptoms and other media, such as movies, video games or radio.

“It is unclear if the TV exposure has a causal relationship with depression,” said Primack. “The study did show that depressive symptoms seem to follow the television exposure, and not the other way around. Also, we saw these associations even after controlling for multiple variables, such as age, gender, race, socioeconomic status and education.”

The researchers speculated that time spent watching television may displace sleep or social experiences that protect against depression. The actual content of the TV program also may be a factor in causing depressive symptoms. For example, some television shows are saturated with highly idealized characters and situations, and constant comparison of one’s self with the unattainable images may result in depression, Primack said.

The authors note that the study was limited in that it relied on self-reporting of media exposure and depressive symptoms. They also note that they were unable to assess what specific types of television programs participants watched, an important direction for future work.

Pitt co-authors of the study are Graduate School of Public Health student Brandi Swanier; Stephanie R. Land, biostatistics, and Michael J. Fine, Department of Medicine.

Primack’s research is supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Maurice Falk Foundation.


Hepatitis consortium funded

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases has awarded a seven-year $11 million grant to the Graduate School of Public Health to coordinate the Hepatitis B Clinical Research Network — a consortium of 15 clinical and research centers in the U.S. and Canada that will conduct translational research on hepatitis B.
The network will include a multi-site treatment trial, create and maintain a large database of study results and store tissue and serum samples to facilitate clinical and basic research on the liver disease.

Steven Belle, principal investigator of the data coordinating center and professor of epidemiology at GSPH, said, “Medical advances have led to many treatments for chronic hepatitis B infection and most patients respond to them. However, these treatments do not cure the infection, but contain it by making it more difficult for the virus to reproduce.”

Many patients need to stay on therapy for a long time, he added. When treatment is prolonged, the virus can become resistant, making further treatment ineffective.
“We don’t know why treatment works better for some patients than others, and we cannot accurately predict who may go on to develop liver abnormalities,” Belle said. “But with the interdisciplinary expertise within the network, we hope to learn more about the immune changes that occur with hepatitis B infection and make inroads to finding a lasting cure.”

Co-investigators on the grant include Abdus Wahed, biostatistics; Michael Nalesnik, pathology; Obaid Shaikh, medicine, and Robert Squires Jr., pediatrics.

The network also includes Harvard, Johns Hopkins, the Mayo Clinic, Saint Louis University, UCLA, University of California-San Francisco, University of Michigan, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Penn, University of Texas Southwest, University of Toronto, University of Washington, Virginia Commonwealth University, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.


Happy marriage can equal quality zzzs

School of Medicine researchers have found that a happy marriage can lead to a better night’s sleep for women.

Their study examined the association between marital happiness and sleep disturbances in multiple ethnic groups of married or partnered women. Researchers found that Caucasian and African-American women had more sleep complaints than Japanese, Hispanic and Chinese women. Caucasian and Japanese women reported the highest marital happiness.

The study also found that women who believe they have happy marriages reported less difficulty falling asleep, less likelihood of waking up during the night or too early in the morning and less restless sleep compared to women who report less happiness in their marriage. The findings are reported in the current issue of Behavioral Sleep Medicine.

Wendy Troxel, lead author and professor of psychiatry, said, “Women consistently report more sleep problems than men, but most research has focused on how husbands’ sleep problems, such as sleep apnea or snoring, affect their wives’ sleep quality. These findings, however, provide an understanding of how having a happy and fulfilling marriage can affect women and their sleep habits.”

In assessing the effects of marital happiness on sleep, the researchers took into account many other factors that might contribute to sleeplessness, such as a woman’s social support network, depressive symptoms, economic hardship and employment status, alcohol and caffeine consumption, presence of children in the home, sexual activity, age and hormonal status. The results showed that even after taking into account all of these factors that are known to influence sleep, the level of marital happiness emerged as an independent risk factor for sleep disturbances.

“General social support was not associated with sleep disturbances, which suggests that there may be something specific about happiness in one’s marriage that is associated with better sleep, rather than a general reflection of one’s support network,” said Troxel. “The findings further suggest that feeling happy in one’s marriage may present benefits for sleep that go beyond being a happy or well-adjusted person.”

Co-authors of the study include Daniel J. Buysse, Martica Hall and Karen A. Matthews, all of psychiatry.


Water power propels mini boat

Inspired by the aquatic wriggling of beetle larvae, a Pitt research team has designed a propulsion system that strips away paddles, sails and motors, and harnesses the energy within the water’s surface.

The technique destabilizes the surface tension surrounding the object with an electric pulse and causes the craft to move via the surface’s natural pull. The findings were presented Jan. 26 at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ micro electro mechanical systems conference.

The Pitt system has no moving parts and the low-energy electrode that emits the pulse could be powered by batteries, radio waves or solar power. This method of propulsion would be an efficient and low-maintenance mechanism for small robots and boats that monitor water quality in oceans, reservoirs and other bodies of water, said Sung Kwon Cho, senior researcher and professor of mechanical engineering and materials science in the Swanson School of Engineering. These devices are typically propeller-driven. 

Cho envisioned the system after reading about the way beetle larvae move on water. Like any floating object, larva resting in the water causes the surface tension to pull equally on both sides. To move forward, the larva bends its back downward to change the tension direction behind it. The forward tension then pulls the larva through the water.

Cho, with engineering doctoral students Sang Kug Chung and Kyungjoo Ryu, substituted an electric pulse for the larva’s back bending. In their experiments, an electrode attached to a 2-centimeter “mini-boat” emitted a surge that changed the rear surface tension direction and propelled the boat at roughly 4 millimeters per second. A second electrode attached to the boat’s front side served as the rudder.

An abstract of Cho’s mechanism is available at

To see the boat in action, visit A film of the rudder capability can be viewed at


Male, female brains fueled differently

Neurons from female rats and mice are better able to survive starvation than neurons from the males because they consume fat rather than protein, said School of Medicine researchers.

The findings, published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry Jan. 23, indicate that critical nutritional stress can kill neurons and could have implications for the nourishment of critically ill patients.

A team led by critical care medicine professor Robert Clark, associate director of molecular biology at the Safar Center for Resuscitation Research and pediatric intensivist at Children’s Hospital, and critical care medicine department research associate Lina Du, deprived male and female rat and mouse neurons of nutrients for 72 hours to gauge the potential impact of starvation on the brain.

“Within 24 hours, neurons from the males were dying off because they initiated a self-eating process called autophagy,” Clark said. “But neurons from the females mobilized fatty acids and made lipid droplets to use as a fuel source, prolonging their survival.” Autophagy-induced cell death in the brain could result in permanent damage, he said. Other research has revealed brain atrophy, or shrinkage, on scans of brain-injured and other critically ill patients, who likely were stressed and possibly insufficiently nourished during long hospitalizations.

“We really need to take critical care nutrition to the next level,” he said. “We can show that undernourishment of the brain during times of illness could lead to worse neurological outcomes, so it may be important to feed men and women, and boys and girls, differently to prevent brain cell death.”

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health.


Anthrax vaccine fears analyzed

When anthrax was sent through the U.S. mail in 2001, an overwhelming majority of postal workers chose not to be inoculated with the available vaccine because of confusion and distrust, according to a Graduate School of Public Health study.

Although the FBI officially closed the case on the attacks this year, lingering suspicion and uncertainty remain, say study authors, which could influence the public’s reactions to future emergencies. 

According to the report, reactions from postal workers were shaped partially by fears of being experimental “guinea pigs,” disagreements among public health agencies about whether the vaccine should be recommended, physician advice, low perceived risk of infection and conflicting reports from national publications. 

The GSPH study was based on interviews and focus groups conducted with 65 postal workers in Trenton, N.J., New York and Washington, D.C., and published in the December 2008 issue of Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice and Science.

Study author Sandra Quinn, associate dean for student affairs and education and associate professor at GSPH, said: “The reaction of postal workers demonstrates the essential need to build trust and educate the public before the uncertainty, confusion and time pressures of a bioterrorism or pandemic emergency create major barriers for clear communication.”

These concerns may be particularly relevant given that, in October 2008, the Department of Health and Human Services declared anthrax as a continuing bioterrorism threat through the end of 2015, she said.

During the 2001 anthrax attacks, which resulted in five deaths, 10,000 postal workers and others who were or who may have been exposed received a two-month dose of antibiotics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention then recommended people who failed to complete the regimen or who were at high risk for exposure take antibiotics for an additional 40 days with or without a supplemental anthrax vaccine. Only 11.5 percent of postal workers who took the additional 40-day dose of antibiotics agreed to take the anthrax vaccine as a precautionary measure.

“Scientific knowledge about the effectiveness of the vaccine after exposure to anthrax was uncertain at the time, making it an almost impossible task to communicate precise and proper health information to postal workers and other affected groups, including Senate staff,” said Quinn. “Given the evolving nature of the crisis, postal workers were unsure whose advice they should trust and as a result, many decided to do without the recommended vaccination,” she said. 

Tammy Thomas and Supriya Kumar of GSPH were among the study’s co-authors.

The study was funded by the CDC’s cooperative agreement with the Association of Schools of Public Health.


Pediatric glioma research funded

Researchers from the Department of Neurological Surgery have been awarded $309,000 from the Brain Tumor Society for a clinical study of treatments for children with brain tumors.

Based on experience with immunotherapy for adult gliomas, the researchers propose to extend these insights to the treatment of childhood gliomas, given similarities between these tumors in their expression of glioma-associated antigens (GAAs).

Principal investigator Ian Pollack and co-investigators Hideho Okada and Regina Jakacki plan to use a GAA-based vaccine cocktail, combined with an immunoadjuvant, for children with progressive low-grade gliomas.

“We hypothesize that vaccine-based immunotherapy will not only prove safe for the treatment of pediatric gliomas, but will also demonstrate activity as assessed by clinical, radiologic and immunologic parameters,” the researchers stated.


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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