Five faculty members discuss their work to improve our health, and our lives.
by Katherine LewisHealth is one thing we can and should take personally. It affects every aspect of our lives and maintaining it requires vigilance. the definition of good health typically changes with age and vantage point. For the avid or professional athlete, good health means staying in top shape and avoiding injuries. For a tot, good health means developing appropriately and learning to communicate and interact with parents and peers. Here, five faculty members discuss their work to improve our health, and our lives.
When Amy Palmiero-Winters lost her leg in a 1994 motorcycle accident, she didn’t lose her passion for running. Now fitted with a custom prosthetic leg, she competes in marathons and ultramarathons under the close supervision of a team led by Robert Otto, a professor in the Department of Health Studies, Physical Education, and Human Performance Science at the Ruth S. Ammon School of Education and director of the Human Performance Lab at Adelphi University.
Using mechanical and metabolic analyses, Dr. Otto’s team determines the optimal stiffness of a prosthesis for a given elite athlete such as Ms. Palmiero-Winters, who can hold a pace of seven miles an hour for 18 hours. “If she dropped to six miles an hour, she would be better served by a different prosthesis,” Dr. Otto says.
The lab uses a low-level x-ray to determine an athlete’s bone density and fat distribution, and also measures caloric expenditure and cardiac output to design a nutrition plan for upcoming competitions. When Ms. Palmiero-Winters competed in a 135-mile ultramarathon across Death Valley, she swallowed a thermometer that allowed Dr. Otto’s team to monitor her core temperature during the run and modify her nutrition plan based on the findings.
In addition to working with elite athletes, Dr. Otto is collaborating with Winthrop-University Hospital on a series of double-blind studies on the effect of acupuncture on residual muscle soreness and the amount of power muscles produce during exercise. Subjects are unaware of whether they’re receiving a real acupuncture treatment or a fake one, in which the needles are placed in the wrong positions or removed immediately. The newest study, to be launched this spring, investigates muscle soreness after exercise and the potential of acupuncture to delay the onset of soreness or attenuate its intensity.
In a separate study with colleagues at both Winthrop and Adelphi, Dr. Otto is studying endothelial changes due to exercise among obese teenagers. In addition to the typical improvement in cholesterol levels, blood glucose, and cardiovascular function associated with this type of intervention program, the researchers will examine the inner layers of capillaries to evaluate positive changes that may include improved microcirculation, glucose uptake, and reduced sheer stress during a 12-week program of exercise.
Of Mice and Women
Also studying obesity is Tandra Chakraborty, an assistant professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Chakraborty works with mice that have no leptin, the hormone produced by fat cells that inhibits food intake, to understand the relationship of obesity to reproduction. After feeding the leptin-knockout mice a high-fat diet, she and her undergraduate researchers track their lipid profile and estrous cycle, the equivalent of a human menstrual cycle.
“[For] women who are obese, there is a tendency that they don’t get pregnant, or their menstrual cycle might be disrupted,” says Dr. Chakraborty. “We really don’t know much about the relation of obesity and the reproductive cycle.”
Preliminary observations indicate that the mice have increased the length of their estrous cycle to six or seven days, from four or five days previously, although a full year is needed to produce definitive results, she says.
Dr. Chakraborty also works with cell cultures to investigate the effect of estrogen on hypoglycemia, a condition caused by insufficient glucose. She takes brain cells from the hypothalamus and deprives them of glucose, then treats one set with estrogen to see whether the hormone protects against hypoglycemia, thus lowering the danger of fainting or stroke.
“Previous reports have said that women who are premenopausal have less risk of stroke compared to men, but when women are in their menopausal stage, they have higher chances of stroke than men,” she said. “The only difference is estrogen.”
Thus far, there has been a neuroprotective effect, but only for 24 hours. Dr. Chakraborty is investigating the mechanism with an aim to understand how the protection dissipates. She’s particularly proud that all her research relies on undergraduates, who leave her lab having published or presented research results.
Combating Cancer, One Cell at a Time
The cellular research of Alan Schoenfeld, an associate professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, focuses on the genetic basis for cancer. Dr. Schoenfeld is currently studying a genetic mutation that can lead to three very different outcomes: kidney cancer, adrenal gland cancer, or a benign blood vessel tumor. The mutation is associated with von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) disease. “Some people get some of those tumors. Some people get all of those tumors. They generally have different mutations that lead them to one or another subset of those tumors,” he says. “I try to understand what’s going on at the cellular level.”
Dr. Schoenfeld takes kidney cells from patients who had tumors as a result of VHL disease and compares how the cells grow, their shapes, and which cell types are more apt to die. In the most recent publication, he and a half-dozen students put a subset of mutations into three different lines of kidney cells. A graduate class of Dr. Schoenfeld’s spent a semester on recombinant DNA work needed to create the cancer cells that formed the basis of the research performed over the next three years by both graduate and undergraduate students.
“What we found were some interesting correlations between things that go on in the cell and the types of tumors that arise from particular mutations,” he says. In particular, looking at the junctions between two adjacent cells, which serve as a boundary, they found that the mutations associated with kidney cancer were more likely to violate the boundary, as compared with the two other types of tumors. Behavior at the boundary is significant because if scientists can understand the behavior of cancer, they may be better able to fight it.
Next up, Dr. Schoenfeld is looking closely at the middle type of tumor, associated with adrenal gland cancer, known formally as pheochromocytoma. Researchers mimic VHL disease in a pheochromocytoma cell from a rat. Then they study the cell growth and morphology to understand the link between the VHL mutations and this particular type of tumor.
In April 2011, the National Institutes of Health granted Dr. Schoenfeld $283,108 over three years to support his research on VHL disease.
Your Brain on Games and Drugs
If you find Geoffrey Ream in a video game arcade, it’s a good bet that the School of Social Work assistant professor is involved in field research on video game addiction and its association with caffeine, sugar, and substance abuse.
“They involve some of the same neurological processes, and there are some subcultures that are at high risk for both substance abuse and problem video-game playing,” Dr. Ream says. Funded by a National Institutes of Health grant of $943,989 over three years, the research involves three samples: a national survey of video gaming, a New York City street survey of heavy gamers, and an ethnographic survey.
Dr. Ream and his coprincipal investigators Eloise Dunlap and Luther Elliott, of the National Development and Research Institutes, recruit street survey subjects, aged 18 to 29, from video gaming venues for in-depth interviews on their personal history with video gaming and substance use. Researchers are looking for a correlated development of video game and substance use. In eight months, they’ve completed about 450 interviews, which will form the basis of the ethnographic survey. That effort will involve about 60 people whom researchers will interview, follow, and observe according to ethnographic methodology.
“For the ethnographic survey, we’re interested in the people who are hard core into some concurrent use of video games and substances,” Dr. Ream says. “We’re not just looking at marijuana, pills, tobacco, and alcohol; caffeine and sugar are possible variables.”
After all, Dr. Ream points out, when children begin to play video games at age 8 or 9, the drugs most available to them are caffeine and sugar. “I’m studying them to see if they are associated with a social problem,” he says. “It’s very clear to most people that refined sugar acts like a kind of drug on the body.”
Separately, Dr. Ream is working to better evaluate services for homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, who number about 7,000 in New York City, despite the city having only 100 LGBT specific beds. He helped the New Alternatives program develop questionnaires for the youth it serves and collect data to track participants’ progress toward housing stability and self-sufficiency.
“Having those data has been really helpful in getting funding,” he says. “We hope to get two, three, four, five years of data and rigorously analyze it to show what are the characteristics of youth who move toward greater housing stability and greater employment stability and what predicts both the ups and the downs of these youth.”
Susan Lederer, a speech language pathologist and associate professor in the Ruth S. Ammon School of Education, works with much younger children than Dr. Ream—those struggling to master their first words. Using an intervention program called focused language stimulation, she targets a particular word with toddlers who have a language delay, and repeats it in play, books, and conversation.
“Focused stimulation is very simple: you need to reduce the number of words you’re introducing to the kids and say them more times,” Dr. Lederer says. “We know our kids are at risk for literacy failure so we need to introduce literacy concepts and early literacy to them at the same time we’re teaching them to talk.”
Take the introduction of the word “wash” in a parent-child group for two-year-olds who aren’t yet talking. The children wash baby dolls and the table during pretend play. They wash their hands for a snack. Then they read Mrs. Wishy Washy at circle time. “We’re going to wash them to death,” she says.
The order in which you introduce words is particularly important, according to Dr. Lederer, who has written three children’s books for use in focused language stimulation. Early words should include different parts of speech and those easily represented with sign language, such as: mommy, daddy, baby, bye, ball, book, car, dog or cat, no, banana, cookie, juice, up, go, eat, and all-done.
“Although I use a developmental approach, we must be mindful to include names of favorite objects or activities, too,” Dr. Lederer says. “Instead of ‘Say juice’ to get a child to request juice, ask your child to ‘Tell me, juice.’ In the first case, you are asking your child to label something, but in the second, you are facilitating a conversation!”
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