Wednesday, May 19, 2010

We've MOVED!

We're changing channels here at Duke Research blog -- moving from the friendly confines of Blogger to a Duke server inside the Duke Research site.

We'll have the same great action-news team, (well, minus Monte the Weatherman, who has retired) and the same great coverage. Please tune the RSS feeds on your mobile devices and neural implants accordingly.

Vansh and Becca are off campus this summer, doing wonderful things in London, New Delhi and St. Louis, but they'll be back in the fall.

Please join us at

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

College Substance Abuse Is a Lot More Than Alcohol

Guest post from Jamese Slade, NCCU Summer intern

Underage drinking and drug use may not be a big deal to most college students, but these behaviors can have effects that will last a lifetime.

At a two-day forum on college student drinking and drug use sponsored by the Center for Child and Family Policy, drug abuse researchers touched on the issues of not only alcohol use, but also marijuana, and prescription drug abuse.

University of Cincinnati psychologist Krista Lisdahl Medina presented studies on the emerging adult’s brain and how it is affected by drug and alcohol use. She said 40 percent of adults aged 18-25 binge drink, which has been shown to cause verbal memory loss affecting their ability to learn new words.

Marsha Bates from Rutgers University's Center for Alcohol Studies said that alcohol and marijuana effect emotional regulation, causing inappropriate reactions to emotional stimuli. And during a one-month study, students who smoked marijuana were found to have brains that appeared more immature, while thinking slower and having lower grades.

University of South Florida psychologist Mark Goldman connected substance abuse to college students being in a new environment and trying to relate to their peers.

“We are teaching kids from a very early age that alcohol will take us from being picked on to being a cool kid,” said Goldman. He used an example from the movie Dumbo, when the elephant got drunk and all the trainers were laughing.

Of students who have prescriptions, 65 percent misuse their prescription drugs, and 62 percent give their drugs away to others, according to Sean Esteban McCabe, a substance abuse researcher from the University of Michigan. He said 72% of undergraduates are able to get stimulants for free, and that 90 percent of prescription drugs obtained from peers are stimulants.

“College students have said, ‘it’s easier to get 500 pills than it is to get alcohol. I don’t even have to leave my dorm room,’” McCabe said.

Students use prescription drugs with a purpose. According to David Rabiner, from Duke's Center for Child and Family Policy, nine percent of students at Duke have used drugs that had been prescribed to someone else to concentrate better while studying, to study longer, to feel better or to get high. He said that 70 percent of Duke students believe the prescription drugs have positive or very positive effects on them.

“They really believe it works,” said Rabiner, however there has been no evidence to prove that prescription drugs have helped students academically.

All presenters agreed there is a tie between drug and alcohol abuse. “It’s not likely to find students misusing medications who are not engaged in alcohol and other drugs,” said Bates.

Rabiner said prevention efforts should educate students to deal with attention difficulties appropriately, including getting a professional evaluation.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Build-A-Brain Workshop

That snap-crackle-pop sound you hear around a newborn human's head is the baby's brain being assembled at an alarming rate. The manufacturing of brain cells and getting them wired into meaningful circuits in the first months of life lays a foundation for abilities – and deficits – that seem to last a lifetime. And though the program is remarkably robust, parts of it can be derailed.

A spectacularly diverse panel of Duke experts on various aspects of this process came together Wednesday in another Duke Institute of Brain Sciences workshop called "Building a Brain: Order and Disorder." I missed the order part – Fan Wang and David Fitzpatrick – but got plenty of the disorder!

Tina Williams of Psychology and Neuroscience reviewed the "sensitive period phenomenon" from her own and others' studies of rats. There is a connection between early life events and later behaviors, but the mechanics of it are a vast landscape of unknowns so far. "There may be a cascade of complex events that occur between point A and point B," she said.

Indeed, said Mohamad Mikati, chief of pediatric neurology, there is a known sequence of events when the infant brain is deprived of oxygen in whole or in part, for whatever reason, and the recovery and outcomes seem to rely on when in the developmental program the insult occurs. Sometimes a brain injury in infancy doesn't do damage directly, but leaves the brain more vulnerable to subsequent insults.

Liz Brannon of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience updated us on her work with babies' innate sense of number, and showed an adorable movie of a 6-month-old gnawing on the edge of the high chair table with his gaze snapping right and left while going through one of her protocols. Length-of-gaze is just about the only way to figure out what the little goobers are thinking about. (There was a great story in the May 3 New York Times about this.)

Before I had to go, I also caught Simon Gregory from the Center for Human Genetics talking about how improvements in genome technology are allowing him to zero in on a particular hormone system as a possible contributor to autism. It's more than genes, though: methyl groups clamped on to the backbone of DNA can control whether a gene is active or not. Your mom can do this for you and then you inherit the gene turned off. But that's epigenetics, and that's enough for a whole other symposium.

Marie Lynn Miranda from the Nicholas School reviewed the connections between lead – which is still a huge problem – and cognitive abilities. And Ted Slotkin from pharmacology and cancer biology talked about environmental contaminants, like pesticides, that are like pervasive, harmful drugs.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Bonobo Business

Do you know what a bonobo is?

Only about 10% of people do, according to Duke evolutionary anthropology professor Brian Hare. By comparison, roughly 90% of people know what a gorilla is.

Bonobos have many remarkable qualities, including the fact they “are the only really peaceful ape,” according to Hare. “They don’t kill each other.” Bonobos are more closely related to humans than any other kind of ape or monkey. However, bonobos are frequently hunted for pets and for bushmeat.

Hare gave the bonobo primer to introduce renowned conservationist Claudine Andre, widely known as the Jane Goodall for bonobos. Andre spoke as part of the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology's Lemur Center's Primate Palooza event.

“Let me bring you in my country,” Andre began. She then described the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the only country bonobos call home.

When Andre and her husband lived in the Congo in the early 90s, their town was looted. Many shops and homes were destroyed, but Andre decided to stay. Someone asked her to visit the local zoo and, says Andre, “I opened the door and my life changed.” She found over 200 animals -- lions, bears, chimps. And no food. “I said to my husband, we have to do something. I have to try to save the zoo.”

Andre managed to find food for the animals and she saved the zoo animals, including a baby bonobo named Mikeno. Eventually, more and more bonobos found their way into her care, and Andre expanded her efforts to protect them.

She discovered that education was her most effective tool. At first, poor orphans who lived in the zoo were very rude to the animals. But with Andre’s positive example, the children grew to respect the animals. Andre has built a bonobo sanctuary, Lola ya Bonobo, which is visited by 30,000 children a year.

Bonobos are only found in the Congo, and Andre has successfully established this as a national point of pride. Awareness about the importance of bonobos is spreading; this year, Andre received 50 bonobos from people who bought them as pets and were convinced by area children that they had made a mistake.

“The education is worth it. I’m sure of this.”

Caring for so many animals is not an easy task. Andre has returned some to the wild, and says that it is very difficult to do. Certain guidelines must be followed, and she wants to make sure that the animals are happy in their new surroundings. She maintains that communication with surrounding people is critical.

“It is 25% about the animal and 75% about contact with the local population.” Andre had to meet with traditional chiefs and ask them not to hunt in the areas where bonobos are reintroduced, in return for help for their villages.

Andre described how it felt to return one of her bonobos to the wild: “It was a fantastic moment for me. So many emotions.” She likened it to a father walking his daughter down the aisle.

Andre and her organization decided not to use collars to track the released bonobos because they are heavy and can get caught on branches. Instead, trackers sit below the nests night and day and monitor the bonobos’ movements from tree to tree.

Currently, sanctuary visitors do not have many opportunities to observe the animals. Andre eventually hopes to purchase a small island, “a new sanctuary where people can go around and see the bonobos.” Bonobos are becoming recognized as an important part of Congolese culture and biodiversity, and it is in large part because of Andre’s efforts.

“I’m so proud to be a symbol of peace for the people,” Andre said.