Thursday, December 10, 2009
Sunday, November 22, 2009
On Wednesday, April 23, the UAB School of Public Health presented the Glenwood Endowed Lecture Series, a joint effort between UAB and Glenwood to heighten awareness of the social concerns faced by people who have autism and also to shed light on recent research efforts being made to understand autism. In addition to the keynote speaker’s presentation on brain-based research of autism, workshops were presented by Birmingham-area clinicians. Glenwood, the Autism and Behavioral Health Center of Alabama, touches the lives of 4,500 children, teens, adults, and families affected by mental health disorders annually.
“The aim of the Glenwood Endowed Lecture is to foster a growing sense of unity among the public, service providers, and researchers around the societal impacts of behavioral health disorders such as autism,” said Dottie Mitchell, Director of Communications and Marketing at Glenwood. “We have received an enthusiastic response to this year’s Glenwood Endowed Lecture keynote speaker, Dr. Nancy Minshew. Response has poured in from educators, researchers, parents, advocates, and individuals who have loved ones affected by autism and others from across Alabama.”
Indeed, these efforts have resulted in a much larger knowledge base, as participation in the workshops has increased almost 5 fold in only three years!
“Our first lecture took place in 2005, and there were about 40 people registered; today, we have approximately 185 people registered,” said Mitchell.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. People who have autism are affected to varying degrees, thus the inclusive terminology “autism spectrum disorder” (ASD) has been coined. There are three main forms of ASD including autism, Asperger syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified. In many instances, people who have autism avoid eye contact, cannot perceive other’s feelings, and tend to display repetitive behaviors. An important social consideration is to educate the public about this disorder in an effort to help these individuals integrate into society.
“It is important to educate parents, teachers, and others about autism,” said Nancy Minshew, M.D., Director of the NIH Autism Center of Excellence, and professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “These are children who are never invited to birthday parties or called on the telephone. Others need to be taught that teasing and bullying are not acceptable.”
It is just this theme that permeated the workshops. Each was tailored to address the specific needs of people who have autism in successive stages of life. Additionally, the event included updates on scientific advancements and research in autism.
“The advent of functional MRI has helped to make tremendous advances in understanding autism,” said Minshew. “In the past, we could only determine that there was an increase in the brain size of young children who have autism because we were limited by the level of resolution afforded by the imaging technology at that time. Now, we have been able to determine that autism is actually a problem of higher-order neural circuitry; their higher-order circuitry is underdeveloped, but their simpler processing and abilities are intact.”
One UAB student believes that knowledge of the basic science underlying a disorder combined with the social considerations that evolve out of the disorder is important for medical researchers.
“I believe it is very important for a basic science researcher to understand not only the underpinnings of the biological component that causes autism but also the societal impact of the disorder,” said Chris Chapleau, a UAB graduate student. “How are these kids going to be in 5 to 10 years? What impact does this have on a family? I believe that understanding these things makes a more well-rounded researcher who is better able to address the questions and provide answers for various aspects of the disorder.”
Opportunities exist for UAB students to learn more about autism and become involved in raising awareness of the disorder by volunteering at Glenwood.
“There are several ways to get involved at Glenwood,” said Mitchell. “Students can help with one of Glenwood’s fundraisers; assist with the Annual Holiday Pecan Sale; or get a group together and participate in a project on Glenwood’s campus.”
For more information regarding volunteer opportunities, contact Rebecca Rhodes Sibley at 205-795-3267 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monday, November 16, 2009
Throughout the early stages of life, it’s important that offspring remain close to their mom at all times, since she provides their basic needs for survival - nourishment, shelter, and protection. Separation or withdrawal from her during this time would put their very lives in jeopardy. To ensure this doesn’t happen, infants are born with an inherent preference for their mom, an attraction so strong that even poor treatment from her doesn’t interfere with their desire to be near her.
In their Nature Neuroscience paper published November 2, Gordon A. Barr et al. gave rats an electrical shock while exposing them to a particular odor. This conditioning caused adult rats to avoid all subsequent encounters with the scent since they associated it with getting shocked. The opposite reaction was reported in young rats, however. These pups actually exhibited a preference for the very odor they had been conditioned to avoid. It’s believed that, although they don’t have the ability to identify and avoid potentially harmful stimuli, they reach a stage at some point in development where they learn this strategy.
Further experiments revealed that the steroid corticosterone, also known as the stress hormone, reverses the preference behavior exhibited in the young rats. When corticosterone was injected into young rats prior to the electrical shock and odor exposure, they learned to avoid that odor in the future, which is the same response demonstrated by the adult rats!
At the core of this phenomenon lies dopamine, which is one of the brain’s molecules responsible for transmitting signals between cells. There is less dopamine released from neurons in young pups demonstrating preference behavior than in the young pups who avoided the odor because they were injected with corticosterone beforehand. The quantitative measurements of dopamine were taken from the amygdala, an area of the brain that processes threats and fears. The greater the release of dopamine, the stronger the synapses will be in the amygdala; this solidifies our memory of those stimuli that we’ve learned to avoid.
To further demonstrate the role of dopamine in avoidance behavior, young rats were infused with dopamine prior to conditioning. Those rat pups that would normally exhibit a preference for the odor now demonstrated an aversion for the scent. If a dopamine receptor antagonist were infused, the young rats demonstrated preference behavior. Once again, the elevated levels of dopamine are associated with the ability to learn and remember which stimuli to fear and avoid.
The preference behavior exhibited by young rats described herein has been selected for throughout many years of evolution. Obviously, nature has decided that it is more advantageous for us to prefer our mom and form an attachment to her even in instances of poor treatment or abuse. Our chances of survival are higher if we remain alongside her. After all, at birth and throughout infancy, we are virtually helpless and have no way of setting out to find better conditions and sources of nourishment.
At such a young age, we don’t have the ability to identify and learn which stimuli to fear and avoid. As we grow older and stronger and are thus better able to take care of ourselves, the dependence upon and attachment to mom lessens and we are able to learn which things to fear and avoid. Without mom right by our side to keep corticosterone levels at bay, it’s possible for us to detect stressful situations and learn how to deal with them.
Friday, November 6, 2009
Each day, people around the world experience altercations with others, whether it be a spouse, family member, friend, or even a stranger. In the event of an apology between the parties involved, however, who is the actual benefactor?
Having been the “good” Catholic schoolgirl at one point in my life, it’s understandable that the first answer in my head is easily “the recipient of the apology.” After all, a common mantra drilled into our heads while growing up is that we must say we are sorry when we hurt someone. It’s supposed to make them feel better, right?
Is the act of apologizing, however, something that is really intended to make the wronged person feel better? Or, is it the one delivering the apology that actually benefits, considering that it is their conscious being cleansed through the very act?
It seems to me that, in some cases, a verbal apology could very well be considered a selfish act.
This concept may be illustrated through the following: a friend of mine who is divorced received an apology from her ex-husband after several years with no contact between the two of them.
Granted, in the conventional way of thinking, the man certainly owed her an apology. He had betrayed her, cheated on her, and abused her.
The question remains, though…did he really take her psychological well being into consideration when approaching her with an “I’m sorry”? Did he even think about the effect this apology may have on her and her life? Did he once again commit a selfish act against her when he failed to think about how the apology would affect her?
If this man truly had her best interest at heart, he would have chosen to stay away.
His apology had the opposite effect that our old childhood mantra would predict…instead of making her feel better, she was tossed right back into the throes of sadness.
When I think about it, my friend exerted so much energy and effort to get through the divorce and all the emotional mazes divorce brings with it. After years of counseling, heartache, and trauma, she made peace with the situation. She was forced to create her own closure on the event, as he had offered nothing in that area. Until the point at which her ex briefly re-entered her life, she was healthy and doing quite well.
Instead of taking the time to consider what stage my friend was at in her life, her ex placed more value upon lifting the burden of guilt off his shoulders.
Approaching someone so many years after an intense emotional altercation to say “I’m sorry” may not have the effect one would think. If the person wronged has moved on in their life, sometimes it may be more respectful to leave them alone instead of causing the other person to dredge up hurtful memories of the past and, once again, deal with them.
In the case of my friend, I believe her ex’s “I’m sorry” was actually beneficial for himself. I mean, his conscience is cleared. He can now move on without showing any regard for the wake left behind him.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
The stereotypical phenotype of a scientist is an anti-social individual wearing a white coat who prefers to work isolated in a laboratory, mixing flasks of bubbling solutions that are oh-so-beautifully colored. But does this image really hold up today?
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
One of the films screened at the festival, entitled "In Search of Memory", documents the life of Eric Kandel, who is one of the most influential people in the field of neuroscience. And as an added bonus, Kandel was present for a question and answer session following the screening.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
Friday, October 23, 2009
Me? San Diego. But, then again, I'm very partial to San Diego!