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March, 2018

The Tragic Story of America’s Only Native Parrot

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The last recorded Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) died nearly 100 years ago. (Wikimedia Commons)
The last recorded Carolina parakeet died nearly 100 years ago. Now, some scientists consider the Carolina parakeet one of the top candidates for ‘de-extinction.’ (Wikimedia Commons)

It was winter in upstate New York in 1780 in a rural town called Schoharie, home to the deeply religious Palatine Germans. Suddenly, a flock of gregarious red and green birds flew into town, seemingly upon a whirlwind.

The townspeople thought the end of the world was upon them. Though the robin-sized birds left quickly, their appearance was forever imprinted on local lore. As author Benjamin Smith Barton wrote, “The more ignorant Dutch settlers were exceedingly alarmed. They imagined, in dreadful consternation, that it portended nothing less calamitous than the destruction of the world.”

The history of the Carolina parakeet’s decline parallels the history of American growth over the course of the 19th century. All that prosperity came with many terrible costs.

You and I know that the birds weren’t a precursor of mankind’s demise – but in a way, there was impending doom ahead. These birds were Carolina parakeets, America’s only native parrot. Exactly 100 years ago this February, the last captive Carolina parakeet died, alone in a cage in the Cincinnati Zoo, the same zoo where the last captive passenger pigeon, named Martha, died four years earlier. The last “official” wild Carolina parakeet was spotted in Florida just two years later.

Why did these birds go extinct? It remains a mystery. Given that parrots today are at greater risk for extinction than other major bird groups, is there anything scientists can learn from the Carolina parakeet?

Unraveling parakeet mysteries

Over the past six years, I’ve been collecting information about where the Carolina parakeet was observed over the past 450 years.

I spent hours upon hours reading historical documents, travel diaries, and other writings, ranging from the 16th century all the way into the 1940s. I’ve often become lost in the stories surrounding these parrot observations – from the first accounts of Europeans exploring the New World, to the harrowing tales of settlers traveling the Oregon Trail in the 1800s, to grizzled egg hunters scouring the swamps of Florida in the early 1900s.

Conuropsis carolinensis (Linnaeus, 1758), the extinct Carolina parakeet, is on public display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois. (Wikimedia Commons)
Conuropsis carolinensis (Linnaeus, 1758), the extinct Carolina parakeet, on public display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois. (Wikimedia Commons)

I also dug through natural history museum collections, looking at what many would just see as just some old, dusty, creepy dead birds. But I see them differently: beautiful in their own way, each with a story to tell.

My goal was to unravel some of the lasting mysteries about the Carolina parakeet – like where it lived. Historically, people used to determine a species range by plotting the most extreme observations of that species on a map, drawing a polygon around them and called it a day. Because of this, people long thought Carolina parakeets lived from upstate New York all the way to Colorado and down to the Texas coast.

But birds are often seen in areas where they don’t normally go. For instance, the range of the snowy owl – like Hedwig of “Harry Potter” fame – doesn’t really extend all the way to Bermuda, though one was once spotted there.

What’s more, scientists don’t know what really drove these parakeets to extinction. Some thought it was habitat loss. Some thought it was hunting and trapping. Some thought disease. A few even thought it was competition with nonnative honey bees for tree cavities, where the parakeets would roost and nest.

Thanks to the data I compiled, as well as cutting-edge machine learning approaches to analyze those data, my colleagues and I were able to reconstruct the Carolina parakeets’ likely range and climate niche. It turned out to be much smaller than previously believed. Generally, their range extended from Nebraska east to Ohio, south to Louisiana and Texas. The eastern subspecies lived mostly along the southeastern coast from Alabama, through Florida, and up to Virginia.

We were also able to confirm the longstanding hypothesis that the parakeets in the northwest part of their range migrated southeast in the winter, to avoid the blistering cold of the Midwest.

Why it matters

John James Audubon's 'Carolina Parakeets.' (Wikimedia Commons)
John James Audubon’s ‘Carolina Parakeets.’ (Wikimedia Commons)

In a world that faces extinction on a scale not seen in the past 65 million years, some of you may wonder: Aren’t there more important things to study?

While this may seem rather minor, some scientists consider the Carolina parakeet one of the top candidates for “de-extinction.” That’s a process in which DNA is harvested from specimens and used to “resurrect” extinct species, not unlike “Jurassic Park” (but way less action and decidedly less Jeff Goldblum).

If someone were to spend millions of dollars doing all of the genetic and breeding work to bring back this species, or any other, how will they figure out where to release these birds? Given the effects of climate change, it’s no longer a given that scientists could release birds exactly where they used to be and expect them to flourish.

Whether or not de-extinction is a worthwhile use of conservation effort and money is another question, best answered by someone other than me. But this is just an example of one potential use of this type of research.

In many ways, the history of the Carolina parakeet’s decline parallels the history of American growth over the course of the 19th century. All that prosperity came with many terrible costs. As the U.S. expanded and remade the landscape to suit its needs, many native species lost out.

Today, parrots face a serious threat of extinction. Parrot diversity tends to be highest in areas around the world that are rapidly developing, much like the U.S. during the 19th century. So whatever lessons the Carolina parakeet can teach us may be crucial moving forward.

I continue to study Carolina parakeets, and other recently extinct species, in the effort to hear and relate these lessons. As cliche as it is to say, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Originally published in The Conversation.

How Privacy Concerns Drive Website Business Models

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Icon of Facebook, WhatsApp, and Messenger (Facebook's proprietary messaging app) alongside other social media apps on a Samsung Galaxy smartphone's touchscreen. (Erik Tham/Getty Images)
Limiting online privacy intrusion may be best accomplished through the invisible hand of the market itself, says business professor Ram Gopal. (Erik Tham/Getty Images)

As is evident with the current Facebook crisis, third parties pose a significant potential privacy risk to visitors. But Facebook is not the only website using them. The convenience of easy sign-ins with Google or Twitter accounts also results in immediate identification with third parties.

Currently, there is effectively no tracking of where your data goes, and no ability for a consumer to know what is done with their data.

Even before the Facebook data breach, a U.S. Senate report found that visits to online news sites may involve connecting with hundreds of other parties, and the “sheer volume of such activity makes it difficult for even the most vigilant consumer to control the data being collected or protect against its malicious use.”

If simply landing on a website can cause substantial and instantaneous sharing with third parties, this begs the question, “What’s going to limit this privacy intrusion?”

Regulatory organizations such as the Federal Trade Commission and the European Union are looking into policy enforcement strategies.

But an overlooked method of limiting this privacy intrusion is through the invisible hand of the market itself. Our work focuses on the possibility that websites dealing with visitors who are more concerned about their privacy will be faced with a market that curbs their behavior.

In a paper published in a recent issue of MIS Quarterly, we found that when visitor privacy concerns for a website are high relative to the competition, the website will have a smaller niche market of customers willing to pay high subscription prices in exchange for privacy protection.

We concentrated on two sources of income for websites: subscriptions and the sale of visitor data to third parties. A website using the subscription model needs a large base of visitors, but it can also sell visitor information in secondary markets through advertising or other third parties. Therefore, the website must strike a balance between subscription and third party monetization in this two-sided market.

An overlooked method of limiting this privacy intrusion is through the invisible hand of the market itself.

At the other extreme, a website facing low visitor privacy concerns can tap into a larger market of customers willing to exchange their personal information to access the website. We found that the website’s profits are highest when visitors have moderate privacy concerns – not too low and not too high – especially when the competition faces very high privacy concerns.

We also analyzed how the third party industry structure is impacted by visitor privacy concerns.

We found that higher visitor privacy concerns will result in the website using fewer third parties, and the result is a higher concentration in the third party market for that industry. Higher industry security requirements result in higher barriers to entry, which also increase the industry concentration of third parties.

These findings about the third party market corroborate the finding that third party concentration is higher in markets with high privacy concerns, such as healthcare. Ironically, in a concentrated market, the fewer – but more powerful – third parties collect data from manywebsites. These third parties gain a more comprehensive visitor profile, which has greater value, but also greater privacy risk to visitors.

In the wake of the Facebook data breach, it is evident that policymakers and regulatory organizations must monitor the third party market for potential privacy violations.

Additionally, requiring transparency with respect to the exact third parties and the types of data they are receiving would allow consumers to make better decisions regarding their privacy. Adding tracking features for consumers to see where their data goes beyond these third parties would create additional and potentially important transparency.

Currently, there is effectively no tracking of where your data goes, and no ability for a consumer to know what is done with their data.

OVPR Quarterly Reports

Dear Colleagues,

Now that data has been finalized, I would like to provide you with several reports relating to sponsored program activity—both research and education/service—managed by Sponsored Program Services within the Office of the Vice President for Research at UConn and UConn Health. These reports include:

In the reports, data is presented in two ways: by the PI’s Academic Home Department and by the Managing Department or Center/Institute. Please refer to the first pages of the reports for definitions and information regarding the data. Should you have any questions regarding these quarterly reports, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Please note that we have included an additional Summary of Sponsored Program Activity, including the Effective F&A rate on awards. This information provides a snapshot of our activity as compared to the same period last year and can be found on the third page of the Proposals, Awards, and Expenditures: FY14-FY18Q2 report.

Through the 2nd quarter of FY2018, we have seen continued increases in Proposals, Awards, and Expenditures over the same period in FY2017. The significant increase in Awards is primarily due to a shifting of Federal awards from the last quarter of FY2017 to the 1st quarter of FY2018 due to delays in the approval of the federal budget. Award rates are expected to return to more traditional levels as the year progresses. FY2018 combined Expenditures across both campuses are on track with FY2017 spending; however, there has been a decrease at UConn Health which has been offset by an increase at Storrs. The Effective F&A rate for FY2018 through the 2nd quarter at Storrs is 29.60% and 33.24% for UConn Health.

The OVPR continues to seek creative solutions to address the major challenges UConn and UConn Health researchers face as a result of decreasing federal funds. I am confident we can continue upwards trends by continuing to work together, aggressively apply for extramural funding, and pursuing new channels of support for the tremendous research, scholarship, and creative activities taking place every day at UConn and UConn Health.

Thank you for your continued commitment and contribution to our students, to your research and scholarship, and to UConn/UConn Health.

Sincerely,

Dr. Radenka Maric
Vice President for Research
UConn/UConn Health
Professor in Sustainable Energy
438 Whitney Road Ext., Unit 1006
Storrs, CT 06269
Storrs: 860.486.3621
UCH: 860.679.2230
www.research.uconn.edu

Bones in All the Wrong Places

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Skeleton of Harry Eastlack (1933-1973), who had a rare disorder called fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva caused by a genetic mutation that transforms connective tissue, such as muscle, ligaments, and tendons, into bone, resulting in progressive fusion of all the joints in the skeletal system. (Memento Mütter Museum, under a Creative Commons License)
Skeleton of Harry Eastlack (1933-1973), who had a rare disorder called fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva caused by a genetic mutation that transforms connective tissue, such as muscle, ligaments, and tendons, into bone, resulting in progressive fusion of all the joints in the skeletal system. (Memento Mütter Museum, under a Creative Commons License)

By the time he died in 1973, Harry Eastlack had two skeletons; the one he was born with, and the one that grew around it, gradually encasing him in a prison of his own bone. Forty-five years later, UConn researchers have shown in the Feb. 2, 2018 of Nature Communications that a certain type of cell is responsible for Eastlack’s disease. Their results could help others with this disease, as well as hint at why millions of people suffer from bony growths after sports and deep tissue injuries.

Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP) affects only 1 person in 2 million. It’s caused by a spontaneous mutation that affects only a single protein. But the effect is devastating.

“In FOP, the most mild injuries – a childhood vaccination, a bruise – triggers massive bone growth. And nothing can be done about it. It can’t be surgically removed, because that triggers more bone,” says UConn stem cell biologist David Goldhamer. “If bone grows across a joint, that joint locks, and it will never move again.” Inevitably, FOP sufferers grow more and more bone, slowly getting locked in this secondary skeleton. Many die in midlife, often of respiratory problems due to their inability to breathe well. Eastlack died at age 39 from pneumonia.

Goldhamer began studying FOP when he was at the University of Pennsylvania and a doctor who treated FOP patients approached him. What is special about muscle tissue, the doctor asked. Why does muscle give rise to these bony growths? After meeting FOP patients and their families, Goldhamer was inspired to use his expertise in muscle biology to address these questions. He has researched FOP ever since, and he finally has answers to the doctor’s questions.

A microCT picture of pseudocolored heterotopic ossification. (John B. Lees-Shepard, Michael J. Schneider Jr., and David J. Goldhamer/UConn Photo)

The mystery bone-making culprit, it turns out, isn’t related to muscle. Instead, it’s a type of cell called Fibro/Adipogenic Progenitors (FAPs). FAPs hang out in muscle tissue, but it’s not entirely clear what they do. No one had any idea they were capable of making cartilage and bone.

Goldhamer, post doc John Lees-Shepard, and assistant research professor Masakazu Yamamoto at UConn, as well as colleagues at the University of Michigan and Alexion Pharmaceuticals, examined FAPs with a mutation in the ACVR1 protein. University of Pennsylvania scientists had already identified the mutation as the cause of FOP. What Goldhamer and his colleague showed is what it does: it alters a single type of protein that acts as a receptor on the surface of FAP cells, and this mutant receptor somehow tells FAPs to develop into cartilage and bone at injury sites.

Now Goldhamer and his colleagues are trying to understand the basic biology of how and why the disease progresses, in the hopes that future FOP patients won’t meet the same fate as poor Harry Eastlack.

 

Babe Ruth in a Kimono: How Baseball Diplomacy has Fortified Japan-US Relations

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Former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo, presents flowers to former Dodgers President Peter O'Malley (R) after he received The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon from Harry H. Horinouchi, consul general of Japan in Los Angeles, as part of Japan Night celebration at Dodger Stadium prior to the start of a baseball game between the Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies July 8, 2015 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Baseball has been a unifier, bringing together the people of two nations with vastly divergent histories and cultures, says UConn researcher Steven Wisensale. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
On Feb. 9, 2001, an American submarine, the USS Greenville, surfaced beneath the Ehime Maru, a Japanese ship filled with high school students who were training to become fishermen. The ship sank, and nine students and teachers died.

Had a Japanese submarine surfaced beneath a North Korean ship and sunk it, the two nations might have gone to war.

But in this case, U.S. and Japanese officials were able to turn to a familiar diplomatic tool: baseball. To honor the victims, they formed a youth baseball tournament that takes place each year, with the location alternating between Shikoku and Hawaii.

The role of baseball in Japanese-U.S. diplomacy has a long and rich history. After American educator Horace Wilson and railway engineer Hiroshi Hiraoka introduced the sport to the Japanese people in the 1870s, it flourished. With time, the sport has been a unifier, bringing together the people of two nations with vastly divergent histories and cultures.

Goodwill tours first began in the early 1900s, when Japanese and American college baseball teams competed against one another. Professional teams soon followed. While World War II interrupted the cultural exchange, baseball has served as a healing mechanism since the end of the war, helping the two geopolitical foes become loyal allies.

As a recent Fulbright scholar in Japan, I studied the role baseball played in the diplomatic relationship between Japan and the U.S. I’ve identified six key moments in this unique history.

The Babe wins hearts and minds

In 1934, though the clouds of war were looming, Babe Ruth and his American teammates embarked on an 18-game tour of Japan.

Swatting 13 home runs, waving American and Japanese flags, clowning with kids, and even donning a kimono, the Babe won the hearts and minds of the Japanese people.

Today, Ruth’s statue stands in the Sendai Zoo. It was on that very spot – considered sacred by some – where the great Yankees slugger’s first home run in Japan landed.

When the team returned to the U.S., Connie Mack, owner and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, proclaimed that the two countries would never go to war.

“There was strong anti-American feeling throughout Japan,” Mack told reporters, “and then Babe Ruth smacked a home run, and all the ill feeling and underground war sentiment vanished just like that!”

Unfortunately, seven years after Ruth’s visit, Mack would be proven wrong.

Lefty to the rescue

In 1949, four years after the end of World War II, American troops were still occupying Japan.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, was charged with overseeing the postwar occupation and rebuilding efforts. With food shortages and homelessness a recurring issue – and complaints about some culturally insensitive troops – he became concerned about anti-American sentiment and feared a communist insurgency.

MacArthur, who had played baseball as a cadet at West Point, understood the cultural importance of the sport to both countries. As a way to ease tensions, he summoned former MLB star Lefty O’Doul, who had become the manager of the minor league San Francisco Seals. The Japanese people were already familiar with O’Doul: He had played during the 1931 tour, persuaded Ruth to go to Japan in 1934, and helped launch a Japanese professional league in 1936.

The Seals would become the first American baseball team to play in Japan since Ruth’s tour, and their 10-game tour drew 500,000 fans, including 14,000 war orphans at a game against an American military all-star team. Emperor Hirohito even met with O’Doul to thank him and the Seals.

MacArthur would later say that O’Doul’s tour was the greatest example of diplomacy he had ever seen. Today, O’Doul is one of only three Americans in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.

Wally Yonamine ‘integrates’ Japanese baseball

In the early 1950s, several Japanese team owners began to explore the feasibility of recruiting American baseball players, hoping an infusion of American talent could elevate the quality of play.

However, there was still some concern about lingering hostility from the war, and owners worried that fans wouldn’t take kindly to rooting for “pure American” ballplayers. Matsutaro Shoriki, the owner of the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, reached out to his good friend, Lefty O’Doul, for advice.

After consulting with the U.S. State Department, O’Doul recommended Wally Yonamine. The Japanese-American spoke no Japanese and was initially subjected to racist taunts.

Nonetheless, as the first American to “integrate” Japanese baseball after World War II, he would change Japanese baseball forever: Between 1951 and 2017, more than 300 American players would follow Yonamine’s lead and sign with Japanese ball clubs.

Yonamine’s arrival in Japan also coincided with the signing of the 1951 peace treaty that ended U.S. occupation of Japan in 1952.

The Giants poach a player

In 1964, left-handed relief pitcher Masanori Murakami was sent to the United States by the Nankai Hawks for special instruction from the San Francisco Giants. Assigned to the Giants’ minor league affiliate in Fresno, California, Murakami was scheduled to return to the Hawks in June. But he ended up staying on with the Giants when the Hawks never summoned him home.

By September, the Giants in the heat of a pennant race needed to replenish their depleted pitching staff. So they called up Murakami from the minor leagues, and the Japanese southpaw was so effective in his short stint with the Giants that they wanted him to stay on with the team. By the end of the season, they claimed they owned the rights to his contract.

Nippon Professional Baseball protested, and although a compromise was reached – with Murakami being permitted to stay one more year with the Giants before returning to Japan permanently – no Japanese players would be allowed to come to the U.S. for more than 30 years.

Japanese team owners were well aware of what happened to the Negro Leagues after MLB clubs started poaching their best players. Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947; by 1958, they had dissolved.

‘The Tornado’ eases economic tensions

In the 1980s, Japan’s economy went into overdrive. By 1990, Japan had passed the U.S. in per capita GNP, and many Americans began to resent their success. Japanese investors were gobbling up icons of American business like Rockefeller Center and Universal Studios, while auto workers smashed Toyota cars to protest Japanese trade policy.

In 1995, finding a loophole in his contract, right-handed pitcher Hideo Nomo declared himself “retired” at age 26 and signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a free agent. Many of his countrymen viewed Nomo as a traitor, and there were rumors that his father had stopped speaking to him.

But Nomo became an instant star. With a corkscrew windup that flummoxed hitters, “The Tornado” was named the starting pitcher for the 1995 All-Star game and won the Rookie of the Year award. Nomo’s success in the States softened the backlash back home, and Japanese baseball fans ended up embracing him.

The posting fee is implemented

Yet as more and more Japanese players followed Nomo to Major League Baseball, Nippon Professional Baseball owners were rightfully concerned about losing their “national assets” and receiving nothing in return. So in 1999, they worked in concert with Major League Baseball to establish a “posting fee” system.

In short, a Japanese team can “post” a player who wants to play stateside; MLB teams then bid for the rights to negotiate with the player. This compromise apparently satisfied the Japanese, while forcing MLB teams to be more selective in pursuing Japanese ballplayers.

Some of the more notable players to join MLB clubs via the posting system include Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, and Kenta Maeda. The most recent arrival is Shohei Ohtani. This past offseason, the Los Angeles Angels paid a U.S.$20 million posting fee to Ohtani’s former team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, and gave Ohtani a $2.3 million signing bonus.

In an ironic twist, Ohtani, like Babe Ruth, is talented as a pitcher and a hitter. With the Angels, he plans to do both – a fitting echo to the legacy of the superstar who became one of baseball’s leading diplomats.

Originally published in The Conversation.

Disclosing Too Much Info Can Harm a Company’s Competitive Edge, Study Says

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Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in the New York financial district on Wall Street. (Jeff Hutchens/Edit by Getty Images)
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in the New York financial district on Wall Street. (Jeff Hutchens/Edit by Getty Images)

Strict accounting laws, designed to help shareholders gain better insight into corporations, may ultimately harm a firm’s competitive position by forcing disclosure of proprietary information, according to Ying Zhou of the University of Connecticut, who has spent years analyzing the consequences of such mandates.

Zhou, assistant professor of accounting in the School of Business, presented her findings in January at the 2018 Financial Accounting and Reporting Section Meeting in Austin, Texas.

Ying Zhou
Ying Zhou, assistant professor of accounting

The focus of her research circles around a new requirement, widely implemented in 1998, that required companies to expand their segment disclosure. Previously, enterprises grouped products and services by industry lines. The loose definition of “industry” permitted flexibility and allowed managers of some diversified firms to report all operations in a single, broadly defined segment.

Under the original requirements, some large companies combined information about their myriad businesses in one report, failing to distinguish different factions of the business. They often cited proprietary information as the reason.

To study the impact of the new requirements, Zhou collected written evidence from companies that lobbied against the changes citing a competitive disadvantage. She tracked and studied 138 of those firms, examining their performance both two years prior to the initial proposal and two years after the accounting change was implemented.

“The results lend support to corporate concerns about competitive harm caused by extensive disclosure,’’ Zhou said. “Some of this information can truly be proprietary.”

With the new requirements, called SFAS-131, regulators had sought more expansive disclosure citing the interest of informing and protecting investors. The information revealed was not previously available through other channels. The Financial Accounting Standards Board adopted SFAS-131, noting that financial preparers could provide the additional information promptly and inexpensively.

An overwhelming majority of lobbying firms opposed the proposal and argued for a competitive-harm exemption, saying the reporting plan could compromise firms’ strategic and competitive interests.

In her study, Zhou found that among those companies that objected to the new accounting requirements, operating performance declined for firms that changed their segment reporting, but not for those that continued to report the same segments. She tested her results by comparing a separate control group.

Further analysis revealed that although there was little change in sales growth but a significant increase in selling, general, and administrative expenses per dollar of sales, suggesting an unusual sales effort to maintain market share in an intensified competitive environment. Segment profitability analysis showed that the decline in performance is attributable to the new segments disclosed under the new rule.

“In accounting literature, the existence of propriety costs has been used extensively as the rational explanation for non-disclosure in many settings,’’ she said. “However there is little evidence that mandatory disclose of propriety information really results in competitive harm—until now.’’

New Study Identifies Effective Treatments for Persistent Asthma

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Asthma inhaler and a pressurised gas cannister refill. (Getty Image)
Asthma inhaler and a pressurised gas cannister refill. (Getty Image)

When it comes to treating teens and adults with persistent asthma, using a single corticosteroid and long-acting bronchodilator treatment for both daily asthma control and for rescue relief during sudden asthma attacks is more effective than taking separate medications for daily control and rescue, according to an analysis led by University of Connecticut researchers.

The findings appear today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Diana Sobieraj, left, assistant professor of pharmacy practice, and William Baker '02 (Phr) '04 Pharm.D., associate professor of pharmacy practice at the Pharmacy/Biology Building on Feb. 28, 2018. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Diana Sobieraj, left, assistant professor of pharmacy practice, and William Baker ’02 (Phr) ’04 Pharm.D., associate professor of pharmacy practice at the Pharmacy/Biology Building. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Standard treatment guidelines for persistent asthma in the United States currently suggest using different medications for daily control and rescue relief. Patients use an inhaled corticosteroid, with or without a long-acting bronchodilator known as a long-acting beta-agonist or LABA, for daily asthma control. Patients usually carry a second inhaler containing a short-acting beta-agonist (albuterol) for rescue relief when they have symptoms of wheezing, coughing, or a full-blown asthma attack.

For patients 12 and older with persistent asthma, the researchers found that Single treatment for Maintenance and Reliever Therapy, also known as SMART, resulted in significantly fewer asthma attacks, hospitalizations, and emergency room visits, compared to patients following the current standard of separate medications for control and rescue.

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways. About 25 million people in the U.S. have asthma; 7 million of them are children. While some individuals may only experience asthma when they exercise or in certain weather conditions, those with persistent asthma struggle to control their symptoms every day.

The UConn findings are part of a larger comprehensive review of asthma-related medical practices conducted for the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) at the request of the National Institutes of Health, National Heart, Lung, Blood Institute.  The complete AHRQ report is available online today.

The UConn-led review encompassed 16 randomized controlled trials involving more than 22,700 patients to evaluate the effectiveness of SMART. The formulation used for the SMART approach was almost exclusively a single inhaler with a dry powder formulation of budesonide (a corticosteroid) and formoterol (a long-acting beta-agonist).

“The use of the corticosteroid-bronchodilator treatment for daily control is well established. The whole concept behind SMART is to use the same treatment for quick relief when it is necessary, eliminating the need to carry another different medication,” said UConn Assistant Professor of Pharmacy Practice Diana Sobieraj, the study’s principal investigator. “These studies found that the corticosteroid-formoterol mix is effective not only when used for daily control, but also for quick relief.  However, we did not review the evidence about side effects related to this practice.”

New long-acting bronchodilators known as LAMAs found to be effective when added to inhaled corticosteroids for uncontrolled asthma

In a separate review also appearing today in JAMA, a UConn-led analysis found that a new class of long- acting bronchodilators – known as long-acting muscarinic antagonists or LAMAs – significantly reduced the risk of exacerbations in people over 12 years with uncontrolled asthma when added to an inhaled corticosteroid, compared to a placebo.

However, LAMAs were not associated with a significant reduction in asthma exacerbations when compared to the use of long-acting beta-agonists or LABAs, when used along with an inhaled corticosteroid, the researchers said.

“The available evidence does not suggest that there is a significant difference in the way the newer type of long-acting bronchodilators (LAMAs) impact asthma exacerbations, asthma symptoms, or lung function compared to the long-acting bronchodilators (LABAs) that have been used for years” Sobieraj said. “But the studies we reviewed are not robust enough to determine whether one of these two classes of long-acting bronchodilators may be better than the other.”

Commonly used to treat patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD, LAMAs are not currently incorporated into national treatment guidelines for asthma. The LAMA studies reviewed in the current meta-analysis focused almost exclusively on the long-acting muscarinic antagonist tiotropium.

The comprehensive scientific reviews reported in the two studies were led by a multidisciplinary team from the UConn School of Pharmacy’s Evidence-based Practice Center. The center is one of 13 nationally supported by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The centers review scientific evidence surrounding common medical conditions and new medical technologies to improve the quality and safety of national health care.

The AHRQ conducted its review of asthma treatments and protocols at the request of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). The Institute sponsors national asthma treatment guidelines. The Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma (Expert Panel Report-3) was published in 2007.

Evidence-based practice centers at Johns Hopkins University, the Mayo Clinic, and the ECRI Institute also contributed to the AHRQ review, providing scientific analysis on three other asthma-related topics.

UConn co-investigators on the systematic reviews were William Baker, Erin Weed, Elaine Nguyen, Craig Coleman, and C. Michael White. Also serving as co-investigators were Dr. Stephen Lazarus of the University of California, San Francisco; Dr. Jason Lang of Duke University; and Kathryn Blake of Nemours Children’s Specialty Care.

The research reviews were sponsored by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. They were awarded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality through Contract No. 290-2015-00012-1.

The Most Complicated Object in the Universe

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Cover image for UConn Health Journal, The Brain Issue. (Getty Images)
UConn Health Journal: UConn Health pioneers explore new frontiers to better understand one of humankind’s perpetual mysteries. (Getty Images)

Part of a series of posts for Brain Awareness Week, March 12-16.

Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku said, “The human brain has 100 billion neurons, each neuron connected to 10,000 other neurons. Sitting on your shoulders is the most complicated object in the known universe.” As long as humans have existed, people have sought to comprehend the brain. Although scholars have tried to decipher its codes for centuries, we’ve only scratched the surface.

At UConn, work with the brain spans disciplines, from psychology to linguistics to neuroscience and everything in between. In this special section, learn what UConn Health experts in neurology, physiology, gerontology, and even radiology are doing right now to further our knowledge of the brain and harness the latest discoveries and technology to improve patient care. More in the UConn Health Journal.

Dr. Alessi and the Concussion (R)evolution

3-D Printed Model Allows Brain Surgeons to Rehearse

New Epilepsy Monitoring Technology Tailors Patient Care

Pinpointing Risk Factors to Prevent Postoperative Delirium

Blood Vessels in Your Brain Don’t All Act the Same

 

Scientists Discover Evidence of Early Human Innovation, Pushing Back Evolutionary Timeline

Read on UConn Today.

In this Olorgesailie Basin excavation site, red ocher pigments were found with Middle Stone Age artifacts. The light brown and gray layers provide evidence of ancient soils and of landscapes affected by earthquakes and other seismic activity, factors that rapidly altered the environment and resources on which human ancestors depended for survival. (Human Origins Program, Smithsonian)
In this Olorgesailie Basin excavation site, red ocher pigments were found with Middle Stone Age artifacts. The light brown and gray layers provide evidence of ancient soils and of landscapes affected by earthquakes and other seismic activity, factors that rapidly altered the environment and resources on which human ancestors depended for survival. (Human Origins Program, Smithsonian)

An international team of anthropologists, including UConn researcher David Leslie, have discovered that early humans in East Africa had – by about 320,000 years ago, much earlier than previously thought – begun trading with distant groups, using color pigments, and manufacturing more sophisticated tools than those of the Early Stone Age.

Handaxes from the Olorgesailie Basin, Kenya. (Human Origins Program, Smithsonian)
Handaxes from the Olorgesailie Basin, Kenya. (Human Origins Program, Smithsonian)

These newly discovered activities, reported March 15 in the journal Science, occur tens of thousands of years earlier – verified using radiometric dating – than previous evidence has shown in eastern Africa, and approximately date to the oldest known fossil record of Homo sapiens.

These behaviors, which are characteristic of humans who lived during the Middle Stone Age, replaced technologies and ways of life that had been in place for hundreds of thousands of years.

Evidence for these milestones in humans’ evolutionary past comes from the Olorgesailie Basin in southern Kenya, which holds an archeological record of early human life spanning more than a million years. The new discoveries indicate that these behaviors emerged during a period of tremendous environmental variability in the region. As earthquakes remodeled the landscape and climate fluctuated between wet and dry conditions, technological innovation, social exchange networks, and early symbolic communication would have helped early humans survive and obtain the resources they needed despite unpredictable conditions, the scientists say.

“The innovation to create these new tools and adapt these new suites of behaviors is likely driven by the changes in the environment these people were adapting to,” says Leslie, a research scientist in the Department of Anthropology at UConn, whose expertise in stone tools helped with the research. “Developing new tools to extract more resources from the environment is a particularly human characteristic.”

An animation showing the small stone-point obsidian tool sliding off the larger, unshaped piece of volcanic stone. (Human Origins Program, Smithsonian)
An animation showing a small stone-point obsidian tool sliding off a larger, unshaped piece of volcanic stone. The obsidian was not sourced locally, suggesting that exchange networks were in place to move quantities of the stone across the ancient landscape. (Human Origins Program, Smithsonian)

The first evidence of human life in the Olorgesailie Basin comes from about 1.2 million years ago. For hundreds of the thousands of years, people living there made and used large stone-cutting tools called handaxes. Beginning in 2002, the team discovered a variety of smaller, more carefully shaped tools in the Olorgesailie Basin. Isotopic dating by collaborators revealed that the tools were surprisingly old – made between 320,000 and 305,000 years ago. These tools were carefully crafted and more specialized than the large, all-purpose handaxes. Many were points designed to be attached to a shaft and potentially used as projectile weapons, while others were shaped as scrapers or awls.

While the handaxes of the earlier era were manufactured using local stones, the researchers found small stone points made of non-local obsidian at their Middle Stone Age sites. The team also found larger, unshaped pieces of the sharp-edged volcanic stone at Olorgesailie, which has no obsidian source of its own. The diverse chemical composition of the artifacts matches that of a wide range of obsidian sources in multiple directions 15 to 55 miles away, suggesting exchange networks were in place to move the valuable stone across the ancient landscape.

The team also discovered black and red rocks – manganese and ocher – at the sites, along with evidence that the rocks had been processed for use as coloring material.

“The pigments are really interesting and important in that they show early signs of symbolic representation,” Leslie says. “They were maybe painting their bodies, perhaps their clothing, or using them for rock art. What is striking about the use of the pigment is that it shows people were thinking 320,000 years ago in very similar ways to how we think about the world too.”

Hoping to understand what might have driven such fundamental changes in human behavior, the research team integrated data from a variety of sources to assess and reconstruct the ancient environment in which the users of these artifacts lived. Their findings suggest that the period when these behaviors emerged was one of changing landscapes and climate, in which the availability of resources would have been unreliable.

Developing new tools to extract more resources from the environment is a particularly human characteristic.— David Leslie

Geological, geochemical, paleobotanical, and faunal evidence indicates that an extended period of climate instability affected the region beginning around 360,000 years ago, at the same time earthquakes were continually altering the landscape. Although some researchers have proposed that early humans evolved gradually in response to an arid environment, Potts says his team’s findings support an alternative idea. Environmental fluctuations would have presented significant challenges to inhabitants of the Olorgesailie Basin, prompting changes in technology and social structures that improved the likelihood of securing resources during times of scarcity.

The paper also highlights the published contributions of the Kapthurin Formation project, also in Kenya, led by UConn anthropology professor Sally McBrearty.

The research teams for this study published in Science include collaborators from the following institutions: the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museums of Kenya, George Washington University, the Berkeley Geochronology Center, the National Science Foundation, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Missouri, the University of Bordeaux (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), the University of Connecticut, Emory University, and the University of Bergen.

Funding for this research was provided by the Smithsonian, the National Science Foundation (grant numbers EAR-1322017, BCS-0218511 (RP) 2011116368 (AMZ), BCS-1240694 (ASB and AMZ), DGE-0801634, EAR-1322017, BCS-0802757, BCS-0814304), and George Washington University.

Brain Awareness: Toward Growing an Artificial Mind

Read on UConn Today.

A brain-shaped printed circuit board. (Alfred Pasieka,/Science Photo Library via Getty Images)
UConn Health/JAX researcher Min Tang-Schomer is experimenting with nerve cells and electrical signals in a dish to recreate the way neurons ‘talk’ to each other in the brain. She hopes that eventually insights from her work could be used to help and heal people who don’t have the normal connections between neurons that a healthy brain takes for granted. (Alfred Pasieka,/Science Photo Library via Getty Images)

Part of a series of posts for Brain Awareness Week, March 12-16.

The structure of the brain is beautiful, an enormous web of interwoven neurons that constantly fire thoughts back and forth in crackles of bioelectrical impulses. But although we can map the physical structure, no one has been able to observe a living, thinking brain building itself. So we don’t know how neurons self-organize to create their web – or why they sometimes fail to, as in certain kinds of mental illness and intellectual deficits.

Instead of grappling with the brain’s complexity, UConn Health assistant professor of pediatrics and biomedical engineer Min Tang-Schomer wondered if she could create a simple, single brain circuit from scratch. Tang-Schomer, who also has a joint appointment as research scientist at the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, began growing neurons in a dish. Even just a few neurons in a dish are beautiful.

“They look like the cosmos,” she says. And when she attached a few electrodes to the cells and began to send them electrical signals, the cells responded. With a couple of electrodes and some experimenting, she was able to make the neurons pulse in synchrony. It’s a sign they’re wired together in a functional way.

Min-Tang Schomer hopes insights from her neurons in a dish could ultimately be used to help and heal people who don’t have the normal connections between neurons that a healthy brain takes for granted.

The electrodes might seem artificial, but the electrical signal, after being converted to a chemical signal, is the natural way our neurons talk to each other. When a photon hits a receptor in your eye, the receptor flashes a pulse of electrical signal through your optical nerve that tells your brain ‘purple’. When you brush your hand along a stove, the nerves send an electrical impulse to your brain that screams ‘hot!’ That’s how a baby’s brain learns to organize itself. The sight of a flame quickly gets linked to the feeling of pain the first time a toddler reaches for a lit candle. Over time, the functional associations of different parts of the brain get reinforced into stronger and thicker nerve connections. Connections less frequently used might disappear.

In a dish, Tang-Schomer’s lab wants to re-create the process with neurons, electrodes, and some experimenting. Previously she has fabricated an artificial circuit with paved “highways” for the nerve bundles, called axons. Now she plans to connect this circuit to the synchronization program she just found, and explore how the neurons adapt. She has also tried different pulsing programs to direct the growth of nerve connections in three dimensions, work she recently published in Brain Research. Combining all these technologies, Tang-Schomer hopes that one day, we can not only observe how the brain grows in a dish, but also play with an artificial mind.

No one knows what Tang-Schomer’s neurons in a dish are thinking about, if you can even call the pulsing of a single circuit of neurons in a dish a ‘thought’. But she hopes that these simple circuits will lead to more complex circuits, and a better understanding of how neurons organize into brains. Eventually she hopes insights from her neurons in a dish could be used to help and heal people who don’t have the normal connections between neurons that a healthy brain takes for granted.

Read more about UConn research on the brain in the series Brainstorm