Neurological issues may drive common voice disorders

June 7th, 2017in News Releases, Sargent College

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: June 7, 2017
CONTACT: 
Stephanie Rotondo, Sargent College at 617-353-7476 or rotondos@bu.edu

Neurological issues may drive common voice disorders

Abnormal voice patterns thought to be created by emotional stress may instead be due to breakdowns in speech motor control.

Hyperfunctional voice disorders (HVDs) are hard to describe but easy to hear. People with the condition produce a grab-bag of forms of unusual voice behaviors that make them more difficult to follow. Nodules on the vocal cords may trigger the condition, but it may linger after the nodules are removed by surgery. Voice exercises or other treatments sometimes work and sometimes do not.

And although HVDs are the most common class of voice disorders, afflicting about 3% of the U.S. population, their causes are not well understood. Doctors typically attribute the condition to emotional stress that affects the performance of muscles involved in speech.

A study by researchers at Boston University College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College, however, suggests that a neurological problem affecting those muscles also can be to blame.

“We show the first evidence that some HVDs may be due to a motor control disorder, in which patients improperly process what they hear,” says Cara Stepp, an assistant professor of speech, language and hearing sciences at Sargent College. “This is a very small study, but it’s important because no one previously showed a neurological cause for this condition.”

“Calling this condition ‘hyperfunctional’ suggests that it is something that you should just be able to stop doing, but that’s clearly not true,” says Stepp, the lead author on a paper about the research in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research.

In some cases, she notes, people can regain their normal voices after rigorous massages or other treatments, but these successes are often followed by a relapse of the condition.

Stepp and her colleagues hypothesized that some HVD patients might have neurological difficulties in integrating audio cues into their voice control, a breakdown that occurs in many other types of communication disorders.

The team tested their theory with experiments on two groups of nine people—one group with HVD and one group without. Participants were outfitted with headsets and microphones, and told to repeat a series of “ahs”, maintaining their pitch and volume as well as possible, while listening to their own voices in the headsets. The researchers very slowly raised the pitch of the participant’s voice until it was higher by one semitone (the interval between two adjoining piano keys), and then returned it to the original pitch.

As they heard their voices rise in pitch, people with normal vocal control lowered the pitch of their speech to try to compensate. “When we move the pitch up, your brain realizes that it’s higher than your target, so next time you produce your pitch a tiny bit lower,” says Stepp who runs the Sensorimotor Rehabilitation Engineering Lab.

Five of the people with HVD, however, instead raised the pitch of their speech, “which was extremely strange,” she says. And when they heard their voices on the headsets return to the original pitch, these five participants did not go back to the baseline.

“This finding suggests that they have a problem with properly utilizing auditory feedback to control their voice,” Stepp says.

The results correspond closely with some clinical observations, she adds. “It’s quite common for someone with HVD to say that the condition started when they had a cold, and then it just never went away. That’s an interesting match with our findings—when the perturbation we create is done, they ramp up their pitch even further and create a voice that’s even worse.”

Through recent funding from the National Institutes of Health, her lab is collaborating with the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Laryngeal Surgery and Voice Rehabilitation to recruit participants for a larger five-year HVD project. The researchers will examine a larger group of participants in greater detail, adding other forms of audio-feedback tests.

“We then can make individual computational models of the vocal motor control system for each participant, which will get us much closer to understanding the mechanisms,” she says.

This work will exploit a model of speech motor control called DIVA (Directions Into Velocities of Articulators) developed by Frank Guenther, a BU professor of speech, language and hearing sciences.

DIVA can help to highlight activity in specific areas of the brain, potentially allowing researchers to design brain imaging experiments that highlight the precise neurological pathways that go astray with HVDs, Stepp says.

Her group also will compare motor-control behaviors of HVD patients both before and after successful voice therapy. These analyses may demonstrate either that people who are successful at voice therapy learn to compensate for their abnormal motor-control responses, or that the rehabilitation actually fixes the neurological glitches, she says.

“By cataloguing exactly what happens during voice therapy, we hope to tease out the relationship between who resolves these responses and what kinds of therapies did they get, which is how this research could directly lead to better rehabilitation,” Stepp says. “We have a lot of work ahead of us, but we’ll know a lot more in five years.”

Other co-authors on the paper, all from Boston University, included Rosemary Lester-Smith, Defne Abur, Ayoub Daliri, J. Pieter Noordzij and Ashling Lupiani.

# # #

Deployment Stress Impacts Well-Being through Different Mental Health Issues for Female and Male Veterans

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, June 1, 2017
CONTACT: Gina DiGravio, 617-638-8480, ginad@bu.edu

Deployment Stress Impacts Well-Being through Different Mental Health Issues for Female and Male Veterans

(Boston)— Experiencing stress-related mental health issues following deployment exposures increases risk of reduced well-being in other life domains in the years following military service for veterans. Gender plays an important role in these associations.

The findings, which appear in Clinical Psychological Science, have implications for better understanding the challenges female and male veterans face upon returning from service and may lead to ways care can be optimized with consideration of the role gender may play.

According to the researchers, previous studies have shown a relationship between the development of mental health issues, particularly PTSD, and decreased functioning and satisfaction with family and work for veterans. However, gender often has been overlooked as a variable, and the role of particular deployment stressors have not been extensively examined. “Our study illustrates the complex interplay between specific military exposures, mental health, and subsequent post deployment well-being between the genders,” explained lead author Brian Smith, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and research psychologist in the Women’s Health Sciences Division, National Center for PTSD at VA Boston Healthcare System.

In this study, which was completed at the VA Boston Healthcare System, 522 male and female Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans completed two surveys. The first was completed within two years of separation from military service, and included questions about veterans’ military experiences as well as their current mental health. The second survey was completed approximately three and a half years later and included questions about functioning and satisfaction in the domains of work, romantic relationships and parenting.

The researchers concluded that each of the deployment stressors examined—warfare exposure, military sexual harassment and family stressors—had implications for veterans’ subsequent functioning and satisfaction in the areas of work and family. In addition, these exposures were often indirectly linked to functioning and satisfaction via mental health. Interestingly, the links differed between men and women. While PTSD symptoms played an important role for both genders, depression played a role as well, especially for female veterans. For example, PTSD linked all three deployment exposures and subsequent functioning and satisfaction in romantic relationships for men, while both PTSD and depression played significant roles for women.  However, it is important to note that there were some similarities in risk as well. In the context of parenting, PTSD linked deployment exposures with reduced functioning for male and female veterans alike, and depression was the most important link in predicting lower satisfaction.

In addition, there was evidence for direct effects of military exposures on work and family quality of life. Again, some differences between males and females were found. For example, family stressors during deployment were directly associated with increased risk for parental impairment for female veterans, whereas for men the effect was only indirect through PTSD. These findings support the position that men and women may experience different military exposures and react in different ways. “This understanding of risk for reduced well-being, including the role of gender differences, may provide further important insight as to how to best cater post-military services to veterans’ unique needs following military service,“ added Smith. “From a clinical perspective, these findings suggest that services aimed at addressing returning veterans’ reintegration into work and family life might pay particular attention to male and female veterans’ experiences while deployed, as well as their current mental health.”

Funding for this study was provided by two Department of Veterans Affairs, Health Services Research and Development Service grants: “Validation of Modified DRRI Scales in a National Sample of OEF/OIF Veterans” (DHI 09-086), Dawne Vogt, Principal Investigator, and “Work and Family Functioning in Women Veterans: Implications for VA Service Use” (IIR 12-345), Dawne Vogt and Brian Smith, Principal Investigators.

# # #

Boston University’s 144th Commencement Address: Bonnie Hammer

May 21st, 2017in 2017, News Releases

Chair of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group, Bonnie Hammer 

(CGS’69, COM’71, SED’75)

Boston University Commencement Address

Nickerson Field

May 21, 2017

Thank you, President Brown, Members of the Board of Trustees, Faculty and staff, friends and family, and most of all, the 6,532 members of this most distinguished Class of 2017:

Congratulations!

I’m so honored to share this day with you, especially because I didn’t make it to my own graduation. Actually, I almost didn’t make it to Boston University at all. I was originally planning on going to NYU, a quick subway ride from Queens, where I grew up.

But my wise older brother said to me, “If you go to school in New York, mom will be at your dorm three times a week.” All of a sudden, a four-hour drive to Boston became a very attractive proposition.

Of course, once I had escaped my parents, I realized NOT only how much I loved them, but how much I owed them for my success. So before we go any further, let’s hear it for your parents, your loved ones, and everyone who helped you get here today!

I certainly learned a lot during my time at BU. It was a great school back then, and even greater now. Thanks for making my degree look even better every year, I am an incredibly proud alumna.

After grad school, I lucked into my first job in television and it’s been a fun journey ever since. Over the years, television has changed a lot, and those changes only seem to be accelerating.

But there’s one thing that will always remain constant. Whatever the genre: scripted, unscripted, even news and sports. Television, at its core, is a platform for telling stories.

And for thousands of years, stories have entertained and inspired us. They’ve shocked and charmed us. They’ve brought us unforgettable characters, from Odysseus
to Kim Kardashian. For the record, I had nothing to do with Odysseus, Kim…I’ll plead the Fifth.

You may not know it now, If you studied communications or engineering, law or medicine, business or classics: you’re a storyteller, too.

When you leave here today, you’ll begin writing the most powerful, most meaningful, story of your life. It’s the story of YOU.

Now, as you can imagine, I’ve heard a whole lot of story pitches in my career. Some good, some not so good. And what I’ve learned is that the most compelling stories have five elements in common:

1. The best stories have a strong lead character who undergoes some sort of transformation. That, my friends, is you.

2. They have a cast of supporting characters who help them achieve more than they can do alone. You’ll meet them, if you haven’t already.

3. They have conflict and adversity that the lead character must overcome. That’s coming, for sure.

4.They are also grounded in an interesting, exciting, time and place. Trust me, that’s now.

5.And finally, they help us understand something that was hidden or undiscovered before.

With these elements in mind, let’s talk about the story of you. And of course, like any good television executive, I have some notes that might help you along the way.

Want to hear them? You’re a captive audience… So here we go.

The best stories start by establishing character. Not just likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, but attitude. Because attitude sets the tone for so much else, something I learned on my first job.

I was working just down the street at the local PBS station, WGBH. I was a production assistant on a kids’ TV show called “Infinity Factory.” As a PA, everyone outranks you- everyone. You’re often assigned to a cast member, to help them with whatever they need. Whether it’s running lines, making copies, or picking up coffee. I was assigned to one of the most popular members of the show’s cast, the sheep dog. You know, when people complain that their job is crap? My job was literally crap.

Because instead of coffee, that’s what I had to pick up. But here’s the thing, I would do it all over again. That job taught me how important it is to understand the needs of your coworkers- canine or otherwise. Life dishes out plenty of crap, figuratively and sometimes literally. It’s how you handle the crap that counts.

Now all characters need development, and the lead in your story does, too. And nobody’s going to help you more than some key supporting characters. After all, where would Batman be without Robin, Kirk without Spock, Serena without Venus, Ben without Jerry, or for that matter, the other Ben without Matt?

Who are the supporting characters who will be central to your story? The catalysts for your best conversations and your biggest transformations. You’ve already identified a few of them: your parents, your professors, your friends; the warm, caring, wise people we typically think of as mentors. For me, it was my father.

But there’s another type, equally important, someone I call the challenging mentor. This is the person you think is your antagonist, who ends up being your greatest ally. The person who pushes, criticizes and challenges you, to meet a standard of excellence you might not otherwise achieve. For Harry Potter, think Professor Snape, for Tom Brady, think Bill Belichick.

I met my first challenging mentor right here at BU. His name was Harris Smith, and he was a brilliant ex-Army sergeant who taught photography. And when I say “taught,” I mean he commanded the darkroom like boot camp.

He would hold up a photograph and say, “Bonnie, this is pure junk!” He literally kicked me out of class and would not let me return until I had put in the effort to take a great shot. It wasn’t fun, but I knew he was right, and that I could do much better.

Throughout my career, I’ve had other mentors who initially terrified me but who ended up nurturing me. The most memorable was, and still is, Barry Diller. A media giant, and my boss at USA and SYFY many years ago.

One Friday night I got an email from him. Subject line: “Your decisions.” Those two words sent shivers down my spine. Barry had some questions about one of our SYFY shows, called “Crossing Over,” which featured a psychic.

The Question: If the psychic was real, why was he on the science fiction channel? And if he wasn’t real, why the hell were we in business with him at all?

That’s right, if you think you’re done with philosophy just because you’re wearing a cap and gown- think again.

Barry’s interrogation lasted the entire weekend. He wanted to understand not just what I had decided, but how. My facts, my logic, my entire thought process. He forced me to think outside my comfort zone, and create a water-tight argument that I had to own.

By 11 p.m. Sunday, I had reached the conclusion: you can’t prove that psychics are real, so a show with a psychic exists somewhere between fact and fiction, perfect for the SYFY channel.

Barry’s final note simply said, “Okay, your arguments win.” To this day, those are some of the best four words I’ve ever heard. I mean, they are right up there with, “Here’s a big promotion,” “Will you marry me,” and “Free drinks at the Dugout!” Okay, that’s five words.

My point is these supporting characters are vital. When they push you, you might stumble, you may even fall down but once you get up, and you will, you’ll end up standing even taller.

Now, even fairy tales don’t go straight from “once upon a time” to “happily ever after.” There’s going to be, there’s gotta be, conflict. And in most conflicts your voice is the most powerful tool you have.

The thing is before you use your voice you have to learn how and when to use it. And that starts not by speaking with arrogance but listening with humility.

Who is your audience? What do they want? What are they trying to tell you? And how can you get them to “yes”?

I once worked on a show where I knew my voice would never be the loudest in the room. I also knew it would be a couple octaves higher than everyone else’s, because the room was full of pro-wrestlers and World Wrestling executives.

I had been put in charge of WWE, even though I knew nothing about wrestling. You can imagine how skeptical everyone was- including me.

This meeting was a recipe for hot tempers and high anxiety. My first task was to convince a room full of strangers to work with me and trust me. Strangers who had necks wider than my waist.

So my approach- I sat quietly and listened. I didn’t cower in the corner, and I didn’t claim to have all the answers. What I did was figure out what they needed and what I had to offer. These guys knew wrestling and their audience. I knew how to develop characters and build stories. I knew how to make good TV.

And that very first conversation, which was honest and authentic on both sides, became the basis for a wonderful 20-year work relationship and deep friendship- not to mention some very entertaining wrestling.

So find your voice. Know when to use it. And, just as important, when NOT to use it.

Your attitude, your supporting cast, how you handle conflict. Those are all choices your character makes. But there are two pieces of your story that you don’t get to choose: time and place.

Forty-six years ago, when I was sitting where you are, or when I was supposed to be sitting where you are, everything felt uncertain and unsettled.

We were fighting a deeply unpopular war in Vietnam. Student protesters at Kent State had been fired upon—and four killed—by the Ohio National Guard. Civil rights issues were front and center. Many of us looked for guidance from BU’s own Howard Zinn, a beloved professor and prominent anti-war and civil rights activist.

Meanwhile, our technology and culture were changing rapidly, the modern environmental movement was taking off. Women were rebelling against the patriarchy. And people on all sides of every issue were taking to the streets.

We felt like we couldn’t trust our leaders, or authority in general. The future, and our roles in it, were open questions.

Sound familiar?
But when the stakes are highest, that’s when the world needs you most. That’s when

your story goes from being about a character, to being about character.
Today, everywhere you look, people are retreating into bubbles. And those bubbles are

hardening into shells. We’re not willing to see, much less embrace, difference.

Now, in my family difference is a given. I’m a Russian Jew from Queens. My husband’s a WASP from Cleveland, My stepdaughter, Ki Mae, is half Malaysian. Her grandparents are Indian and Chinese and my son Jesse’s identity was informed by all of the above.

Around our dinner table, difference is celebrated. But outside our home, that’s not always the case.

I remember the first time I faced anti-Semitism while studying in Kansas for a semester. I remember when Ki Mae’s elementary school classmate told her that her skin was too dark. I remember being asked if my own stepdaughter was my son’s nanny.

But moments like these are the reason it’s so important that we listen to other people’s stories, and share our own.

Many years ago at USA Network, we launched a campaign called “Erase the Hate.”

It started as a series of documentaries highlighting stories of people from all walks of life and became an award-winning initiative dedicated to acceptance and tolerance.

Sadly, that mission is even more relevant today.

In this moment of polarization, it’s more important than ever that we pay attention to each other’s stories.

And that starts with you.

I encourage you to take the time to figure out where other people are coming from- literally and figuratively. Learn about your own blind spots, acknowledge your fear, listen to podcasts that make you angry, read about things that make you uncomfortable.

Talk with- not at- people with different points of view.

When you step outside your bubble you’ll develop more empathy for people with whom you disagree. You’ll develop a stronger sense of self, and become a better advocate for what you believe.

If I’ve learned anything in the years since I graduated it’s that the most improbable stories are the ones that capture your imagination. Because they allow you to see things differently and they teach you something about your own character.

That’s the reason we started telling stories in the first place: they help us understand things we didn’t before.

Today, your story begins anew.

You have everything you need to make it a great one: The talent, the education, the character and the voice.

Now all you have to do is write it, tell it and live it, fully. Thank you, and Congratulations, Class of 2017!

Boston University’s 144th Commencement Baccalaureate Address: Mario J. Molina

May 21st, 2017in 2017, News Releases

Mario J. Molina

Nobel Prize Recipient, 1995

Baccalaureate Address, Boston University

Boston, Massachusetts

May 21, 2017

It’s a privilege and an honor for me to celebrate with you, and to congratulate all of you for the Baccalaureate degree you have earned at Boston University.

Let me start with some words of advice for all of you, who are receiving a degree today: the advice is to find out what sorts of activities, what sort of work do you enjoy most; it is a matter of trial and error.  The idea is that you can choose to continue pursuing those types of activities you like most, perhaps in your graduate studies, or perhaps in your future work.  The point is, if you enjoy what you are doing, then it is likely that you will become very good at it.  And my advice is, if you enjoy what you are doing, do it with passion, and you will like it even more.  Perhaps you enjoy science, say doing experiments, or perhaps you enjoy working with computers, for example, doing theoretical calculations, or perhaps you enjoy working as an economist, or as a social sciences expert, or even as a politician.  In my case, since I was a kid I enjoyed science; I enjoyed doing experiments, which often required a lot of patience and perseverance, but the rewards were enormous: finding out that I was able to contribute to the advancement of fundamental science, finding out how nature works, and then applying this knowledge for the benefit of society, became extremely satisfactory.

Now, I realize, of course, that not all of you have decided to become scientists.  Nevertheless, I believe that science has now become part of universal culture.  What I mean is not that everybody should be familiar with all sorts of science laws, but rather, that everybody should be aware of the enormous importance of science in modern society, particularly in these times when the importance of science is being questioned by various powerful groups.

Let me explain. Human civilization has progressed enormously in recent times, and it is mainly as a consequence of advances in science and its applications.   Life expectancy has more than doubled in the past 50 years; airplane travelling across the globe is currently not only feasible, but extremely safe; structures such as high-rise buildings no longer fall down merely as a consequence of large earthquakes; modern science has made it possible for a large fraction of the population to communicate with digital, hand-held phones; and so on. This age of deep transformation and revolutionary scientific discoveries was developed mostly over the past century, with extraordinary results over the last few decades: the quality of life has improved substantially for a large section of society, although it is important to recognize that a significant portion of the global population remains in poverty.

Science advances through basic research activities that rely on evidence-based observations and inquiry.  Scientific knowledge is created by reproducing experimental results and by testing hypotheses, which lead to a deeper understanding of how the world works. There are findings that we refer to as fundamental science, such as the Laws of Newton, the existence of electromagnetic waves, the existence of molecules, and the theory of relativity; it took some time after the discovery of these components of science to become well established, but they are now unquestionable.  An important aspect of the advancement of science is based, though, on skepticism: new theories must be tested, experimental results duplicated, etc., before they are accepted as part of modern science.

One complication connected with the development of science is the nature of the so-called “complex systems”, which leads to uncertainties.   One example is the human body: there are many spectacular scientific advances in biology and medicine related to human health, but there remain uncertainties associated with the results.  An example is the effect of medications used to cure diseases; they might work for a majority, but there is no absolute certainty that they will function effectively for all humans, because of the differences among them resulting from the complexity of the human body.

For these reasons, it is important to acknowledge that there are uncertainties associated with predictions involving complex systems; however, this fact by no means implies that society should ignore the projections of well-established science unless there is absolute certainty in such projections.  What should be done in such cases is to base societal actions on the risk involved, which depends on the science and on its uncertainties, as well as on the resources available to society to implement such actions, and on social and political issues.

It is crucial to highlight this last point.  Science itself does not tell society what to do, or how to progress; it can, however, predict with some confidence the consequences of different societal actions.  Science is neither good or bad; its impacts depend on the nature of the policies implemented by society, which in turn depend on economic and social considerations, on the availability of resources, etc., but most importantly, the policies also depend on ethical considerations, including societal values.  Fortunately, the international scientific community shares important values such as aiming for the improvement of the quality of life for the entire population of our planet.   In fact, for civilization to progress it is crucial for societal policies to be based on accepted ethical values, as well as to be consistent with accepted science, rather than to be based on irrational believes that disagree with science itself and that favor only a selected portion of the population.

Let me illustrate these ideas with a couple of additional examples.  In the human health realm, one example is the use of vaccines: despite some errors committed in the early days of their use by society, vaccines have saved millions of lives, and thus today it is unethical to prevent vaccination just because of irrational believes developed by certain groups.  Another example has to do with tumors: often a physician cannot tell for sure if a certain tumor is cancerous, but even if the probability that it is so is not very large, the most sensible recommendation is to remove the tumor with surgery, or to destroy it with radiation.

Let me know say a few words about climate change.  There is an unusual consensus among climate scientists, not only that climate is changing, but that there is more than a 95% probability that most of the recent change has been caused by human activities, mainly the use of fossil fuels.  There is no other reasonable explanation.   Now, the earth’s climate is a complex system, and because of that we talk about probabilities, and thus, projections of changes that might take place in the future for a given emissions scenario are uncertain.  Nevertheless, with the help of science, we can estimate, for example, the probability that the average temperature of the planet will increase to a certain extent in a certain time period.  And a very worrisome projection is that there is a roughly a one in five probability that a business as usual scenario, that is, if society ignores climate change, the average surface temperature of the planet might increase five or more degrees Celsius towards the end of the Century, with potentially catastrophic consequences for civilization – parts of the planet would become uninhabitable, the capacity for global food production would be enormously affected, massive migrations would occur, and so on.  But, thanks to modern technology, it turns out that such a business as usual scenario can be prevented at practically no cost and without reducing the number of jobs available to society, so that there is really no excuse whatsoever to accept the enormous risk to future generations associated with a business as usual scenario, something that is only supported by irrational believes.

In summary, scientific research improves our understanding of natural processes, which leads to remarkable benefits for society.  On the other hand, ethical considerations are crucial: science has to work together with government and business for the continued improvement of the quality of life of the human population, now and in the future.

But let me finish by giving you my perspective about some other very important changes that have occurred recently, connected with your future work, changes also caused by advances in scientific knowledge.  It is a fact that much of the routine work people were accustomed to carry out in the past, is now carried out automatically, for example, by robots.  This change is also a consequence of developments in science and technology, but in this case, it has to do with enormous advancements in solid state physics, as well as advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, that is, advances in digital globalization.  The other side of the coin is that these developments have led to a significant loss of old-fashion jobs, particularly in the developed countries. And here is the bottom line: the notion that what you learned in college is sufficient for your future work was an acceptable point of view in the past, but it is no longer valid.  The big change, as you are all probably aware off, is that you have to continue learning throughout your career.  This means that perhaps the most important skill you should have acquired in college is how to learn, how to become motivated to keep learning, that is, how to become a lifelong learner.

And once again, congratulations for receiving your Baccalaureate degree.  I wish all of you the best of luck in your future career.  Thank you.

Statistical physics may speed up finding solutions for computational problems

May 12th, 2017in News Releases

EMBARGOED FOR RELEASE UNTIL: May 12, 2017, 5 a.m. EST
CONTACT: Margaret Waterman, at 617-358-4266 or mhw@bu.edu

Statistical physics may speed up finding solutions for computational problems
Novel physics-inspired model takes on difficult computational challenges from a new perspective

(BOSTON) – The field of statistical mechanics was initially developed to study the behavior of macroscopic numbers of atoms or molecules in gasses and liquids, and evolved to describe the properties of complex states of matter that display magnetism, superconductivity and other types of exotic behavior. Techniques inspired by statistical mechanics have also been applied to understand traffic patterns, the behavior of networks of neurons and stock market fluctuations. Researchers at Boston University (BU) and the University of Central Florida have now discovered a new way of applying statistical mechanics to certain classes of highly complex problems in computer science.

The novel approach suggests how one could create more efficient algorithms that run on traditional computers or on a new generation of hybrid classical/quantum computational hardware, says Andrei Ruckenstein, BU professor of physics and co-author on a paper introducing a new statistical mechanics representation of reversible classical computation published in the journal Nature Communications.

“Statistical mechanics studies complex systems made up of a very large number of constituents,” Ruckenstein explains. “For example, atoms that organize themselves into materials with properties, such as magnetism or superconductivity, that could not be understood in terms of the individual constituents alone.”

“Some difficult problems in classical computation have already been addressed with great success by mapping them onto a certain class of statistical mechanics models, for which the result of the computation is encoded in the lowest energy state of the system,” he says.

However, previous models of this class display transitions between different thermodynamic phases with substantively different physical properties (for example, the transition from liquid to gas). In these previous models relevant to computation the phase transition takes the system into a so-called glassy phase characterized by many competing low-energy states.

“As a result of this large number of low-energy options, finding the absolute lowest state corresponding to the solution of the computational problem is an extremely slow process,” says Claudio Chamon, a BU professor of physics and co-author on the paper. “This prevents the system from reaching its lowest energy state even for problems that could be solved efficiently by other methods.”

The research team overcame this barrier with an elegant “vertex model” of computation employing a two-dimensional lattice with reversible logic gates at the vertices of the lattice. “This model exhibits no bulk thermodynamic phase transition, so one of the obstructions for reaching a solution present in previous models is eliminated,” says Chamon. “It’s a new way of thinking about the problem.”

The vertex model may help solve complex problems in machine learning, circuit optimization and other major computational challenges. Additionally, the researchers are exploring whether the model can be applied to the factoring of semi-primes, numbers that are the product of two prime numbers. (The difficulty of performing this operation with very large semi-primes underlies modern cryptography and has offered a key rationale for the creation of large-scale quantum computers.)

Moreover, the model can be generalized to add another path to solutions of complex classical computational problems by taking advantage of quantum mechanical parallelism – the fact that, according to quantum mechanics, a system can be in many classical states at the same time.

“Our paper also presents a natural framework for programming special-purpose computational devices, such as D-Wave Systems machines, that use quantum mechanics to speed up the time to solution of classical computational problems,” says Ruckenstein. “This kind of model could be implemented into many architectures of these hybrid classical/quantum computing machines, which could help us find the ground state of the system by using quantum mechanics as an accelerator.”

In addition to its findings about computational modeling, the paper hypothesizes the existence of a novel family of glasses which do not display a thermodynamic glass transition but exhibit extremely long times scales for finding the system’s lowest energy state.

Zhi-Cheng Yang, a graduate student in physics at BU, and Eduardo Mucciolo, professor of physics at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, are co-authors on the paper. The universities have applied for a patent on aspects of the quantum vertex model.

“Our work shows that the boundary between physics and computer science is a two-way street,” Ruckenstein comments. “We physicists want to use our approaches to solve computer science problems, but we also want to bring back into physics ideas from computer science that would be very hard to articulate on the basis of physics thinking alone.”

“Interdisciplinary work like this rests on involving collaborators with strong and deep backgrounds in the various disciplines, and on figuring out how one can learn each other’s language in order to communicate effectively at these boundaries,” he adds.

Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized institution of higher education and research. With more than 33,000 students, it is the fourth-largest independent university in the United States. BU consists of 16 schools and colleges, along with a number of multi-disciplinary centers and institutes integral to the University’s research and teaching mission. In 2012, BU joined the Association of American Universities, a consortium of 62 leading research universities in the United States and Canada.

BU Associate Professor Conducts Largest Clinical Trial Aimed at Aiding Children with Depression

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: May 9, 2017
CONTACT: Jeremy Schwab at 617-358-1056 or jschwab@bu.edu

BU Associate Professor Conducts Largest Clinical Trial Aimed at Aiding Children with Depression

Family-Based Therapy May Increase Recovery

(Boston) – A recent study by BU Associate Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences, Martha Tompson, analyzed Family Focused Treatment for Children with Depression (FFT-CD) in the largest clinical trial ever to examine a non-medication treatment for children with depressive disorders. FFT-CD focuses on integrating not only the child, but also the entire family into the treatment plan in an effort to help families develop skills to enhance coping and emotional regulation, foster positive parent-child interactions, and cultivate techniques to help promote positive reinforcement and communication within the family.

The study, a collaborative effort between Tompson’s lab at BU and her colleague Joan R. Asarnow at UCLA, compared immediate post-treatment effects of FFT-CD against the effects of individual supportive psychotherapy (IP) in children aged 7 to 14 with depressive disorders. In order to gauge the effectiveness of FFT-CD, the 134 youths involved in the study were randomly assigned to receive 15 sessions of either IP or FFT-CD over a four-month period.

While at the conclusion of the four-month period both groups were satisfied with their interventions and showed reductions in depressive symptom scores, the FFT-CD group had higher rates of recovery. The results showed a higher rate of clinical depression response for the children in the FFT-CD group (77.7%) than the children in the IP group (59.9%), and families in the FFT-CD group felt as though they had greater knowledge and skills for managing depression compared with those families in the IP group.

This recent study is of great importance to the psychological community, as few studies have examined the psychosocial treatment for depression in children in this manner.  “Overall, our findings emphasize the value of psychological interventions in the treatment of depressive disorders in childhood,” Tompson and colleagues concluded.

Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized private research university with more than 30,000 students participating in undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs.  As Boston University’s largest academic division, the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences is the heart of the BU experience, creating an extensive global reach that enhances the University’s reputation for teaching and research.

# # #

Glassfrogs Show Surprising Diversity of Parental Strategies

March 31st, 2017in News Releases

Nocturnal fieldwork helps to shed light on how parental sex roles evolve

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 31, 2017

CONTACT:
Kira Jastive
617-358-1240 or kjastive@bu.edu

(BOSTON) – Laid on leaves hanging over streams in tropical rainforests, glassfrog eggs are tasty snacks for snakes, insects and other predators until they hatch and drop into the streams to begin life as tadpoles. Until recently, biologists thought the eggs of most species were on their own during this vulnerable stage, without any help from mom or dad. In just a few species, fathers were known to care for their developing embryos, and biologists thought this paternal devotion had evolved from ancestors entirely lacking parental care.

Walking along a stream in Panama very late one night, however, Jesse Delia spotted a glassfrog mother sitting on her clutch of eggs.

Delia, a PhD student in the lab of Karen Warkentin, Boston University professor of biology, went on to observe nighttime parental behavior among no fewer than 40 species of glassfrogs, working with research partner Laura Bravo Valencia, a graduate student at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia.

The two scientists found that in many species glassfrog mothers brood their eggs during the night the eggs are fertilized, and that this care improves the survival of the eggs, while in almost a third of species glassfrog fathers stay on guard for much longer periods.

Published in Journal of Evolutionary Biology, with Delia as corresponding author, the research found parental care in every glassfrog species that was sampled.

Additionally, in an analysis of glassfrog evolutionary history that takes advantage of the new field data, the investigators discovered that male parental care probably evolved from female care and that “parental care gets elaborate when males take over,” Warkentin says.

Wet work

These discoveries were based on “a tour de force of extreme fieldwork,” as Warkentin describes it. Delia and Bravo Valencia pursued their project over six rainy seasons at 22 sites along streams in Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama and Peru. The project also included field monitoring of parental behavior throughout the duration of embryonic development for 13 species – a total of 18 months walking up and down streams every night.

Some of these streams were in warm lowland forests and others up in the Andes mountains. “In Colombia, we would take buses (La Chiva) into the mountains and try to find somebody who would put us up, somewhere close to a forest, a couple hours’ hike into the stream,” Delia recalls. “Streams in the Andes are really steep, with impassable waterfalls every so often, and in many sites they are cascades of freezing cold water.”

In addition to observing the 40 species of frogs through the night, Delia and Bravo Valencia performed experiments on two species of frogs in Panama. The biologists began by removing glassfrog mothers immediately after the eggs were fertilized, before the mothers could sit on the eggs. Plucking out the frogs in this brief time period often required the researchers to jog up and down the stream, “so we were soaking wet all night,” Delia says.

Monitoring the eggs daily until they hatched, which could take almost 20 days, the researchers found that the eggs given maternal care survived significantly better than those that did not receive care.

The key to this survival was that the frogs were soaking up water from damp spots on leaves and delivering it to the eggs. The jelly surrounding the eggs then would swell up with water and grow about four times thicker. Offering these swollen egg packages to katydids, crickets that prey on frog eggs, the biologists saw some frustrated predators. “Each embryo is surrounded by this protective layer of jelly, so when the katydid bites, it’s getting mouthfuls of jelly, and it generally gives up,” says Warkentin.

Bravo Valencia and Delia also tested what it would take to get glassfrog mothers to abandon their posts in the first few crucial hours. “They would gently poke and pinch and then physically push her off the eggs, and it would take all that to get most moms to leave,” Warkentin says. “The moms are extremely dedicated to their task in that time period.”

How care evolves

“These are relatively well-studied, charismatic frogs, yet we were fundamentally wrong about the reproductive behavior of most glassfrog species,” Warkentin notes. “There is still a lot to be learned from basic fieldwork. And that primary information has the potential to change how we think about larger processes, like sex role evolution.”

“In glassfrogs, maternal care helps embryos survive, but they seem to do the bare minimum,” she says. “It seems that fathers not only took over the job, when mothers were already doing it, but they also greatly elaborated the amount of care. Even after eggs have started hatching, fathers keep caring.”

“In many animals, mothers are on duty when offspring need intensive care, whereas fathers care when it’s easy or help out when more is needed. This common pattern has influenced how we think about parental sex-roles,” Delia says. “Glassfrogs do the complete opposite – moms do the minimum (at least time-wise) while fathers go to extremes. Of course, glassfrogs are but one small branch on the tree of life. But the way we had underestimated the diversity of parental behavior stresses the importance of getting out to the field and watching animals behave.”

“Because Jesse and Laura were spending all night on the streams, they saw things that nobody had seen before,” Warkentin adds.

Lead funding for the work came from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the Fulbright Scholar Program and the National Science Foundation.

Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized institution of higher education and research. With more than 33,000 students, it is the fourth-largest independent university in the United States. BU consists of 16 schools and colleges, along with a number of multi-disciplinary centers and institutes integral to the University’s research and teaching mission. In 2012, BU joined the Association of American Universities, a consortium of 62 leading research universities in the United States and Canada.

 # # #

Egg brooding by a female Cochranella granulosa, Rio Frijoles Panama. Although maternal care is brief, our experiments found that it provides lasting benefits to embryo survival in this species. Photo by Jesse Delia
Egg brooding by a female Cochranella granulosa, Rio Frijoles Panama. Although maternal care is brief, our experiments found that it provides lasting benefits to embryo survival in this species. Photo by Jesse Delia

Diabetes Drug Shows Promise for Safely Treating, Detecting Alzheimer’s Disease

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, March 8, 2017
CONTACT: Gina DiGravio, 617-638-8480, ginad@bu.edu

Diabetes Drug Shows Promise for Safely Treating, Detecting Alzheimer’s Disease

 First Time Tested in Humans 

(Boston)– As the number of patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) rapidly increases, new treatments as well as blood tests that are simple and can be easily performed in a doctor’s office to diagnose are urgently needed.

A new study has found treatment with the diabetes drug amylin (or pramlintide) safely improves learning and memory function in AD patients and reduces the AD pathology in their brains. The findings, which appear in the Journal Translational Research and Clinical Interventions, also may lead to the development of a blood test for AD.

Currently, lumbar punctures to detect biomarkers in cerebrospinal fluid and positron emission tomography imaging scans are used to diagnose AD. Unfortunately many patients are fearful of these procedures and the high cost is prohibitive.

“A single injection of pramlintide into our patients was well tolerated and reduced the amyloid burden as well as lowered the concentrations of amyloid-β peptides, a major component of AD in the brain,” explained corresponding author Wendy Qiu, MD, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at Boston University School of Medicine.

“Our study suggests a potential role for the creation of a blood test that relies on pramlintide, which could cross the blood-brain barrier and help to translocate the biomarkers related to AD pathology including amyloid-β peptides and neuroinflammation, from the brain into the bloodstream where they can be detected,” added Qiu.

Funding for this study was provided by grants from the Alzheimer’s Disease Association (IIRG-13-284238), NIA (R21 AG045757A1), and Ignition Award (to W.Q.Q), and from Boston

University Alzheimer’s Disease Center pilot grant (to H.Z.).

# # #

Boston University Announces Two Digital Innovation MicroMasters Programs through edX

February 28th, 2017in News Releases

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 28, 2017

CONTACT:
Jan Smith, Communications Manager
Digital Learning & Innovation
617-358-8630, smithjan@bu.edu

Midge Wilcke,  Director
Marketing & Communications
Questrom School of Business
617-358-2278, mwilcke@bu.edu

(BOSTON) – Boston University Digital Learning & Innovation and Questrom School of Business announced today two MicroMasters programs which, upon completion, can be applied towards a Master of Science in Digital Innovation (MSDi) degree from Boston University Questrom School of Business. Both programs will be offered through the global edX consortium, which is unveiling a new set of MicroMasters offerings today.

Learners enrolling in the Boston University MicroMasters programs will complete five courses in either the Digital Product Management or Digital Leadership programs. Both teach essential skills and perspectives for assuming leadership positions in a rapidly changing workforce. Upon completion of either of the MicroMasters programs, course participants are offered the opportunity to apply for the seven-month Master of Science in Digital Innovation at Questrom School of Business. If an individual applies and is accepted to the MSDi program their completed online MicroMasters program will enable them to waive initial on-campus introductory courses typically required for the degree.

“The Questrom Digital MicroMasters programs will simultaneously provide outstanding relevant digital skills for participants and advance the digital learning initiatives of the Questrom School of Business,” said Ken Freeman, Allen Questrom Professor and Dean, Questrom School of Business. “Our corporate business partners are very supportive.  We look forward to extending our reach into the digital classroom with students of all ages.”

BU edX learners not interested in pursuing a MsDi degree may opt either to complete online courses for free or pay a nominal fee to upgrade to a track that will showcase their experience through a verified certificate that will validate their work in each course and authenticate their identity. Successful completion and receipt of verified certificates for all of the required courses for one of the MicroMasters programs will yield a MicroMasters certificate from BU through edX.

Learners are offered an additional option.  They can choose to complete one on-line course from the MicroMasters programs and combine it with two on-campus executive education programs to receive a certificate in digital technology from the Questrom School of Business Executive Leadership Center.

The MicroMasters programs are designed to enable participants to move rapidly into positions as project managers and entrepreneurs, as well as to position themselves for leadership roles as directors of business development, operations, human resources, or business strategy.

“We are very excited for the possibilities the MicroMasters model presents for students and faculty and the continued growth of digital learning at Boston University,” said BU Provost Jean Morrison. “These inaugural programs in the Questrom School of Business couple world-class curricula and course content with the convenience, flexibility, and accelerated timeline many rising professionals are looking for. They advance the digital infrastructure we have in place and help to put Boston University on excellent footing in this increasingly competitive marketplace.”

Digital Learning is a Major Thrust at Boston University

Originated by MIT in 2015, MicroMasters programs have become increasingly popular. With today’s announcement, 16 new programs from 12 universities are participating. MicroMaster’s programs are widely hailed by industry for their ability to shape and train new leaders with solid skills, providing deep learning in a specific career field, and the opportunity to earn a less expensive masters degree.

“We are proud to be a charter member of edX, and to stand with other forward-looking academic institutions in unveiling these new offerings,” said Chris Dellarocas, Associate Provost for Digital Learning & Innovation. “Our long-standing involvement with edX, along with our efforts in experiential and active classrooms, demonstrates BU’s commitment to stand in the forefront of digital learning.”

BU’s MicroMasters programs will begin in June of 2017 and are open for enrollment today.

About DL&I
Founded in 2016, Digital Learning & Innovation aims to strengthen Boston University’s position as a world-class higher education institution devoted to learning innovation. Our mission is to keep BU competitive in a changing world by harnessing the potential of new digital technologies to increase student engagement and success, support student recruitment and retention, improve faculty experiences and make better use of all our learning resources. For more information, please visit the website https://www.bu.edu/digital/.

About Questrom School of Business
Boston University Questrom School of Business educates visionary leaders empowered to anticipate change, harness it, and impact society to create value for the world.  We prepare students with a strong foundation in essential business skills enhanced through experiential learning. Our alumni have the education and insight necessary to lead as the global economy transforms through advances in digital technology, health and life sciences, and social enterprise and sustainability.

Founded in 1913, the Questrom School of Business has always been a pioneer—from being one of the first business schools to admit women to conducting the Business Education Jam, a global online brainstorm that raised bold questions about the future of business education. The knowledge gained from the Business Education Jam has yielded new initiatives including the Masters of Science in Management Studies, named one of the Most Innovative Business School Ideas by Poets and Quants, and the new Questrom Digital MicroMasters programs with edX.

Questrom School of Business offers undergraduate, graduate, doctoral, and executive programs. Learn more at bu.edu/questrom.

# # #

Study Finds Biomarker for Lung Cancer Detection in the Nasal Passages of Smokers

February 27th, 2017in News Releases

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 27, 2017
CONTACT: Gina DiGravio, 617-638-8480, ginad@bu.edu

(Boston)— A new nasal test may allow patients suspected of having lung cancer to undergo a simple swab of their nose to determine if they have the disease.

Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) have found that a genomic biomarker in the nasal passage can accurately determine the likelihood of a lung lesion being malignant.

The findings, which appear online in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, will allow physicians to confidently identify patients who are at low probability for having lung cancer, thus sparing them from costly and risky procedures.

The diagnostic evaluation of lung cancer among high-risk current and former smokers with lesions found on chest imaging (computed tomography or CT) represents a growing clinical challenge given the current clinical recommendations for routine CT screening of high-risk smokers. While there are guidelines for the management of pulmonary nodules, unnecessary, invasive follow-up procedures (including surgical lung biopsy) are frequently performed on patients who are ultimately diagnosed with benign disease.

“Our group previously derived and validated a bronchial epithelial gene-expression biomarker to detect lung cancer in current and former smokers. This innovation, available since 2015 as the Percepta Bronchial Genomic Classifier, is measurably improving lung cancer diagnosis,” said corresponding author Avrum Spira, MD, MSc, professor of medicine, pathology and bioinformatics at BUSM. “Given that bronchial and nasal epithelial gene expressions are similarly altered by cigarette smoke exposure, we sought to determine in this study if cancer-associated gene expression might also be detectable in the more readily accessible nasal epithelium.”

After examining nasal epithelial brushings from current and former smokers undergoing diagnostic evaluation for pulmonary lesions suspicious for lung cancer, the researchers determined that the nasal airway epithelial field of lung cancer-associated injury in smokers extends to the nose and has the potential of being a non-invasive biomarker for lung cancer detection.

“There is a clear and growing need to develop additional diagnostic approaches for evaluating pulmonary lesions to determine which patients should undergo CT surveillance or invasive biopsy. The ability to test for molecular changes in this ‘field of injury’ allows us to rule out the disease earlier without invasive procedures,” added Spira, who is also director of the BU-BMC Cancer Center and a pulmonologist at Boston Medical Center (BMC).

“Our findings clearly demonstrate the existence of a cancer-associated airway field of injury that also can be measured in nasal epithelium,” added Marc Lenburg, PhD, professor of medicine at BUSM and co-senior author. “We find that nasal gene expression contains information about the presence of cancer that is independent of standard clinical risk factors, suggesting that nasal epithelial gene expression might aid in lung cancer detection. Moreover, the nasal samples can be collected non-invasively with little instrumentation or advanced training.”

This research was supported by grants from the NIH Early Detection Research Network (U01CA152751 and U01CA214182 to A.S., M.E.L., S.D., and D.E.), the Department of Defense (DOD W81XWH-11-2-0161 to A.S. and M.L), and the Boston University Coulter Award (0-057-281-A594-5 to A.S. and M.E.L.).

DISCLOSURE:
Drs. Spira and Lenburg report personal fees from Allegro Diagnostics, Inc., personal fees from Veracyte, Inc., grants from NIH/NCI EDRN U01 CA152751, grants from DOD DECAMP W81XWH-11-2-0161,  during the conduct of the study; personal fees from Allegro Diagnostics, Inc., personal fees from Veracyte, Inc., outside the submitted work.  In addition, Dr. Spira has a patent 11/918,558: Diagnostic for lung disorders using class prediction licensed to Allegro Diagnostics, Inc., a patent 12/414,555: Multifactorial methods for detecting lung disorders licensed to Allegro Diagnostics, Inc., and a patent Detection methods for disorders of the lung licensed to Allegro Diagnostics, Inc.

# # #