UAB Magazine Weekly - Features on Research
Artificial Conversations Spark Insights into the Evolution of Ideas
By Matt Windsor
Top: Philosopher Marshall Abrams is designing a digital simulation of the flow of ideas among individuals that leads to cultural change.
Above: a representation of the neural networks inside one "person" in the simulation.
In a small office in UAB’s Humanities Building, philosopher Marshall Abrams, Ph.D., is hosting a heated debate about the origins of life. The nine participants share their opinions rapid-fire, completing several hundred conversations every minute. Nevertheless, not a word is spoken; all the action is happening on Abrams’s computer screen. Welcome to philosophy’s digital era.
Abrams is building a computer-based simulation of cultural change, the flow of ideas among individuals that exerts a powerful shaping force on a society’s guiding values. “Meteorologists want to understand the local changes that affect large-scale weather patterns,” Abrams says. “Social scientists want to do the same thing with cultural change. But just like the weather, it is very subtle and complicated. I’m trying to see what a digital model can add.”
Talk Amongst Yourselves
Researchers study the process of cultural change largely through surveys and by tracking books, speeches, films, blog posts, and other recorded artifacts of our collective thought processes. But Abrams, inspired by a growing number of simulations in social science fields, is taking a different approach. Building on software developed by Canadian philosopher Paul Thagard, Abrams has designed a system that lets individual software “agents” talk amongst themselves, sharing their opinions and then responding to the ideas of others by changing their own views.
Innovative Ideas on Preventing and Treating Kidney Stones
By Matt Windsor
The pain has been described as a knife in the back, a body blow, and “the closest thing a man will come to experiencing childbirth.” Whatever the analogy, kidney stones are enormously painful. They often leave victims writhing on the ground.
“They can be excruciating,” says Dean Assimos, M.D., the new chair of the UAB Department of Urology. He speaks from personal experience, having survived two stones himself. And if you live in the South, you’re more likely to know just what he’s talking about.
“The Southeast is the Stone Belt of America,” says Assimos, an internationally renowned expert who specializes in the removal of large stones and preventive measures to avert stone formation. His research group is currently investigating the preventive powers of fish oil supplements and a common gut bacterium. The investigators are also trying to unravel the reasons why stones develop in the first place.
Diet, the hot climate, and genetic factors may be the driving forces behind the high levels of stone formation in the South, Assimos explains. (See "Preventing Stones.") “However, the prevalence of kidney stone formation is also increasing across the country,” he says.
The number of Americans with kidney stones has almost doubled since 1994, according to a study presented at the American Urological Association meeting in May 2012. Researchers speculate that rising obesity rates are a key factor. Whatever the cause, more cases of kidney stones create a burden on the medical system, Assimos says, because treating them usually results in significant health-care expenditures.
Health Informatics Advances Research and Health Care
By Tara Hulen
What if a cure for cancer already exists, but it is buried on a hard drive in a research lab?
Every year, drug companies test untold thousands of new compounds, clinicians turn up intriguing clues from patient tests, and investigators reveal novel targets to attack disease. “But that data needs to be analyzed, and the quantity of it is overwhelming,” says Jonas Almeida, Ph.D., director of UAB’s new Division of Informatics. The division was formed in 2011 to develop new methods to extract meaning from research findings—and give clinicians access to new tools for care.
In July 2012, the UAB team launched a first-of-its-kind medical app known as ImageJS. The program runs in an ordinary Internet browser, which means that it can be used anywhere and won’t be blocked by hospital security software. "We created a new kind of computational tool that promises to make patient data more useful where it's collected,” Almeida says. (Learn more about ImageJS in this story from UAB News and download a copy in the Google Chrome Web Store.)
In its first iteration, ImageJS allows pathologists to drag laboratory slides into the browser to get a quick analysis of cancer cell growth. New modules are already in the works that let the software tackle other tasks, and Almeida says he hopes clinicians will adapt the code to expand its capabilities still further. The lessons learned developing this app have since inspired an ongoing initiative in the Division of Informatics for data mining of the Cancer Genome Atlas, he adds. This NIH public repository of patient and tumor data has generated over 300,000 data files, a number that doubles approximately every seven months.
UAB Researchers Say Diet Plays a Key Role
By Matt Windsor
Investigators at UAB are pursuing several exciting new ways to treat depression by targeting the neurotransmitter glutamate. (See more in part 1 of this story here.) But there is a limit to what medicines can do, cautions Richard Shelton, M.D., professor and vice chair of research in the UAB Department of Psychiatry and director of UAB’s new Mood Disorders Program. “I don’t think we can just ‘drug all our problems away,’” he says. “Another very exciting element in our research program is a search for preventive treatments.”
Obesity and Depression
Food is a major factor. “Diet-associated obesity is a key risk factor for becoming depressed,” Shelton says, “but not for the reason that most people assume. Interestingly, it does not appear to be related to how people feel about how they look. Even in cultures where extra weight is not a big deal, obesity is still associated with depression.”
In fact, obesity itself may not be the prime factor. “It seems that it’s not as much about the weight you gain as what you eat,” Shelton says. “Abdominal obesity is certainly associated with a higher risk of depression, but the balance of fatty acids in the diet seems to be even more important.” Countries that have a very high content of omega 3-rich fish in their diets have very low rates of depression, Shelton explains. In countries where people eat a lot of omega-6 fatty acids in red meat and fried foods, like the United States, depression is much more prevalent.
Faculty Profile: John Laurent, O.D., Ph.D.
By Grant Martin
From riding elephants in Thailand and diving in the East China Sea to conducting vision research in Florida and California, a career in optometry has given John Laurent, O.D., Ph.D., opportunities beyond what he ever could have imagined. But when asked to pick a favorite of his many optometric posts, he doesn’t hesitate. “I can honestly say that my current position on faculty is the best job I’ve ever had,” says Laurent, now in his second year on faculty at the UABSO. “I have been very lucky throughout my career to have a number of jobs and assignments that I truly loved.”
That’s quite a statement from a man who confesses that his early impressions of academia—and optometry practice—left something to be desired. “I hated high school,” Laurent says. “I took a year off before starting college, only to find that my feelings about school hadn’t changed.” Despite that rocky start, Laurent got a reprieve from his academic woes when he was drafted into the Army and sent to Germany to work as a clerk. Little did he know that that experience would lead him to the two professions—optometry and military service—that would define his career.
A fellow GI in Germany encouraged Laurent to pursue optometry, and when Laurent returned stateside, he discovered that his perspective on college had changed. “Coming back after the Army, the world looked so much different,” he says. Laurent went on to complete pre-optometry coursework at Wisconsin and then earned M.S. and O.D. degrees from Ohio State with the help of an Army scholarship. After a payback tour in Germany, he practiced optometry in Wisconsin but soon felt constrained by the permanence of a small-town practice. He opted to return to the military, embarking on a Naval career that would span the next 26 years and would take him to such places as Hawaii, San Diego, and Okinawa. He also made an important stop in Birmingham, where he earned a Ph.D. from the UABSO Department of Vision Sciences. It was during that stop that Laurent also met his wife Becky, a Birmingham attorney.
"It’s fascinating to see the change in students from the first time they enter the clinic to their fourth year. You see them transform from students to professionals."
After retiring from the Navy, Laurent returned to the UABSO for a residency—an experience he would now recommend to other military personnel nearing retirement. “As a retirement gift to myself, I did the cornea and contact lens residency,” he says. “I didn’t expect to learn so much, since I had been fitting contact lenses for years, but I did. It was a refreshing experience, like being a fifth-year optometry student, except in my case I was 30 years out of school.”
Since joining the faculty, Laurent says he is surprised daily by the pleasures of academic life. “Teaching in contact lens labs, teaching a business course, and conducting two research projects keeps me very busy,” he says. “But I also enjoy the opportunities to work in the faculty practice and the student clinic. It’s fascinating to see the change in students from the first time they enter the clinic to their fourth year. You see them transform from students to professionals.”