The vulnerable Achilles tendon is often an Achilles’ heel for athletes—tendon tears routinely destroy seasons and Olympic dreams for track stars. But a new UAB study suggests that the Achilles may be key to a runner’s top speed. As feet hit the ground in the running motion, the tendons, particularly the Achilles, stretch out. Because longer tendons stretch farther, they also can snap back faster, generating more power with each stride, explains UAB exercise physiologist Gary Hunter, Ph.D. Hunter studied 21 long-distance runners moving at speeds of six and seven miles per hour. “We found a strong correlation between tendon length and running economy, or energy expenditure” at both speeds, as well as at a walking pace, Hunter says. Tendon length is controlled by genetics, he notes, so exercise can’t make them grow.
Immunofluorescence of glial fibrillary protein in the amygdala in the human brain. The yellow labeling highlights structural elements of astrocytes, cells which provide nutrition, remove waste products, and release modulatory signals for neurons. The blue structures are nuclei of discrete cells. Abnormalities of astrocyte shape and function may contribute to the pathophysiology of schizophrenia.
When you combine financial and community costs, treating schizophrenia has historically consumed more resources than any other medical illness, says UAB psychiatrist Robert McCullumsmith, M.D. One percent of Americans have schizophrenia, and the disease is a source of continual fascination in the popular media. Nevertheless, it is not well understood, and when it is diagnosed, it is difficult to treat. But grants from the National Institute of Mental Health totaling $3.9 million are fueling UAB studies into one promising area of schizophrenia research. Scientists have established that the major neurotransmitter glutamate is handled very differently in the brains of people with schizophrenia compared to those who don’t have the disease. Two new studies will analyze tissue from deceased patients with schizophrenia who donated their brains to science. Cutting-edge techniques will allow the researchers to isolate specific cells for detailed analysis and to study the function and structure of key proteins. “What we don’t know is just what is wrong,” says McCullumsmith. “Is there too much glutamate? Too little? Is it in the wrong place at the wrong time? These studies will look for those answers and hopefully come away with new targets in the brain for medications or other therapies.”
Now playing on a radio near you: a different kind of soap opera. Each week, Camberwell tells the stories of a group of young women and men who are struggling to combat obesity and tobacco use in their community. The episodes were written by Cheryl Davis, a practicing attorney and playwright from New York City; recorded by local actors at Birmingham’s Boutwell Studios; and produced by Birmingham-based Media for Health and Connie Kohler, Dr.P.H., from UAB’s School of Public Health, in conjunction with the Jefferson County health department. The show’s central theme is shared by a Spanish-language counterpart, Promesas y Traiciones (“Promises and Betrayals”), which is also broadcast locally. Learn more in this UAB Magazine feature.
Web sites advertising so-called “legal highs” tout their mind-altering wares with wink-and-a-nod references, often labeling them as “plant food” and including dosage information right beneath the warning “not for human consumption.” But the ingredients in these concoctions are far more obscure than their names. That’s what UAB forensic scientist Elizabeth Gardner, Ph.D., and student Missy Toms found out when they conducted an unusual experiment as part of UAB’s Crime Research Experiences for Undergraduates summer camp. “What scares me is that you have no idea which drugs or how much of them are in these packets,” says Gardner, an assistant professor in the Department of Justice Sciences. “Just because it is legal and you can order it online does not mean it cannot harm you.”
Gardner and Toms, a senior at Northern Kentucky University, ordered five “research chemicals” and “plant food” packets online. Using a mass selective detector in Gardner’s lab, they created a breakdown of the drugs’ chemical contents. “If someone goes to the hospital and says, ‘I ordered this online,’ the doctors may have no idea what it is and how best to treat the person,” Gardner says. She plans to continue the research with UAB students this fall and develop a reference list for poison control.
The nationwide “Pink Heals” tour made a stop at UAB in August as part of statewide visits coordinated by the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama. The tour is led by firefighters who bring awareness to all women’s cancers by traveling the country in pink gear. Edward Partridge, M.D. (right), director of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, joined cancer survivors in adding messages of support on the group’s fire truck.
For Diabetes Risk, Quality Over Quantity
Weight loss is frequently cited as a top way to lower diabetes risk. But in a recent paper, researchers from UAB’s Department of Nutrition Sciences demonstrated that dietary changes alone—even if they don’t end up dropping pounds—can help people lower diabetes risk. In their study, 69 healthy, overweight individuals either ate a diet lower in fat (27 percent fat, 55 percent carbohydrate) or lower in carbohydrates (39 percent fat, 43 percent carbohydrates). Both diets were designed to maintain the individuals’ weights. Those who ate the lower-fat diet had significantly higher insulin secretion and better glucose tolerance, and tended to have better insulin sensitivity. The findings were even stronger for African-American participants in the study. Study authors noted that the lower-fat diet used in the study was “fairly moderate” and could be easily adopted by individuals at risk for diabetes.
Women on the Verge
Bungee-jumping Barbies invaded the stairwells at the School of Engineering this summer as part of a hands-on experiment in linear regression. The challenge: Get Barbie as close as possible to the floor below without decapitating her. The elastic escapade was part of a two-week Eureka! Teen Achievement Program summer camp for eighth- and ninth-grade girls from Birmingham City and Jefferson County schools who are exploring careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.