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Research roundup: Recent grants and publications for Emory faculty and staff

As an academic research institution, Emory’s faculty and staff conduct studies across every discipline, from the sciences to the humanities. Here’s a sample of recent grant awards and the work they will support, plus highlights from some published research findings.

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Publications highlighted:


Emory studying mind-body interventions for trauma-related dissociation

Emory University is part of a $3.8 million grant from the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health awarded to both Emory and University of Pittsburgh. The funding will support a clinical trial to test the mechanisms of new mind-body interventions for trauma-related dissociation. Dissociation is a disconnection between a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions or sense of who he or she is. 

Emory will serve as the trial’s primary site led by clinical neuropsychologist Negar Fani, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Researchers will recruit 200 people across the two sites seeking participants who have endured trauma and may be experiencing dissociation.

The project, which will span five years, will examine how new mind-body interventions, including breath-focused mindfulness with sensory feedback, affect attentional control and body awareness brain networks. The researchers’ goal is to determine if practices like breath-focused mindfulness can be made easier by using external sensory feedback and directly target attentional control and body awareness brain networks.

Emory will primarily be recruiting through the Grady Trauma Project in partnership with Grady Memorial Hospital. For more information on the study, please email or call 404-778-5767.

Emory eye researchers probing gene involved in retinal ganglion cell injury

Glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness in Americans over the age of 60, and a thinner cornea — the outermost lens of the eye — means there is a greater risk of developing glaucoma.

Eldon E. Geisert, principal investigator and researcher at the Emory Eye Center, and colleagues were recently awarded a grant by the National Eye Institute to study a regulatory factor called POU6F2, which modulates central corneal thickness in mice and is a risk factor for glaucoma in humans. The five-year grant is funded at $494,769 in the first year.

Researchers will focus on the role of POU6F2 in the response of retinal ganglion cells in mouse models of experimentally induced and naturally occurring glaucoma. They will compare their findings in mice to humans, in collaboration with ophthalmologist Janey Wiggs at Harvard Medical School and the NEIGHBORHOOD consortium. Through this collaboration, researchers will determine if POU6F2’s downstream targets and associated pathways represent factors for glaucoma risk. A basic understanding of the molecular interactions of POU6F2 could inform the rational design of strategies to improve the detection of and therapy for glaucoma.

Trailblazer award for monitoring brain temperature via magnetic resonance

In the emergency department, the temperature of the brain is critical information after someone has a stroke or cardiac arrest, and even more important during treatment. Yet it is difficult for doctors to accurately or directly measure brain temperature.

Magnetic resonance imaging technology being developed at Emory University School of Medicine could provide more accurate measurements. A team of researchers has received a three-year, $400,000 grant from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) to monitor brain temperature while patients are undergoing therapeutic hypothermia after cardiac arrest. Therapeutic hypothermia, or controlled cooling, is a treatment used to protect the brain after loss of blood flow. While cooling is used in many hospitals, it is not widely implemented nor has it been optimized in terms of dosage or timing.

The project is led by Candace Fleischer, an assistant professor of radiology and imaging sciences at Emory. The grant is part of NIBIB’s Trailblazer program, which is designed for early-stage investigators to pursue research in new directions. Fleischer also recently published a paper in Communications Physics on a biophysical model of brain temperature, developed with Georgia Tech engineer Andrei Fedorov.


NSF funds climate change research into glacial-ocean interface

The National Science Foundation awarded Justin Burton, Emory associate professor of physics, $270,000 to further his lab’s investigations into the complex interactions between glaciers, sea ice and the ocean to help predict the effects of climate change on sea level rise. The award is part of a larger, $1 million collaborative grant that also includes Rutgers University, Georgia Tech and the University of Alaska, Southeast. 

Dense packs of icebergs and sea ice, known as ice mélange, occur in many Greenland fjords, and may occur near many Antarctic glaciers in the future. Observations and preliminary data suggest that ice mélange may directly affect iceberg calving and glacier melting, although the interactions between ice mélange, ocean circulation and iceberg calving have not been systematically investigated.

The Burton Lab will use detailed process models and laboratory experiments to provide the first comprehensive model of the co-evolution of these systems. The fully coupled glacier-ocean-mélange model (GLACIOME), will be used to test the impact of ice mélange on glacier stability over timescales of decades. In addition to scientific advances, the three-year GLACIOME project will provide students and other members of the Burton Lab interdisciplinary training that is essential for addressing climate change and sea-level rise, and in communicating the results to the public.





How beneficial microbial ‘partnerships’ arise

Microbes have greatly influenced the evolution of life on Earth by providing animals and plants that associate with them benefits such as nutrients or protection from enemies or harsh environments. Emory biologists took a novel approach to questions about the evolutionary origins of these “partnerships” by evolving a host-microbe interaction in the lab.

Evolution Letters published the results, which give direct empirical evidence of factors that can drive these associations. First author is Kim Hoang, who did the work as an Emory PhD student under the mentorship of co-authors Nicole Gerardo, professor of biology, and Levi Morran, assistant professor of biology. Hoang is now a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Oxford.

The researchers evolved Caenorhabditis elegans, a microscopic worm, in the presence of the protective bacterium Bacillus subtilis under the environmental stressor of heat for 20 generations. They found that the worms produced the most offspring when evolving with the bacterium under heat stress compared to evolving in the absence of the bacterium and/or stress. And the worms evolved to harbor more B. subtilis as they adapted to heat stress.

The findings show that a bacterium with little, if any, evolutionary history with the host facilitated the host’s adaptation to a harsh environment. And they show that such host adaptation can also benefit the microbe, setting the stage to favor long-term association across generations.


Hotel marketing study finds “sunny side” of encroachment

Hotel franchisees tend to resist encroachment, the nearby addition of locations within the same brand, because they want to avoid dilution of revenue. While encroachment hurts franchisees on average, it can modestly benefit same brand franchisees in low brand density markets, a pair of marketing experts write.

Sandy Jap, professor of marketing at Goizueta Business School, and co-author Tongil TI Kim, previously at Goizueta and now at University of Texas in Dallas, reported these counter-intuitive findings in the Journal of Marketing.

The effect may be due to a range of mechanisms such as quality signaling, learning or brand awareness. The authors drew upon detailed proprietary and publicly available datasets from the hotel industry over a five-year period to demonstrate context-dependent relationships.


Toxicology response to pufferfish poisoning

A cluster of pufferfish poisonings was recently reported in Oman, where several individuals developed symptoms after consuming fried internal organs of locally caught pufferfish.

Emory toxicologist Ziad Kazzi, associate professor of emergency medicine, was part of an international investigation of the phenomenon, which included the Oman Ministry of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Environmental Health. The findings were published in Clinical Toxicology.

Pufferfish organs contain tetrodotoxin, a potent neurotoxin that blocks sodium channels and disrupts nervous system and muscle function. By weight, tetrodotoxin is more toxic than cyanide. It is produced by bacteria that live in the fish. Symptoms of poisoning can include a burning or prickly sensation on the skin, gastrointestinal upset and muscle weakness, extending to difficulty breathing, paralysis, low blood pressure and coma. Patients with severe illness should potentially receive the drug neostigmine and intermittent dialysis, the authors recommend.


COVID-19 risk perception drives patient hesitation in ophthalmic care

A team of Emory researchers led by medical student Aaron Lindeke-Myers and Emory Eye Center vitreoretinal surgeon Nieraj Jain, in partnership with a team at the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center, evaluated patient perceptions regarding the health risks of continuing time-sensitive ophthalmic care during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Among patients that are at a high risk for irreversible vision loss as a result of delayed care, many expressed concerns related to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their ability to receive timely care. However, a subset of patients felt they were “likely” or “extremely likely” to be exposed to the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) during routine clinic visits, and this fear was strongly associated with a loss to follow-up care. The paper and an accompanying editorial were published in JAMA Ophthalmology.


Population immunity and vaccine protection against infection

The Lancet published commentary by infectious disease epidemiologist Ben Lopman on how to achieve population immunity to COVID-19 through widespread vaccination. Lopman’s commentary was motivated by the SIREN study, a cohort of health care workers in England, that found the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to be highly effective against symptomatic or asymptomatic infection with the virus that causes COVID-19. 

Lopman and co-author Eval Leshem from Sheba Medical Center in Israel, also noted that vaccinated individuals were less likely to report symptoms if they did get infected with the virus, and participants who had previously contracted COVID-19 had 90% protection against subsequent infection, regardless of vaccination status. They estimated that about 80% of the population would need to be vaccinated with two COVID-19 doses to achieve population immunity from vaccination exclusively. 


Spouse’s diabetes status and incidence of depression and anxiety

Researchers from Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health published an 18-year prospective study in Diabetes Care, which found that a spouse who cares for their partner with diabetes is at a 24% higher risk of depression and/or anxiety. And, if the spouse’s diabetes limits daily activities, the risk is 89% higher, while those whose spouse has diabetes in combination with other chronic conditions has a 134% higher risk for depression and/or anxiety.

First author Jannie Nielsen, assistant professor at Emory’s Global Diabetes Research Center, says that support for someone with diabetes is associated with better care and delayed increase in other illnesses, but supporting a family member with diabetes may also come with a cost for the supporter’s own wellbeing.

The authors say that attention is needed to address the mental health of others in the home when treating a person with diabetes, and diabetes associations and guideline committees need to recognize caregiver stress in their guidelines and policies. Rollins School of Public Health co-authors included Solveig Cunningham, Mohammed Ali, and Shivani Patel.


Heteroresistance may undermine new antibiotic

A stealthy form of antibiotic resistance called heteroresistance may be limiting the effectiveness of cefiderocol, a new weapon against bacterial infections, research from Emory’s Antibiotic Resistance Center suggests.

The antibiotic cefiderocol (Fetroja) was FDA-approved for the treatment of complicated urinary tract infections in 2019 and for hospital-acquired bacterial pneumonia in 2020. In a recent international clinical trial testing cefiderocol in patients with serious infections resistant to carbapenems (CREDIBLE-CR), outcomes weren’t significantly better for cefiderocol, compared to patients who received the best available therapy otherwise. In addition, mortality was actually higher for patients treated with cefiderocol.

David Weiss, director of Emory’s Antibiotic Resistance Center, and colleagues surveyed bacterial samples from the Georgia Emerging Infections program, finding that heteroresistance to cefiderocol was widespread in samples from Georgia — which may explain the underwhelming results of CREDIBLE-CR. Postdoc Jacob Choby and senior research specialist Tugba Ozturk performed the research, which was reported in Lancet Infectious Diseases.


How our minds store memory and build new knowledge

What are the boundaries that limit the expansion of our store of knowledge about the world across development? Emory psychologists showed that the conditions under which human memory integration occurs is important to the process of building semantic knowledge, regardless of age.

The journal Memory & Cognition published the research, led by Julia Wilson, an Emory doctoral candidate in psychology. Senior author of the paper is Patricia Bauer, Emory Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Psychology.

The researchers investigated prompted versus unprompted memory integration and subsequent self-derivation of new knowledge in 7-to-9-year-old children and 18-to-22-year-old adults. The participants were exposed to sets of novel, true facts that could be integrated to self-derive new knowledge. In some trials they were prompted to integrate and self-derive and in others they were not. Both the children and young adults capitalized more effectively on prompted opportunities to self-derive compared with unprompted ones.

The work holds implications for educators by highlighting the necessity of appropriate scaffolding to foster successful learning and to understand the conditions under which semantic knowledge is accumulated.


Nerve stimulation brings back arm function after stroke

A recent study in The Lancet reports that a combination of vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) and intensive physical therapy can lead to a significant improvement in arm function, months or even years after a stroke.

Emory principal investigator Steven L. Wolf says the findings could lead to improvements in the lives of stroke survivors, allowing them to reclaim arm function years after having a stroke. The research could also open the door for additional studies in which VNS can be paired with other therapeutics, using procedures developed in the study.

Emory University was part of the multi-center, double-blinded, randomized controlled trial that enrolled 108 subjects from nine months up to 10 years post-stroke with moderate to severe arm weakness. Patients receiving paired VNS therapy showed two to three times the improvement in upper extremity motor impairment and function compared to controls that received intense rehabilitation alone.

The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve that runs from the brain through the face and thorax to the abdomen. In VNS, a pacemaker-like electrical pulse generator with a wire connected to the left vagus nerve is implanted in the chest. The generator stimulates the nerve with pulses of electric current, pausing intermittently to let the nerve rest.


Brain organoid model shows molecular signs of Alzheimer’s before birth

In a model of human fetal brain development, Emory researchers can see perturbations of epigenetic markers in cells derived from people with familial early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, which takes decades to appear. This suggests that in people who inherit mutations linked to early-onset Alzheimer’s, it would be possible to detect molecular changes in their brains before birth. The results were published in the journal Cell Reports.

Organoid models allow scientists to trace back what could be happening at the molecular level during the brain’s early developmental stages — in contrast to postmortem studies on Alzheimer’s, says lead author Bing Yao, assistant professor of human genetics at Emory University School of Medicine.

Brain organoids have also been used to study schizophrenia, fragile X syndrome and susceptibility to Zika virus. Emory neuroscientist Zhexing Wen helped develop the model, in which human pluripotent stem cells recapitulate early stages of brain development, corresponding to 17-20 weeks after conception.

The stem cell lines were obtained from both healthy donors and from people with mutations in PSEN1 or APP genes, which lead to early-onset Alzheimer’s. In samples from familial AD organoids, researchers were able to see alterations in the marker 5-hydroxymethylcytosine or 5-hmc, which is an epigenetic marker on DNA. More information here.


Link between Alzheimer’s risk factor and early degeneration site

Emory researchers recently published a paper on ApoE, the most common genetic risk factor for late-onset Alzheimer’s. The findings, published in Acta Neuropathologica, suggest how the risk-conferring form of ApoE (ApoE4) may exacerbate pathology in the locus coeruleus. The LC, part of the brainstem, is thought to be the first region of the brain where pathological signs predicting future cellular degeneration show up.

ApoE, which packages and transports cholesterol, was known to modulate the buildup of the toxic protein fragment beta-amyloid, but this proposed mechanism goes through Tau. Tau is the other pesky protein in Alzheimer’s, forming neurofibrillary tangles that are the earliest signs of degeneration in the brain.

The new paper shows that ApoE4 inhibits the enzyme VMAT2, which packages the neurotransmitter norepinephrine into vesicles. As a result, unpackaged norepinephrine lingers in the cytoplasm, and forms a harmful oxidative byproduct called DOPEGAL that triggers enzymatic degradation of Tau. This points to possible therapeutic value for inhibitors of enzymes, asparagine endopeptidase/AEP and monoamine oxidase, which accelerate this process.

The paper comes from a collaboration between the laboratories of Keqiang Ye, in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, and David Weinshenker, in the Department of Human Genetics. The first author was instructor Seong Su Kang. More information here.

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