Pitt Perspective

Exercise and the Brain

A study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings found evidence that indicates an association between cardiorespiratory fitness and brain health, particularly in gray matter and total brain volume—regions of the brain involved with cognitive decline and aging. The results suggest cardiorespiratory exercise may contribute to improved brain health and decelerate a decline in gray matter. An editorial by three Mayo Clinic experts that accompanies the study says the results are "encouraging, intriguing and contribute to the growing literature relating to exercise and brain health."

Our Expert's Take
Juleen Rodakowski in a red dress shirt.

Juleen Rodakowski, assistant professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, has expertise in late-life disability and caregiving. Her research primarily focuses on older adults with mood and cognitive changes, as well as caregivers of older adults who are themselves vulnerable to poor health and disability.

 “I think it’s wonderful that science is helping us understanding that aerobic exercise is not only helpful for physical health and heart health, but it is also helpful for brain health,” she said. “Aerobic exercise is emerging as a way to support brain health, and this study is contributing to our knowledge base by showing that there is a meaningful link between gray matter volume and aerobic exercise.”

Media Contact: Amerigo Allegretto, aallegretto@pitt.edu, 412-624-6128 | 814-512-8930

CRISPR and Anti-CRISPR

Researchers have discovered that bacteriophages—viruses that attack and can potentially kill bacteria—create and deploy proteins to neutralize CRISPR activity. CRISPR activity works essentially as an immune system for bacteria, fending off attack by bacteriophages.

The bacteriophages’ anti-CRISPR proteins could be applied in biotechnology to better control the activity of CRISPR systems in gene editing applications.

Our Expert's Take
Graham Hatfull
Graham Hatfull

“CRISPR-Cas systems [a gene-editing method] are now part of the common vernacular because of their utility for engineering genomes of many different organisms. CRISPR-Cas genes occur naturally in bacteria and fend off attack by bacteriophages,” said Graham Hatfull, professor of biological sciences in Pitt’s Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, who studies the dynamics and interactions of bacteria and bacteriophages.

Anti-CRISPR proteins provide potent kill-switches for genetic engineers to shut down out-of-control CRISPR activity that can lead to unintended gene edits. Whenever using CRISPR-Cas to edit genomes, anti-CRISPR proteins can shut down the activity if it goes haywire, or alternatively can limit the activity to just a few specific cells in the body. 

“The key advantages of the CRISPR-Cas systems [that are being developed] is that they are both highly efficient and highly specific. The anti-CRISPRs don’t change that,” Hatfull said. “They just let you either shut down the activity in particular cells where you don’t want it occur, or let you shut the whole thing down, in circumstances where further editing events are undesirable.”

Media Contact: Joe Miksch, jmiksch@pitt.edu, 412-624-4356 | 412-997-0314

Stress and Anxiety

The journal Nature Human Behaviour published study findings this month that provide one of the strongest neural links between sleep and anxiety to date. The research, from the University of California, Berkeley, also points to sleep as a natural, non-pharmaceutical remedy for anxiety disorders, which have been diagnosed in some 40 million American adults and are rising among children and teens.

Our Expert's Take
Ahmed Ghuman headshot
Ahmed Ghuman

Ahmed Ghuman, a staff psychologist in Pitt’s University Counseling Center, shares thoughts on how to help college students cope with stress around this time of year. 

“When stress begins to peak, the body will often experience physiological reactions including muscle tension, disturbed sleep, headaches and weakened immunity," said Ghuman. "So, make sure you are eating, sleeping and seeking out social support. Plan pleasurable activities throughout your week to help balance the demands of school. Engage in physical activity, even going for a walk can help reduce stress."

Ghuman's areas of interest include stress, self-esteem, happiness, motivation, resilience, meaning and purpose, religious and spiritual identity and multicultural concerns.

Ghuman is available for media interviews.

Media Contact: Micaela Fox Corn, mfc19@pitt.edu, 412-624-4065 | 617-997-2289

Tuberculosis

A new, and potentially better, vaccine for tuberculosis was recently announced by a team of researchers at a global summit on lung health in Hyderabad, India.

It is expected that the vaccine will be available for clinical use in 2028, and researchers believe it will provide long-term protection against the disease, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, kills 1.3 million worldwide annually.

Our Expert's Take
Jean B. Nachega headshot
Jean B. Nachega

A high proportion of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (TB) cases can be cured in conflict-affected communities with molecular diagnostics, shorter treatment periods and socioeconomic incentives, according to the results of a large, long-term study in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the findings of which were published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases in February.

“Conventional treatment regimens for multidrug resistant TB can be as much as 1,000 times more expensive and take four times as long as treatment for regular TB. The cure rate is only about 50%, and treatment can have severe side effects,” said senior study author Jean B. Nachega, an associate professor in Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health and director of the Centre for Infectious Diseases at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. 

The findings could guide workers in other post-conflict or low-income countries battling or at risk for TB outbreaks. 

Media Contact: Joe Miksch, jmiksch@pitt.edu, 412-624-4356 | 412-997-0314

Vaping

Vaping is emerging as a significant public health concern, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and state and local health agencies investigating a multistate outbreak of lung injury associated with use of e-cigarette, or vaping, products. 

Our Expert's Take
Headshot of Jaime Sidani
Jaime Sidani

School of Medicine researchers took a unique approach to a study of e-cigarette brand Juul's impact by using Twitter to investigate any mention of nicotine effects, symptoms of dependence and withdrawal in regards to Juul use. 

One of every five analyzed tweets referenced addiction-related themes, echoing news reports that “people are using Juul and experiencing what sound like acute effects of nicotine exposure and symptoms of dependence,” said lead author Jaime Sidani, assistant director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health. Full results were published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence

Media Contact: Joe Miksch, jmiksch@pitt.edu, 412-624-4356 | 412-997-0314

Gun Violence

The United States has substantially higher levels of firearm violence than most other developed countries. A recent NPR report said gun violence death rates in the U.S. are the 28th-highest in the world, and far greater than what is seen in other wealthy countries. 

Our Expert's Take
headshots of Edward Mulvey and Jack Mozel
Edward Mulvey, Jack Mozel

In a 2017 study published in the Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, Pitt’s Jack Rozel and Edward Mulvey summarize the existing evidence about the interplay among mental illness, violence and firearms, with particular attention paid to the role of active symptoms, addiction, victimization and psychosocial risk factors. The social and legal context of firearm ownership is discussed as a preface to exploring practical, evidence-driven and behaviorally informed policy recommendations for mitigating firearm violence risk.

Media Contact: Joe Miksch, jmiksch@pitt.edu, 412-624-4356 | 412-997-0314

Exercise and the Brain

"The evidence of the use of exercise [for the management of depression] is substantial and growing fast," writes Felipe Barretto Schuch, from the Universidade Federal de Santa Maria in Brazil, and Brendon Stubbs, from King's College London in the United Kingdom in a recent edition of Current Sports Medicine.

Our Expert's Take
Kirk Erickson

In 2011, the University of Pittsburgh’s Kirk Erickson helped confirm that the human hippocampus — critical for memory formation and known to deteriorate with age — actually bulked up in older adults who dedicated themselves to a regiment of moderate walking over the course of a year. He and colleagues are now using a $22 million National Institutes of Health grant to study the mechanisms of how and how much exercise bulk up the brain.

Media Contact: Joe Miksch, jmiksch@pitt.edu, 412-624-4356 | 412-997-0314