Health & Medicine Mind & Brain

Protecting brain’s neurons could halt Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s

Researchers at Southern Methodist University and The University of Texas at Dallas have identified a group of chemical compounds that slows the degeneration of neurons, a condition that causes such common diseases of old age as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and amyotropic lateral sclerosis.

SMU Chemistry Professor Edward R. Biehl and UTD Biology Professor Santosh R. D’Mello teamed to test 45 chemical compounds. Four were found to be the most potent protectors of brain cells, or neurons.


Their findings were published in the November 2008 issue of “Experimental Biology and Medicine.”

The synthesized chemicals, called “substituted indolin-2-one compounds,” are derivatives of another compound called GW5074 that was shown to prevent neurodegeneration in a past report published by the D’Mello lab.

While effective at protecting neurons from decay or death, GW5074 is toxic to cells at slightly elevated doses, which makes it unsuitable for clinical testing in patients. The newly identified, second generation compounds maintain the protective feature of GW5074 but are not toxic, even at very high doses, and hold promise in halting the steady march of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“Sadly, neurodegenerative diseases are a challenge for our elderly population,” D’Mello said. “People are living longer and are more impacted by diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis than ever before, which means we need to aggressively look for drugs that treat diseases. But most exciting now are our efforts to stop the effects of brain disease right in its tracks. Although the newly discovered compounds have only been tested in cultured neurons and mice, they do offer hope.”

The most common cause of neurodegenerative disease is aging. Current medications only alleviate the symptoms but do not affect the underlying cause, which is degeneration of neurons. The identification of compounds that inhibit neuronal death is thus of urgent and critical importance.

The new compounds may offer doctors an option beyond just treating the symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases. The development isn’t a cure, but doctors may be able to one day use compounds that stop cell death in combination with currently existing drugs that battle the symptoms of brain diseases. The combination of stopping the disease in its tracks while treating disease symptoms can offer hope to people suffering and the families impacted by these diseases.

Related links:
Edward Biehl
Santosh D’Mello
SMU Department of Chemistry
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences

Mind & Brain

Deep brain mapping could pinpoint Gulf War Syndrome

Researchers at Southern Methodist University are pioneering the use of spatial statistical modeling to analyze brain scan data from Persian Gulf War veterans. The goal is to pinpoint specific areas of the brain affected by Gulf War Syndrome.

Richard Gunst, Wayne Woodward and William Schucany, professors in SMU’s Department of Statistical Science in Dedman College, are collaborating with imaging specialists at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas to compare brain scans of veterans suffering from the syndrome with those of a healthy control group.

gunst.jpgThe SMU team is working with renowned UTSW epidemiologist Robert Haley, one of the foremost experts on the syndrome.

A congressionally mandated study has revealed that one of every four veterans of the 1991 Gulf War suffers from neurological symptoms collectively referred to as Gulf War Syndrome. The Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses began work in 2002 and presented its lengthy report to Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Peake on Nov. 17.ww2.gifPersian Gulf War veterans from across the country are being tested at UTSW using a type of brain imaging called functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI.

Richard Gunst

The veterans are tested while performing tasks intended to activate specific regions of the brain.

Photo right: Wayne Woodward

The SMU team, which includes graduate students Patrick Carmack and Jeffrey Spence, is analyzing brain activation signals reflected from the multiple images taken of each subject’s brain. From that they’ll determine which variations occur naturally and which are due to the syndrome. Previous analyses have been unable to separate real distinctions from “noise.”

Schucany%202008.jpgThe SMU team’s primary challenge is in identifying differences in brain activation from locations deep within the brain using measured brain signals that are weak and vary from location to location.

Spatial modeling uses information from neighboring locations to strengthen the weak signals in active brain locations so the signal can be detected as real.

“Spatial modeling in brain imaging is new,” Gunst said. “This has not been done the way we are doing it.”
William Schucany

Rapid technological advances in medical imaging of the human brain are imposing demands for new statistical methods that can be used to detect small differences between normal and dysfunctional brain activity, Gunst said. — Kim Cobb

Related links:
Air Force Times: Study links Gulf War exposures, brain changes
Panel: Gulf War Syndrome is real
Gulf War Syndrome research overview
Richard Gunst
Wayne Woodward
William Schucany
SMU Profile: Patrick Carmack and Jeffrey Spence
Robert Haley
UTSouthwestern, Division of Epidemiology: Gulf War Associated Illnesses
SMU honors alumnus Robert Haley
SMU Department of Statistical Science
Explainer: Spatial statistical modeling
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences

Culture, Society & Family Health & Medicine Learning & Education Mind & Brain

Psychological discomfort discourages eating disorders

Popular culture’s image of the 21st-century woman is tall, large-breasted, narrow-hipped and ultra-slender. Like cultural standards of beauty throughout history, today’s “thin ideal” is unattainable for most women; for many, it also can be destructive.

Katherine Presnell, assistant professor of psychology, is helping at-risk teens challenge this ideal with the Body Project, an eating disorder prevention program that she helped develop with psychology professor Eric Stice at the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned her doctorate in 2005.

presnell.jpgSince Stice conducted the first trial in 1998, more than 1,000 high school and college women, including 62 SMU students, have completed the program, including a research trial led by SMU Ph.D. students.

Independent studies conducted at universities nationwide and a recent analysis have shown that the Body Project significantly outperforms other interventions in promoting body acceptance, discouraging unhealthy dieting, reducing the risk of obesity and preventing eating disorders. And these results have persisted for three years.

Prevention is critical because about 10 percent of late-adolescent and adult female Americans experience eating disorder symptoms.

Katherine Presnell

Less than a third seek treatment, and less than half of those experience lasting results, says Presnell, director of SMU’s Weight and Eating Disorders Research Program in the Department of Psychology in SMU’s Dedman College.


While traditional interventions focus on education about anorexia, bulimia and binge eating, the Body Project is based on cognitive dissonance, which is the 1957 theory that inconsistent beliefs and behaviors create a psychological discomfort that motivates individuals to change their beliefs or behaviors.

While working with a patient who had anorexia during his postdoctoral studies at Stanford University, UT’s Stice says he asked her “to talk me out of being anorexic, and it was a very powerful exercise. Arguing against her own arguments caused her to rethink her perspective on her illness.”

Pictured right: Eric Stice

Body Project participants, recruited through fliers and mailings, argue and act against the thin ideal during four small-group sessions with a trained leader. They write letters to hypothetical girls about its emotional and physical costs, and challenge negative “fat talk” while affirming strong, healthy bodies.

“Many girls don’t question the messages we get from the media, the fashion industry, our peers and parents that it’s important to achieve the thin ideal at any cost,” Presnell says. “We have the girls critically evaluate the ideal, and that creates the dissonance they work to resolve.”

The Body Project includes a four-session weight management intervention that helps participants make small lifestyle changes to gain control over eating, such as scheduling time for daily exercise and a nutritious breakfast, and rewarding themselves with a book or bath rather than food.

“These little tweaks help participants maintain a healthy body weight and ward off unhealthy behaviors such as extreme dieting, fasting and self-induced vomiting to lose weight,” Presnell says. — Sarah Hanan

Related links:
Katherine Presnell
Weight and Eating Disorders Research Program
KERA: Interview with Body Project researchers
Reflections Body Image Program: Interview with Body Project researchers
The Body Project book
The Body Project workbook
SMU Department of Psychology
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences

Health & Medicine Mind & Brain

Deep breathing worsens panic-attack symptoms

Alicia-Meuret.jpgSouthern Methodist University psychology professor Alicia Meuret proves conventional wisdom is dead wrong: A person suffering a panic attack who tries deep breathing to calm themselves only increases his or her level of hyperventilation and overall panic-related symptoms.

Meuret’s solution? Self-training to expel lesser amounts of carbon dioxide using a hand-held, biofeedback device results in the ability to normalize breathing and avoid hyperventilation.

Related links:
Alicia Meuret
video.jpgVideo: Hyperventilation
SMU Department of Psychology
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences

Culture, Society & Family Learning & Education Mind & Brain Technology

Extreme reality: Women avoid sexual assault in virtual zone

avatar-01-web.jpgSMU’s Department of Psychology and The Guildhall at SMU have joined forces against dating violence.

Psychology Professors Ernest Jouriles and Renee McDonald, with Guildhall Lecturer Jeff Perryman and Deputy Director Tony Cuevas, are collaborating on a role-playing program that combines virtual reality with behavioral insight to help teach and test sexual assault avoidance techniques.


The program’s environment of a rain-lashed car parked in an isolated area immerses women into not just a location, but also a “conversation” with a potential attacker.

It is the first step in what developers hope will be a program to help women practice strategies for averting sexual assault in a controlled situation that is safe, yet feels realistic.

“This is a potential breakthrough opportunity for gaming technology to help solve an important social problem,” Jouriles says.

During one session, the experience starts in a small, nondescript office where two automobile seats are bolted to a raised platform: An actor sits in the driver’s seat, and a woman sits in the passenger seat to his right. When she puts on video goggles and a headset, she suddenly finds herself in a parked car during a howling rainstorm. Rivulets of water stream down the windshield, flashes of lightning illuminate the interior of the car, and thunder beats a steady cadence.

She doesn’t see the actor beside her, she sees a three-dimensional video game character at the wheel of the car. She is drawn into small talk, but the driver turns increasingly aggressive, eventually demanding sexual intimacy. It is nothing short of frightening and, oddly enough, very real.

Role-playing is a well-established method for teaching people to deal with complex social situations, says Jouriles, professor and chair of psychology in Dedman College. But he hit a wall in his research when he tried the method to teach relationship violence avoidance techniques to a high school health class in the late 1990s.

“The role-playing produced giggles,” Jouriles says. “And from my perspective, it didn’t capture the imaginaton of the students.”

SMU psychologists Ernest Jouriles and Renee McDonald.

Jouriles and McDonald, associate professor of psychology in Dedman College, joined the SMU faculty in August 2003, when a handful of psychologists around the country were beginning to experiment with virtual programs to treat anxiety disorders, such as allowing people who were afraid of flying to “practice” without boarding an airplane.

They wondered whether SMU’s newly opened Guildhall could help teach and test sexual assault avoidance techniques by immersing a woman into not just a virtual location, but also a “conversation” with a potential attacker.

“We created an enclosed environment,” says Perryman, Guildhall lecturer, who worked on the program with Guildhall’s Cuevas.

“We wanted our participant to feel powerless. The rain was added to isolate her. The car is particularly creepy. We worked hard at that,” says Perryman.

The simulation requires participants to wear a head-mounted video display with tracking technology that senses head movements and an audio headset, which transmits the voice of the avatar “driver” and other sounds from the virtual environment. The avatar’s lips move in sync with the voice of the actor, who controls the character’s facial expressions and movements through a video keyboard. The virtual driver can be made to nod, shrug, even pound the steering wheel in anger when he is rebuffed.

Jouriles, McDonald and their team studied the responses of 62 undergraduate women who were randomly assigned to traditional or virtual reality role-play and outfitted with heart monitors. All were asked to complete questionnaires afterward on their moods and experience.

The women who donned the headgear and went through the virtual scenario rated the experience’s realism higher than those in the traditional role play group. Behavioral observations also suggested that women experiencing the virtual car scene appeared more angry and afraid.

Jouriles calls those results “very promising.” The next step, he says, is to develop a virtual scenario that can test techniques to avert sexual assault. He hopes to see some variation on the virtual program developed for use in high schools and colleges. — Kim Cobb

Related links:
SMU Profile: Ernest Jouriles and Renee McDonald
Ernest Jouriles
Renee McDonald
Jeff Perryman
Tony Cuevas
SMU Guildhall
SMU Department of Psychology
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences