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Commerce Department selects scientific team to conduct independent abundance estimate of red snapper in Gulf of Mexico

The initiative addresses one of the most pressing issues currently facing U.S. Gulf of Mexico fisheries management, as the iconic red snapper supports one of the most economically valuable finfish fisheries in the Gulf.

An expert team of university and government scientists will determine the abundance of red snapper in the U.S. waters of the Gulf of Mexico, as availability of the fish is vital to the region’s economy.

“Red snapper have great economic value to all the gulf states,” said SMU statistician Lynne Stokes, a member of the team. “Maintaining the health of the species is vitally important, so it’s necessary to ensure species are fished at the right level.”

As an expert in surveys, polls and sampling, Stokes’ role in the project is to help design ways to sample the vast expanse of the gulf efficiently so that good estimates of abundance can be produced.

“The gulf is very diverse, and different sampling methods are needed for different habitats, which makes the sample design problem interesting,” said Stokes, a professor in the SMU Department of Statistical Science. “The cheapest way to collect data about the health of a marine fish species is by asking a sample of anglers about their catch. However, if fish are present in places where anglers are not, other methods are needed. There is some uncertainty about all the places red snapper exist in the gulf, so it is not known if catch-based methods provide accurate estimates of abundance.”

The project will obtain angler-independent data about red snapper abundance by sampling their potential habitat, Stokes said. The team will collect data on red snapper numbers by direct observation of a sample of transects on the sea bottom and structures on the sea floor, using remotely controlled video cameras. Stokes will help determine how extensive the observation must be.

The team of scientists was selected by an expert review panel convened by the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium to conduct the independent study.

“American communities across the Gulf of Mexico depend on their access to, as well as the long term sustainability of, red snapper,” said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. “I look forward to the insights this project will provide as we study and manage this valuable resource.”

Recreational anglers and commercial fishers will play a key role
The research team, made up of 21 scientists from 12 institutions of higher learning, a state agency and a federal agency, was awarded $9.5 million in federal funds for the project through a competitive research grant process. With matching funds from the universities, the project will total $12 million.

“We’ve assembled some of the best red snapper scientists around for this study,” said Greg Stunz, the project leader and a professor at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi. “The team members assembled through this process are ready to address this challenging research question. There are lots of constituents who want an independent abundance estimate that will be anxiously awaiting our findings.”

Recreational anglers and commercial fishers will be invited to play a key role in collecting data by tagging fish, reporting tags and working directly with scientists onboard their vessels.

“The local knowledge fishermen bring to this process is very valuable and meaningfully informs our study,” Stunz said.

Some stakeholder groups have expressed concerns that there are more red snapper in the Gulf than currently accounted for in the stock assessment. The team of scientists on this project will spend two years studying the issue.

In 2016, Congress directed the National Sea Grant College Program and NOAA Fisheries to fund independent red snapper data collections, surveys and assessments, including the use of tagging and advanced sampling technologies. Sea Grant and NOAA Fisheries worked collaboratively to transfer federal funds to Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant to administer the competitive research grant process and manage this independent abundance estimate.

“Today’s announcement is welcome news for all red snapper anglers in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama. “As Chairman of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, I was proud to author and secure federal funding to address the need for better data, which is a fundamental issue plaguing the fishery. The management of red snapper must be grounded in sound science if we want to provide fair access and more days on the water for our anglers. It is my hope that these independent scientists will be able to accurately determine the abundance of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico once and for all.”

Project team will determine abundance and distribution of red snapper
The research will be driven largely by university-based scientists with partners from state and federal agencies, Stunz said.

The funding will allow the scientists to carry out an abundance estimate using multiple sampling methods with a focus on advanced technologies and tagging for various habitat types, he said.

“I’m pleased to see that the independent estimate is moving forward and including the expertise of recreational fishermen,” said Rep. John Culberson of Texas. “I will continue to work with Texas fishermen and NOAA to address the inadequate access to red snapper.”

The project team will determine abundance and distribution of red snapper on artificial, natural and unknown bottom habitat across the northern Gulf of Mexico.

As a statistician chosen for the team, SMU’s Stokes is also an expert in non-sampling survey errors, such as errors by interviewers and respondents. She recently conducted research on evaluating the accuracy of contest judges and on improving estimates of marine fishery yields by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Stokes also contributes to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or “Nation’s Report Card,” examining the way schools and students are selected for the large study.

Besides SMU, others on the team include Texas A&M University, University of Florida, University of South Alabama, Louisiana State University, Florida International University, NOAA Fisheries, Auburn University, Mississippi State University, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, College of William and Mary, University of Southern Mississippi, and the University of South Florida. — Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant and Southern Methodist University

Researcher news SMU In The News Student researchers Videos

SMU News: 2012 Research Day at Southern Methodist University

SMU News covered the annual 2012 Research Day on Feb. 10 where SMU graduate and undergraduate students presented results of their research studies.

Sponsored by SMU’s Office of Research and Graduate Studies, the event sought to foster communication between students in different programs, give students the opportunity to present their work in formats they will use as professionals, and to share with the SMU community and others the outstanding research being done at the University.

The students presented their studies on posters, and were available to discuss their findings and the significance of the research.

Read the full story.


Among the projects at the event were:

  • Psychology student Vanessa Rae Stevens (under Professor Alicia Meuret) is studying whether people with tattoos and body piercings are also prone to intentional self injury by cutting, scratching, burning, etc.
  • Psychology student Grant Holland (under Professor George Holden) is studying recordings of interactions between mothers and their children with an eye toward better understanding the effects of tone-of-voice on behavior at bedtime.
  • Statistics student Holly Stovall (under Professor Lynne Stokes) is examining how to more precisely measure success in teaching programs for No Child Left Behind.
  • Earth sciences student Mary Milleson (under Professor Neil Tabor) is using core samples taken from Dallas’s White Rock Lake to gain a better understanding of how the growing urbanization of the area over the last 100 years is affecting the lake.
  • Computer science student Ruili Geng (under Professors Jeff Tian and Liguo Huang) is researching how to make the performance of the web and cloud computing more dependable.
  • Physics students Bedile Karabuga and Mayisha Zeb Nakib (under Professor Jodi Cooley-Sekula) are examining a specific technique for identifying dark matter.
    For more information, contact the Office of Research and Graduate Studies at 214-768-4345 or

Read the full story.

SMU is a nationally ranked private university in Dallas founded 100 years ago. Today, SMU enrolls nearly 11,000 students who benefit from the academic opportunities and international reach of seven degree-granting schools. For more information see

SMU has an uplink facility located on campus for live TV, radio, or online interviews. To speak with an SMU expert or book an SMU guest in the studio, call SMU News & Communications at 214-768-7650.

Economics & Statistics Health & Medicine

Study: Antibiotics, instead of emergency surgery, may better treat cases of nonperforating appendicitis

Findings suggest that nonperforating appendicitis, when the appendix hasn’t burst, and nonperforating diverticulitis could be similar diseases that warrant similar treatments

Antibiotics rather than surgery may be the better treatment for cases of appendicitis in which the appendix hasn’t burst, according to a new study.

The study’s authors say the findings suggest that nonperforating appendicitis, as the disease is called when the appendix hasn’t burst, may be unrelated to perforating appendicitis, in which the appendix has burst.

Instead, the study found that nonperforating childhood appendicitis, which historically has been treated with emergency surgery, seems to be a disease similar to nonperforating adult diverticulitis, which is often treated with antibiotics.

“It is assumed, but has never been proved, that appendicitis always perforates unless appendectomy is performed early in its course,” said the authors. “There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that this is not the case.”

The study, “Epidemiological similarities between appendicitis and diverticulitis suggesting a common underlying pathogenesis,” was reported in the Archives of Surgery.

Hospital discharge records reveal correlation
Childhood appendicitis and adult diverticulitis share many similarities, including association with colon hygiene and a low intake of fiber in the diet.

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Those shared epidemiological features prompted researchers to examine whether the two might be similar, according to economist Thomas B. Fomby at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

A statistical sampling of data from U.S. hospital discharge records revealed a correlation between nonperforating appendicitis and nonperforating diverticulitis.

“We used a technique called cointegration to investigate common movements in epidemiologic data series,” said Fomby, a professor in SMU’s Department of Economics, who led the statistical analysis with statistician Wayne A. Woodward, professor and department chair in SMU’s Department of Statistical Science.

Lead author on the study was Edward H. Livingston, M.D., in the division of Gastrointestinal and Endocrine Surgery at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, Dallas; with the Department of Surgery, Veterans Affairs Medical Center Dallas; and in the Department of Bioengineering, University of Texas at Arlington. Also co-authoring was Robert W. Haley, M.D., in the Department of Internal Medicine-Epidemiology, UT Southwestern Medical School, and a past recipient of the SMU Distinguished Alumni Award.

Regional and national data move together over time
The study looked at 27 years of data from the National Hospital Discharge Survey, which is compiled annually by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The analysis specifically compared national data and regional data for children with appendicitis and adults with diverticulitis who were admitted to U.S. hospitals between 1979 and 2006.

The statistical methodology called panel cointegration allowed the researchers to sift through eight different combinations of the two diseases, both by region and nationally, to see whether they vary together across time and to eliminate the possibility of coincidence or a chance correlation, Fomby said.

“We analyzed all the national data, and then found the same thing in every region also,” Fomby said. “That reinforced what we were finding at the national level.”

The authors’ analysis shows that although the annual incidence rates of adult nonperforating diverticulitis and child nonperforating appendicitis changed greatly during the past 25 years, their secular patterns — long-term trends — followed the same general patterns, overall as well as region by region, according to the authors.

“These secular changes were significantly cointegrated, meaning that the incidence rates changed in time together, suggesting that nonperforating appendicitis and nonperforating diverticulitis could be different manifestations of the same underlying process.”

Statisticians and economists have applied this kind of analysis to international finance, macroeconomics and other areas, but it’s not been used to any extent in medical epidemiology, Fomby said. Two economists, Clive Granger and Robert Engel, won the 2003 Nobel Prize in Economics for their invention of the technique.

Appendicitis, diverticulitis may be similar diseases
“Childhood appendicitis and adult diverticulitis seem to be similar diseases, suggesting a common underlying pathogenesis,” write the authors. Secular trends for the nonperforating and perforating forms are strikingly different, they said.

“At least for appendicitis, perforating disease may not be an inevitable outcome from delayed treatment of nonperforating disease. If appendicitis represents the same pathophysiologic process as diverticulitis, it may be amenable to antibiotic rather than surgical treatment.”

Appendicitis is a painful infection in the area of the lower right abdomen that typically affects younger people, age 10 to 30, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse within the National Institutes of Health. It is the No. 1 cause of emergency abdominal surgeries, according to NDDIC.

Appendicitis is caused by blockage in the appendix, a fingerlike pouch jutting from the large intestine, according to NDDIC. Among the various causes of the blockage can be feces, abdominal trauma or inflammatory bowel disease, the agency says.

Diverticulitis, which is more common among people older than 60, occurs when pouches that have developed in the lining of the gastrointestinal tract become inflamed and sometimes infected, according to NDDIC. It is often treated with antibiotics, the authors say.

Perforating appendicitis not a progression of nonperforating appendicitis?
“These findings seem incompatible with the long-held view that perforating appendicitis is merely the progression of nonperforating disease where surgical intervention was delayed too long,” write the authors. “If perforating appendicitis was simply a manifestation of nonperforating appendicitis not treated in a timely manner, the secular trends should have been statistically similar, which they were not.”

Both diseases have increased in incidence as cleanliness in the Western world has improved, in populations with higher socioeconomic status, and where grain-processing technologies have lowered dietary fiber content, the authors say.

In a previous study, the researchers demonstrated changes in the annual incidence rates of appendicitis. The new study demonstrated changes for nonperforating diverticulitis as well. — Margaret Allen

SMU is a private university in Dallas where nearly 11,000 students benefit from the national opportunities and international reach of SMU’s seven degree-granting schools. For more information see

SMU has an uplink facility located on campus for live TV, radio, or online interviews. To speak with an SMU expert or book an SMU guest in the studio, call SMU News & Communications at 214-768-7650.

Earth & Climate Economics & Statistics Plants & Animals

Federal Fisheries Service aims to sustain ample fish stocks in U.S. coastal waters

Old-fashioned snail mail with a postage stamp might be the answer for federal officials working to keep the waters off the U.S. coast from being overfished.

Anglers who fish for fun in U.S. coastal waters say the federal government currently relies on questionable data to determine which ocean locales are overfished and subsequently placed off limits to recreational and commercial fishing so stocks can rebuild.

The government through the National Marine Fisheries Service has relied heavily on a home telephone survey since the 1970s to random-digit dial coastal households for information about fishing trips.

Now a pilot study in North Carolina has found a new way to calculate recreational fishing activity in the ocean — and it’s proven promising as a method to replace calling people on the phone, according to statistician Lynne Stokes, one of five researchers who conducted the North Carolina pilot study.

The study is part of a national overhaul of the way the Fisheries Service collects and reports on recreational fishing data known as the Marine Recreational Information Program, or MRIP. The Fisheries Service is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the lead federal agency mandated with protecting and conserving marine life and habitat off the nation’s coasts.

In fact, the study found that the new questionnaire mailed to selected households via the U.S. Postal Service netted a higher response rate and more complete data, said Stokes, a professor in the Department of Statistical Science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Snail mail is the new telephone
The mail survey asked recreational anglers for the same information as the phone survey — how often they had recently gone fishing off the coast.

“It’s kind of like back to the future,” said Stokes. “This study showed that the mail survey data collection for this particular survey is quite promising. The data was better and we got a higher response.”

Stokes was a member of a National Research Council panel that was asked by the government to critique its existing “Coastal Household Telephone Survey.”

The Coastal Household Telephone Survey is carried out regularly by the National Marine Fisheries Service to routinely assess fish stocks in U.S. coastal waters.

Survey critical to fisheries management
Fisheries scientists rely heavily on survey data to determine which areas off the coast are overfished for specific types of fish.

The service manages overfishing in various ways, including by imposing annual limits on the amount and type of fish that can be caught and by declaring moratoriums on fishing.

A new law requires the NOAA Fisheries Service to step up protection and conservation. But anglers say it’s unfair to use unreliable data to set limits and moratoriums on fishing — which causes hardship for the nation’s massive recreational fishing industry.

There are 13 million recreational saltwater anglers in the nation, according to the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. Recreational fishing has an $82 billion annual impact on the nation’s economy and supports 533,000 jobs, according to the American Sportfishing Association.

The nation’s coastal waters are divided into eight Regional Fishery Management Councils created in 1976 to manage the fishery resources within the federal 200-mile limit off the coast. The councils are: New England, Mid-Atlantic, South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, Pacific, North Pacific and Western Pacific. The closing this year of the red snapper fishery in the South Atlantic council area has sparked intense controversy.

NOAA has said that U.S. fisheries contribute more than $35 billion annually to the economy, with an estimated $20 billion spent on recreational fishing alone each year.

Mail survey shows promise
Results of the study were presented as “A Pilot Test of a Dual Frame Mail Survey of Recreational Marine Anglers” in August at the 2010 annual meeting of the American Statistical Association in Vancouver.

Other researchers included Nancy Mathiowetz, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; J. Michael Brick, Westat; William R. Andrews, NOAA Marine Recreational Information Program; and Seth Muzzy, ICF/Macro.

The researchers chose North Carolina because the state has had a saltwater recreational fishing registry for some time. The purpose of the research is to improve both survey coverage and response rates.

“Phone responses are declining at an alarming rate,” Stokes said, partly due to the jump in households that only have cell phones. “People are just less cooperative with phone surveys.”

The survey was mailed to 1,800 anglers and included a $1 cash incentive, with a reminder postcard one week later. The rate of response was higher to the mailed surveys than to phone surveys, Stokes said, which is consistent with a general U.S. phone survey trend since the 1980s.

The experiment also showed that a large fraction of North Carolina anglers do not live in coastal county households, which are the only ones directly covered by the current phone survey. Efforts to improve coverage by adding interviews with anglers from registry lists are easier by mail than phone since duplicates are easier to identify, she said.

Solution for shortcoming
A shortcoming of the mailed survey is the inability to get real-time information, which allows the NOAA Fisheries Service to respond quickly to overfishing. Stokes said that problem may be able to be resolved by providing a revised forecast, similar to routinely released economic data for unemployment, job claims, manufacturing and consumer confidence.

Evidence was found that the mail survey suffers from what Stokes described as “avidity bias”: People who fish a lot and who are licensed to fish are more likely to respond. The researchers will address that in a revised survey by asking people for information about other recreational activities as well.

Eventually the NOAA Fisheries Service survey will tap anglers on the National Saltwater Angler Registry. A new federal law requires anyone planning to recreational fish in the ocean be signed up with the registry, which the NOAA Fisheries Service launched in January. — Margaret Allen

SMU has an uplink facility located on campus for live TV, radio or online interviews. To speak with an SMU expert or book an SMU guest in the studio, call SMU News & Communications at 214-768-7650 or email

Economics & Statistics Health & Medicine Researcher news SMU In The News

Appendicitis linked to flu-like virus outbreaks

askexpert.jpgThe research of SMU faculty Thomas B. Fomby and Wayne A. Woodward has been published in the January issue of the journal Archives of Surgery. Fomby is a professor and chairman of the Department of Economics and Woodward is a professor in the Department of Statistical Science.

The research described in the article “Association of Viral Infection and Appendicitis” looks at the relationship between appendicitis and seasonal viral infections. The scientists reviewed 36 years of hospital discharge data and concluded there is a relationship to a flu-like virus.

The appendix is a fingerlike pouch attached to the large intestine in the lower right area of the abdomen. IMAGE: NDDIC

Fomby and Woodward collaborated with researchers from UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and the VA Medical Center in Gainesville, Florida.

Articles about the results of the research have been widely published on many science and research news sites, including Daily Mail Online, USA Today, Business Week, Science Daily,, Health News Digest, BioScience Technology, Newswise and many others.


Appendicitis may be triggered by a viral infection

Daily Mail Online
A viral infection could explain why appendicitis appears more common in certain years and during the summer.

A flu-like virus could be the hidden cause of appendicitis, scientists claim.

Although one in ten of us will experience the condition — in which the appendix becomes dangerously inflamed — doctors have always been baffled by what triggers it.

A viral cause would fit in with another of the researchers’ findings — that appendicitis appears to be more common in certain years and during the summer.

The illness occurs when the appendix, a worm-like cul-de-sac connected to the colon on the right side of the body, becomes inflamed.

A perforated appendix that has swollen and burst is life-threatening because the abdomen is filled with infected material. In fact, appendicitis is the most common reason for emergency surgery.

In the latest study, researchers examined American hospital admissions for appendicitis, influenza and gastric viral infections over 36 years.

Their analysis showed appendicitis peaked in the years 1977, 1981, 1984, 1987, 1994 and 1998.

That clustering pattern suggested outbreaks were typical of viral infections.

Seasonal trends were also uncovered, showing a slight increase in the number of appendicitis cases over the summer months.

Read the full story.

Related links:
Thomas B. Fomby home page
Wayne A. Woodward home page
Science Daily: Appendicitis May Be Related to Viral Infections
Archives of Surgery: Association of Viral Infection and Appendicitis

Health & Medicine Mind & Brain

Chemical exposure now linked to Gulf War syndrome

The following story published March 20, 2009 on

A new study by researchers from UT Southwestern Medical Center and Southern Methodist University is the first to pinpoint damage inside the brains of veterans suffering from Gulf War syndrome. The finding links the illness to chemical exposures and may lead to diagnostic tests and treatments.

Robert Haley, chief of epidemiology at UT Southwestern and lead author of the study, said the research uncovers and locates areas of the brain that function abnormally. Recent studies had shown evidence of chemical abnormalities and shrinkage of white matter in the brains of veterans exposed to certain toxic chemicals, such as sarin gas during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

gunst.jpgThe research, was published in the March issue of the journal “Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.” Imaging enables investigators to visualize exact brain structures affected by these chemical exposures, Haley said.

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

“Before this study, we didn’t know exactly what parts of the brain were damaged and causing the symptoms,” Haley said.

Richard Gunst

“We designed an experiment to test areas of the brain that would have been damaged if the illness was caused by sarin or pesticides, and the results were positive,” he said.

In designing the study, Haley and his colleagues reasoned that if low-level sarin or pesticides had damaged Gulf War veterans’ brains, a likely target of the damage would be cholinergic receptors on cells in certain brain structures. If that was so, administering safe levels of medicines that stimulate cholinergic receptors would elicit an abnormal response in ill veterans.

ww2.gifIn the study, 21 chronically ill Gulf War veterans and 17 well veterans were given small doses of physostigmine, a substance which briefly stimulates cholinergic receptors. Researchers then measured the study participants’ brain cell response with brain scans.

Pictured right: Wayne Woodward

“What we found was that some of the brain areas we previously suspected responded abnormally to the cholinergic challenge,” Haley said. “Those areas were in the basal ganglia, hippocampus, thalamus and amygdala, and the thalamus. Changes in functioning of these brain structures can certainly cause problems with concentration and memory, body pain, fatigue, abnormal emotional responses and personality changes that we commonly see in ill Gulf War veterans.”

A previous study funded by the U.S. Army found that repetitive exposure to low-level sarin nerve gas caused changes in cholinergic receptors in lab rats.

“An added bonus is a statistical formula combining the brain responses in 17 brain areas that separated the ill from the well veterans, and three different Gulf War syndrome variants from each other with a high degree of accuracy,” Haley said. “If this finding can be repeated in a larger group, we might have an objective test for Gulf War syndrome and its variants.”

Schucany%202008.jpgAn objective diagnostic test, he said, sets the stage for ongoing genetic studies to see why some people are affected by chemical exposures, and why others are not.

New studies would also allow the selection of homogenous groups of ill veterans in which to run efficient clinical trials for treatments. Haley first described Gulf War syndrome in a series of papers published in January 1997 in the “Journal of the American Medical Association.”

William Schucany

In previous studies, research from Haley showed that veterans suffering from Gulf War syndrome had lower levels of a protective blood enzyme called paraoxonase, which usually fights off the toxins found in sarin.

Veterans who served in the same geographical area and did not get sick had higher levels of this enzyme.

Haley and his colleagues have closely followed the same group of tests subjects since 1995. In 2006, UT Southwestern and the Department of Veterans Affairs established a dedicated, collaborative Gulf War illness research enterprise in Dallas, managed by UT Southwestern.

Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a longtime supporter of Gulf War research, facilitated that agreement and secured a $75 million appropriation over five years for Gulf War illness research.

The study was funded, in part, by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command.

Other UT Southwestern researchers involved in the study included Jeffrey Spence and Patrick Carmack, assistant professors of clinical sciences; Michael Devous and Frederick Bonte, professors of radiology; and Madhukar Trivedi, professor of psychiatry.

Related links:
Air Force Times: Study links Gulf War exposures, brain changes
SMU Profile: Patrick Carmack and Jeffrey Spence
Panel: Gulf War Syndrome is real
Gulf War Syndrome research overview
Richard Gunst
Wayne Woodward
William Schucany
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

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