School years end; research does not

Professors keep the party going even after most students have left campus for the summer. This summer was no different with various departments continuing breakthrough studies in their research.

Edelyn Verona, associate professor of psychology, and her team dedicated their time this summer to studying causes of criminal behavior. Verona focused on how to identify individuals as psychopaths.

“A psychopath is a clinical term used to describe a person who seems to have extreme deficits in interpersonal connections and emotional responding,” said Verona. “My lab studies offenders by looking at their genes, social environment and brain activity related to emotional responding.”

Characteristics of being a psychopath are developed early in life and, as a result, may cause a person to engage in aggressive and criminal behaviors, Verona said.

“Youth who had the long allele of the serotonin transporter gene and came from an economically-disadvantaged environment scored higher on psychopathic traits,” said Verona, while explaining the tests given to individuals to establish whether they were psychopaths. An allele is a type of gene, and the two alleles of the serotonin transporter protein gene differ in length. Those with higher levels of serotonin (the opposite allele) tend to be more well adjusted emotionally, Verona said.

The combination of genetics and environment can determine whether a person is psychopathic; however, these factors may not always pinpoint psychopaths.

“Many people in the world carry the long allele and come from economically-disadvantaged environments and are not psychopaths,” Verona said.

The Department of Entomology and the Institute for Genomic Biology conducted research monitoring the behavior of honey bees and identified genes that respond to how bees measure distance.

Gene E. Robinson, professor of entomology and neuroscience, spent time in the lab studying gene expressions in the brains of honey bees. Robinson concentrated on how bees measure distance, since they must communicate to each other how far to fly to locate food.

“We tricked bees into thinking they were flying different distances when they really weren’t in order to look at effects of distance perception on gene expression in certain regions of the brain,” said Robinson.

Honey bees flew through a tunnel, which was always the same length, but altered to have vertical or horizontal stripes in each trial. Vertical stripes tricked a bee into thinking it traveled far, while horizontal stripes made bees think they traveled a short distance.

To figure out whether the bees were deceived, their dance communication was monitored, said Robinson. He classifies information about distance as social because bees constantly communicate to each other where to find food.

“A topic of increasing importance is to study how the genome responds so dynamically to social information,” Robinson said.

Glaucio Paulino, professor of Engineering, invested his time this summer improving the form and function of bones used for reconstructive facial surgery. When he heard about the obstacles surgeons were having with the older technology, he was eager to assist.

Craniofacial reconstruction is necessary when a person suffers damage to facial bones or tissue and surgery is needed to repair these injuries. Currently, craniofacial reconstruction is performed manually by reshaping bones and tissue obtained from other body parts, said Paulino. The ultimate goal in improving old fashioned methods was “to create a bone replacement form with minimum material within a limited three dimensional space with specific structural and functional requirements,” he said.

The technology Paulino uses, called topology optimization, shows how to distribute a given amount of material within a predefined volume in the most effective manner.

This allows doctors to consider multiple options preceding and during any facial reconstructive surgery.

Paulino was excited to begin researching this new method because he has “always been fascinated about the synergy between engineering and medicine.”

“If further developed, the methodology would be a great tool for the surgeon as it would allow patient-specific surgical planning for mid-face reconstruction,” Paulino said.