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JUNE 2000: Research (print version)


John Cacioppo: Linking mind and body
A new U of C professor pioneers the field of social neuroscience,
showing how biology and social behavior interact.

From the outside, the chamber looks like an industrial-size freezer or a bank vault. But inside, the 8-foot-by-12-foot space is clearly not intended to store meat or money. A La-Z-Boy recliner faces a wall alternately flashing giant X's and O's beamed in by projector. Behind the chair stand two narrow tables topped with an infrared keyboard, vital-signs monitors, and a sleek red cap of electrodes attached to multicolored wires. No noise gets in or out, as special insulation blocks even the electrical signals emitted by lights.

The chamber, located in the University's newly opened Biopsychological Sciences Building, is one of the many sophisticated labs at the disposal of John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake distinguished service professor in psychology. The studies he plans to conduct in the chamber-and another lab just like it-may help answer such questions as how the mind constructs racial prejudice and why lonely people have greater health risks than those who are more social.

Formerly a professor at Ohio State University, his doctoral alma mater, Cacioppo came to Chicago last year for the chance to help build a social psychology program and the brand-new Institute for Mind and Biology. Among the more than 20 piles of paper neatly stacked across his desk and along the windowsill of his Kelly Hall office are materials for a forthcoming Psychological Bulletin paper and for an MIT Press book series that he's editing. Both projects seek to advance the fledgling field of social neuroscience, a discipline first described by Cacioppo and an Ohio State colleague in 1992.

Social neuroscience, explains Cacioppo, explores how the social world--which sculpts human emotions, feelings, and interactions--affects the brain and biology, and vice versa. As a practitioner, he aims to get at a more integrated understanding of behavior, one that connects an individual's thoughts and feelings to measurable changes in brain activity and the body's overall health.

Both scientists and lay people have long believed that the mind and body can strongly influence each other. But, as Cacioppo and other social-neuroscience forerunners--including the U of C's Martha McClintock--point out in a draft of the upcoming Bulletin paper, there have been few multilevel, longitudinal studies showing exactly how genetic makeup, the brain's neural mechanisms, and social influences may be linked.

At last count the author or editor of seven academic books and 200-plus research articles, Cacioppo has helped to lay a strong foundation for the young discipline. Among other advances, he has posited new theories of how the brain processes emotions and has tied social contact to lower blood pressure. "There's a traditional antipathy between biologists with their reliance on concrete anatomy and social scientists with their emphasis on complex sets of abstractions to explain behavior," he says. "But there's value in looking across these levels of analysis."

Cacioppo and his team of graduate and postdoctoral researchers--including one who followed from Ohio State--have begun collecting data for a multiyear study of loneliness in older adults. Concerned with why loneliness has proven to be as unhealthy as obesity, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, they are working to pinpoint its connections to sleep and stress-hormone levels.

In a related effort, Cacioppo says he's close to explaining the nature of loneliness, an understanding he hopes will help reduce its negative health effects. He's now drafting findings from a four-year study of young adults that show shyness is not an innate, unchangeable personality trait, as many psychologists have long held, but rather can be altered by treating an individual's perception of the world. "If loneliness were due to an innate trait like height, there wouldn't be much that could be done about it," he notes. "But if it's more malleable, then we have to understand the processes behind it to reduce it."

Cacioppo also intends to further his nearly two decades of research into what makes people desire to know, learn, and understand. "Just like with exercise, some people think more effortlessly and enjoy it more than others," he says. This spring, he'll study how 80 to 100 college students from Ohio State and Chicago respond via keyboard to a variety of questions presented on a computer screen. He's now working with other Chicago researchers to create a mathematical algorithm that can account for both the speed and substance of the subjects' responses, producing a statistical measure of their cognitive abilities.

After that, Cacioppo expects to begin a series of studies, lasting at least two years, that will pursue how racial prejudices are formed. In the first study, Cacioppo says, he will use special brain-wave monitoring equipment and computer programs to track the neural activity of 30 student volunteers as they respond to images and facts about "greebles," a fictional group of organisms. "If we can understand the psychological and neural means by which racial prejudices form," he says, "then we can help diminish their negative effects." --CS


Shutsang Liao: That's a lot of tea
Scientists at the U of C's Tang Center for Herbal Medicine Research have found that a major chemical component of green tea may lead to weight loss.

In laboratory studies, rats injected with epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) derived from green tea leaves lost their appetites and consumed up to 60 percent less food after seven days of daily injections, losing as much as 21 percent of their body weight.

Writing in the March issue of Endocrinology, biochemistry & molecular biology professor Shutsung Liao, PhD'61, and colleagues noted that it is unclear exactly how EGCG controls appetite and body weight. Liao warns that the diet should not be tried at home: to achieve the same results, a human would have to drink green tea almost constantly. Moreover, he adds, some of the hormonal changes observed in the rats could have negative effects in humans, especially in younger people.

Philip Eaton: Having a blast
Chemistry professor Philip Eaton and a team of University researchers have synthesized what may be the world's most powerful nonnulear explosives.

As detailed in the January 17 issue of the international journal of applied chemistry, Angewandte Chemie, they made the explosive compounds--heptanitrocubane and octanitrocubane--by grafting nitrogen and oxygen onto the cubane molecule, comprised of eight carbon atoms tightly packed into the shape of a cube that burns with the help of the oxygen. The effort took nearly 20 years to complete and could lead to a new military device, rocket fuel, or even a cancer-fighting drug.

Nicholas Christakis: Truth in dying
Doctors who refer terminally ill patients to hospice care are systematically overoptimistic, according to a study published by U of C researchers in the February 19 issue of the British Medical Journal.

Physicians on average predicted that their dying patients would live 5.3 times longer than they actually did. In only 20 percent of the 468 cases studied were the doctors' predictions accurate. The prognostic mistakes may lead to patients making important clinical and financial decisions based on inaccurate information, says study director Nicholas Christakis, an associate professor in medicine and sociology. See our feature story The prophetic art for more on Christakis's work.

Robert W. Fogel: The good life is immaterial
This May, the University of Chicago Press is slated to publish the newest book by Nobel laureate and Graduate School of Business professor Robert W. Fogel.

In The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, Fogel argues that the United States is in the midst of an "awakening" propelled by technological advances that outpace ethical norms. While previous technological changes led to the American Revolution, the abolition of slavery, and the creation of the welfare state, he says, the current tide is leading Americans to pursue spiritual rather than material reforms.

Chun-Su Yuan: Relief from pain relievers
Each year, more than 250,000 terminal cancer patients are prescribed opiods, such as morphine, for pain relief.

About half of those patients experience constipation so severe that many of them choose to forego the medication. But in a study published in the January 19 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, U of C researchers led by Chun-Su Yuan, an assistant professor in anesthesia & critical care, showed that using the drug methylnaltrexone reversed the constipation without side effects.

Chung-I Wu: Hurry, swim faster!
Genes pertaining to male reproduction--those involved in the production, transfer, and morphology of sperm--evolve much faster than their nonsexual counterparts, reported a U of C research team led by the ecology and evolution department chair Chung-I Wu in the January 20 issue of Nature.

The finding suggests, says Wu, that "genes governing male reproduction are under continuous pressure to evolve ways to outcompete other males when it comes to fathering offspring." --C.S.

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