AUGUST 2000: Research (print version)
Cacioppo: Linking mind and body
new U of C professor pioneers the field of social neuroscience,
showing how biology and social behavior interact.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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."
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.
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."
Liao: That's a lot of tea
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.
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.
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.
Eaton: Having a blast
Eaton and a team of University researchers have synthesized
what may be the world's most powerful nonnulear explosives.
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
Christakis: Truth in dying
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.
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
W. Fogel: The good life is immaterial
May, the University of Chicago Press is slated to publish the newest
book by Nobel laureate and Graduate School of Business professor Robert
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.
Yuan: Relief from pain relievers
year, more than 250,000 terminal cancer patients are prescribed opiods,
such as morphine, for pain relief.
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.
Wu: Hurry, swim faster!
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
in the January 20 issue of Nature.
says Wu, that "genes governing male reproduction are under continuous
pressure to evolve ways to outcompete other males when it comes to fathering