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Andes mountains formed by ‘growth spurts’

andes mountains
Rocks near Cerdas in the Altiplano plateau of Boliva contain ancient soils used to decipher the surface temperature and surface uplift history of the southern Altiplano.

Scientists have long been trying to understand how the Andes and other broad, high-elevation mountain ranges were formed. New research by Carmala Garzione, professor of earth and environmental sciences, and colleagues sheds light on the mystery.

In a paper published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, Garzione explains that the Altiplano plateau in the central Andes—and most likely the entire mountain range—was formed through a series of rapid growth spurts.

“This study provides increasing evidence that the plateau formed through periodic rapid pulses, not through a continuous, gradual uplift of the surface, as was traditionally thought,” says Garzione. “In geologic terms, rapid means rising one kilometer or more over several millions of years, which is very impressive.”

It’s been understood that the Andes mountain range has been growing as the Nazca oceanic plate slips underneath the South American continental plate, causing the Earth’s crust to shorten and thicken. But that left two questions: how quickly have the Andes risen to their current height, and what was the actual process that enabled their rise?

Garzione worked in the southern Altiplano, collecting climate records preserved in ancient soils at elevations close to sea level, where temperatures remained warm over the history of the Andes, and at high elevations where temperatures should have cooled as the mountains rose. She found that the southern Altiplano region rose by about 2.5 kilometers between 16 million and 9 million years ago, which is considered a rapid rate in geologic terms.

“What we are learning is that the Altiplano plateau formed by pulses of rapid surface uplift over several million years, separated by long periods (several tens of million years) of stable elevations,” says Garzione. “We suspect this process is typical of other high-elevation ranges, but more research is needed before we know for certain.”


Off-season doesn’t allow brain to recover from football hits

Six months off may not be long enough for the brains of football players to completely heal after a single season, putting them at even greater risk of head injury the next season.

“I don’t want to be an alarmist, but this is something to be concerned about,” says Jeffrey Bazarian, associate professor of emergency medicine at the School of Medicine and Dentistry and lead author of the study, published in PLOS ONE.

“At this point we don’t know the implications, but there is a valid concern that six months of no-contact rest may not be enough for some players,” he says. “And the reality of high school, college, and professional athletics is that most players don’t actually rest during the off-season. They continue to train and push themselves and prepare for the next season.”

Bazarian investigated the brains of 10 Rochester football players before the start of the 2011 season, at the conclusion of the season, and after six months of no-contact rest. All took part in daily practices and weekly games, but none of them suffered a concussion.

Imaging scans showed changes consistent with mild brain injury in about half of the players six months after the season ended, despite the fact that no one had a concussion. Brain changes in the football players were compared to a control group of five college students who didn’t play contact sports.

The new data also suggest that inflammation may be a key factor in whether players recovered within six months. Levels of inflammatory markers present in a player’s blood sample correlated with a lack of complete brain recovery. Read more at

Crowdsourcing can deliver real-time support for physicians

beaten up football helmets

A new study shows that physicians can successfully harness the power of crowdsourcing to help diagnose and treat patients in real time. The pilot project, the results of which appear in the Journal of Hospital Medicine, could help providers make more informed decisions and improve the quality of care.

The findings were the result of an eight-month field test of a mobile software application that involved 85 health care providers with UR Medicine. The project was led by Marc Halterman and Max Sims from the Department of Neurology, and Jeffrey Bigham and Henry Kautz from the Department of Computer Science.

The team developed an application called DocCHIRP for mobile and desktop use. Devices using the software were encrypted and password protected. The program allowed a provider to send inquiries to individual or groups of physicians and nurses that were part of the 85-person “crowd.”  The questions could require either a written or an agree/disagree response.

The most common inquiries were related to the effective use of medication, navigating complex medical decisions, guidance regarding standard of care, the selection and interpretation of diagnostic tests, and patient referrals. The fastest response time was 4 minutes and the median time it took for the first response to arrive was 19 minutes.

Despite the fact that physicians have at their disposal a wealth of resources that enables them to research medical questions, the authors found that many providers feel that the opinion and guidance of trusted peers were as or more valuable.


Drug improves vision in individuals with neurological disorder

The drug acetazolamide, combined with a low-sodium weight reduction diet, improves vision in individuals with idiopathic intracranial hypertension (IIH), a condition brought about by abnormal pressure on the brain that is not the result of a tumor or other diseases.

That’s according to a new study, which appears in the journal JAMA, coordinated by Karl Kieburtz and Michael McDermott from the Center for Human Experimental Therapeutics and also involved Steven Feldon with the Flaum Eye Institute.

IIH is associated with obesity and, consequently, is on the rise. It is most prevalent in overweight women of child-bearing age. Most people with the condition suffer debilitating headaches and, because of pressure on the optic nerve, 86 percent experience visual loss, and 10 percent develop severe visual loss.

While acetazolamide is commonly used to treat the condition, there has not been strong evidence to support its use.

The researchers found that the participants who took acetazolamide experienced better vision, a reduction in swelling in their eyes, and a higher self-reported quality of life. Additionally, people on the drug also experienced a greater reduction in weight.


Experiment on earth demonstrates effect observed in space

red gasses shooting upward
An example of a collimated jet in space: images of the young stellar object HH 30, showing changes over a five-year period in the disk and jets of the newborn star, which is about half a million years old.

Streaming jets of high-speed matter produce some of the most stunning objects seen in space. Astronomers have seen them shooting out of young stars just being formed, X-ray binary stars, and the supermassive black holes at the centers of large galaxies.

Theoretical explanations for what causes those beam-like jets have been around for years, but now an experiment by French and American researchers using extremely high-powered lasers offers experimental verification of one proposed mechanism for creating them.

“This research is an example of how laboratory experiments can be used to test mechanisms that may produce what we observe in space,” says Eric Blackman, professor of physics and astronomy and one of the coauthors. Blackman says that he and his collaborators wanted to recreate conditions in the lab that lead to jets in space becoming collimated—or beam-like—rather than diverging. Theory and computational simulations had suggested the possibility that jets might be created by “shock focused inertial confinement.”

Blackman adds that the experiment “confirms that this particular mechanism is viable, even though other effects are likely to also be taking place.”

The research shows evidence of the “shocks” predicted by theory, and which give the mechanism its name.

In the paper, published in Physical Review Letters, the researchers explain how they used the laser laboratory facility, LULI, at the Ecole Polytechnique in France, to recreate the space jets. Collaborators at the University of Chicago supplied a sophisticated computer code FLASH that they developed and adapted to help analyze the results.


Lower Hispanic participation in drug benefit may point to barriers

Hispanic seniors are 35 percent less likely to have prescription drug coverage despite the existence of the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan—also known as Part D—and the availability of assistance to help pay insurance premiums. That is the finding of a study in the journal Health Affairs.

“These results indicate that disparities in prescription drug coverage exist between Hispanic and white Medicare beneficiaries, despite the existence of a potentially universal entitlement program,” says Brian McGarry, a graduate student in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the School of Medicine and Dentistry. “This study suggests that, in spite of the overall success of the Part D program, future policies need to focus on the disproportionately low enrollment of vulnerable populations.”

McGarry, Robert Strawderman, chair of the Department of Biostatistics and Computational Biology, and Yue Li, associate professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences, coauthored the study.

The researchers used 2011 data from the National Health and Aging Trends Study, a new and highly detailed source of data about Medicare beneficiaries which includes information on demographic characteristics, finances, and health. The researchers found that Hispanic seniors were 35 percent less likely than whites to have any form of drug coverage after controlling for demand for prescription drugs and ability to afford a plan. That is despite the fact that an estimated 65 percent of Hispanics without coverage were eligible to receive premium support.

The general complexity of applying for premium subsidies and the financial skills required to accurately determine the value of drug coverage and choose from among a large number of plans may contribute to this phenomenon, the researchers say.


Gene discovery links cancer cell ‘recycling’ system to potential new therapy

Rochester scientists have discovered a gene with a critical link to pancreatic cancer, and further investigation in mice shows that by blocking the gene’s most important function, researchers can slow the disease and extend survival.

Published online in Cell Reports, the finding offers a potential new route to intrude on a cancer that usually strikes quickly, has been stubbornly resistant to targeted therapies, and has a low survival rate. Most recent improvements in the treatment of pancreatic cancer, in fact, are the result of using different combinations of older chemotherapy drugs.

The research was led by Hartmut (Hucky) Land, chair of biomedical genetics at the School of Medicine and Dentistry and director of research at Wilmot Cancer Center, and Aram Hezel, associate professor of medicine. The work identifies a new target in the process of garbage recycling that occurs within the cancer cell called autophagy, which is critical to pancreatic cancer’s progression and growth.

“What makes this an exciting opportunity is that the gene we’re studying is critical to the cancer cell’s machinery but it is not essential to the function of normal cells,” says Land. “By targeting these types of non-mutated genes that are highly specific to cancer, we are looking for more effective ways to intervene.”

The study underlines Wilmot’s overall approach to cancer research. Rather than investigate single faulty genes linked to single subtypes of cancer, Rochester scientists have identified a larger network of approximately 100 non-mutated genes that cooperate and control the shared activities of many cancers.


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