Week in Review: Partner Up

UNC-TV Science Week In Review: August 22, 2013
Partner Up


Research, healthcare and conservation are very much team sports. Collaborations bring multiple perspectives to a single issue and have led to some of the most renowned discoveries in history. Think Watson and Crick’s discovery of the double helix, Einstein and Rosen’s theories on wormholes or the Manhattan Project’s work on nuclear energy and the atom bomb.

This week, North Carolina researchers and health professionals have entered into partnerships to tackle some of today’s most pressing issues.

Headfirst into Supporting the Troops
In recent years, the medical community has paid increased attention to concussions and traumatic brain injuries that soldiers receive in combat. Organizations such as The Armed Forces Foundation have rallied support for the more than 100,000 soldiers thought to have suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This week, Research Triangle Park based RTI International announced that it will take part in a national research consortium to study traumatic brain injuries in the military and their effect on mental health.

Virginia Commonwealth University will coordinate the consortium, which includes seven veteran’s hospitals, 10 universities and six active-duty treatment facilities as well as RTI. The $62.2 million dollar effort will involve collecting data from recent veterans on injuries and physiological brain damage. RTI’s role will largely be in using trends in this data to better predict mental health outcomes based on the type of brain injury a soldier suffers.

The consortium is one part of President Obama’s National Research Action Plan, which focuses on increased mental healthcare for active-duty soldiers and veterans. Click here to read the National Research Action Plan.

Big Data at NC State
NC State University announced this week that it will partner with the National Security Administration to start a cooperative data analysis center at NC State’s Centennial Campus in Raleigh.

The Laboratory for Analytical Sciences (LAS) will focus on researching more effective ways to manage and analyze the large amounts of data collected by the NSA. NSA officials estimate that the LAS will bring 100 new jobs to the Triangle, while researchers from NC State work side-by-side with government analysts.

While exactly what will be researched at the LAS is confidential, the NSA says the analytical techniques developed in the LAS will be useful for businesses and academics as well as the government.

Treatment From Miles Away
In North Carolina, 9.3% of all visits to hospital emergency departments result in a mental-health related diagnosis. That may not sound like much, but it’s double the national average. 

Many of these visits come from people who have been to the emergency department recently, and doctors believe patients come back because they did not see a mental health professional on their first visit. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, 58 North Carolina counties have a shortage of mental health professionals.

But now, with a grant from the state, East Carolina University Brody School of Medicine is expanding a program that allows more patients in underserved areas to see a psychiatrist. The program is called “telepsychiatry” and operates exactly like it sounds. An emergency department visitor sits in their room and a nurse wheels in a screen and microphone. A psychiatrist speaks to the patient using the screen, then advises the doctors in the emergency department. This way, patients in smaller hospitals can use the mental health resources of other hospitals around the state.

The $4 million dollars that the State will give to ECU over the next two years will expand telepsychiatry from 14 emergency departments to at least 60. In the 14 departments already taking part, telepsychiatry has led to decreases in both repeat visits and the time that patients spend in the emergency department.

Easy Mornings and Healthy Livers
I like to think of tools as partners that help me do a job, and the partner most crucial to my getting up in the morning is a cup (or cups... okay usually cups) of shoe polish-black coffee. That little bit of caffeine in coffee or tea jumpstarts many Americans’ days, and scientists from Duke now say that caffeine may also jumpstart our livers into protecting themselves from fat deposits.

It is perfectly normal for a few fat cells to hang out around your liver, but too much fat can cause liver scarring, inflammation and rarely even liver failure. Thirty percent of American adults, including 70% of diabetes patients have what doctors call non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which means they have too much fat around their livers. (Important note: according to the Mayo Clinic, many of these cases have no symptoms or complications).

The scientists fed mice a high fat diet and different levels of caffeine. They found that mice taking the equivalent of 4 cups of coffee per day had less fat on their livers. And if you don’t like coffee or tea, the researchers say this research could lead to caffeine-like drugs that would help your liver without the normal effects of caffeine.

- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.