Monday, October 29, 2012

Preparedness: Hurricane Sandy & Mr. Jefferson's University

Sunday morning, Oct. 29, 2012, I walked our dog around the neighborhood, observing much anticipated Hurricane Sandy brewing up ill-foreboding clouds. The wind picked up. Brown leaves were falling like snowflakes, densely covering the street. I wondered whether we had enough batteries, water, food and other supplies for the coming days. My most useful acquisition seems a safety preparedness radio endorsed by the American Cross which can be charged with a hand crank. I was reminded of Hurricane Katrina whose destruction I could witness first hand in Washington Parish outside New Orleans on a volunteer cleanup foray that students at Vanderbilt University had organized. The memories filled me with anguish again.

Without doubt, the disaster response to Katrina was the greatest failure in catastrophe management I experienced in my life. In short, the preparation for the catastrophe was a catastrophe.

Local, state and federal governments were made aware of the dangers Katrina would pose well ahead of time. The then Director of the National Hurricane Center Max Mayfield was publicly exasperated that nobody in charge seemed to take his warnings seriously enough. Despite his urgent warnings, public institutions failed to organize adequate evacuation of New Orleans and provide shelter and protection for its inhabitants.

In the wake of Katrina, roughly 2,000 people perished on the gulf coast. The government was unable to collect even the dead in a timely fashion. Corpses were lying in the streets of New Orleans for days. How could this happen to the nation that prides itself the wealthiest in the world?

Seven years later, several hundred million dollars have been spent to upgrade the levee and dyke system around New Orleans. The city withstood this year's Hurricane Isaac, while outlying areas were severely flooded. New Orleans has recovered only two-thirds of its pre-Katrina population. Health care and schools still remain wanting.

Katrina served as a wake up call for the nation. Today, the advance warnings and public calls for preparation are broadcast by the media early and with more drama and urgency. Hopefully, the stronger measures taken in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy will help to prevent the worst.

How do my thoughts about disaster preparedness relate to the crisis in higher education symbolized by last summer's leadership debacle at the University of Virginia

Similar to the government's ill-preparedness to adequately respond to Katrina's impact despite prior warnings, some institutions of higher learning in this country seem unable to act preemptively to meet the challenges they face in the near future:

  1. Public Schools do not appear to have developed strategies that will address the enormous turnover in faculty in the wake of the retirement of the baby boomers. 
  2. Public schools seem ill-prepared to address dwindling state support. Returns from high-risk endowment investments have proved fickle, as the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 profoundly illustrated, and won't fill the gap.
  3. Federal funds for research are drying up. They have substantially underwritten the salaries of faculty members in the past and provided the schools with additional income from overhead recovery.
  4. Teaching hospitals operate with mounting losses, while the bond obligations for the extravagant infrastructure expansions of the past decade need to be met.
Accordingly, the budget deficits at our institutions of higher education are mounting. The leadership crisis at the University of Virginia strikingly uncovers that confronted with impending insolvencies universities are having difficulty in reaching consensus on solutions. Short-term measures, like increases in tuition and fees represent no long-term solution. The attempted ouster of the president of the University of Virginia by select board members is emblematic of a perceived existential institutional crisis in which board and university leadership obviously do not share the same visions.

I fear that institutions of higher learning that are seemingly oblivious of developments certain to unfold and unable to act proactively after open deliberation in their engagement of issues of importance may not be able to educate our children to be proactive about their own future. In the spirit of Mr. Jefferson, we expect that our premier universities prepare the next generation of competent leaders, enabling them to make informed, deliberate decisions in anticipation of previsible adversity ahead.

We expect that they learn to respect Murphy's Law reminding us to be ready for all eventualities as unlikely as they may seem. Anything that can happen will eventually happen. How will the universities be able to prepare the next generation for the shoals of destiny, if they themselves are unprepared?

Further Readings
  • The Daily Progress covered the leadership crisis at the University of Virginia in great depth. The newspaper published a timeline of events leading up to the university president's attempted ouster by select members of the board under the headline "Timeline of Sullivan's ouster and return" online Jun. 26, 2012.
  • The Washington Post's Jenna Johnson alerts us to some ramifications of the University of Virginia's governance crisis that jeopardize the institution's regional accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in her article with the title "U-Va. accreditation still at risk as questions linger about failed presidential ouster" published online Oct. 23, 2012.
  • The Washington Post's Nick Anderson posted the thoughts of the president of the Association of American Universities Hunter R. Rawlings III on the relationship between the governance crisis at the University of Virginia and the national crisis of higher education under the headline "Head of major university group weighs in on U-Va." Oct. 25, 2012.
  • Hurricane Sandy became one of the most devastating natural disasters on record to strike the Northeastern Seaboard of the US. To date, the storm cost roughly 200 lives in toto. The flood surge destroyed thousands of homes on the Jersey Shore and in New York City's waterfront communities. The city's infrastructure and public transportation was heavily damaged and may remain crippled for months. Millions of people lost power, and tens of thousands still remain disconnected from the grid today. New York's Governor Cuomo was dissatisfied with the utilities' lack of preparedness and inadequacy of response to such extent that he launched a state investigation into their performance yesterday (11/14/2012).
Governor Cuomo's executive order (source: Reuters Live). 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Science & Fortuity

The historical account below is published with the author's permission. I annotated two typographical errors. The document is best read with fullscreen view. The reader may find this option at the right-hand corner of the task bar at the bottom of the text window or may open a new window, using this link

The lecture revisits the development of the fluorodeoxyglucose method for the imaging of the brain's metabolic activity. The author, whose contribution was instrumental in the endeavor, presented the lecture via video at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) Oct. 19, 2012. The occasion was a symposium convened to celebrate the designation of BNL's chemistry department by the American Chemical Society as a historical site in recognition of its pivotal role in the adaptation of the method to the non-invasive use in humans.

The history of the fluorodeoxyglucose method represents a striking example for the value of basic research. It demonstrates that the translation of discoveries from bench to bedside involves unrelenting dedication and, at times, serendipity. Furthermore, this example shows that the process may require decades of continued funding, before the investment eventually comes to fruition. None of the investigators who embarked on this endeavor in the 1940s fathomed that their efforts would lead one day to the most widely used diagnostic tool for the staging of cancer anywhere in the body.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Morat to Fribourg 2012: Free Will Lives!

The winners of the 79th race (2012) from Morat to Fribourg are:

both from Kenya. Congratulations!!!

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Friday, October 5, 2012

Autism & Feral Children

The diagnosis for autism is based on behavioral differences, the first signs of which can be observed in infants. Autism is classified as a spectrum disorder. That is, its diagnosis covers a spectrum of abnormal behaviors that differ in severity, ranging from people who repetitively self-injure and may be considered mentally retarded to individuals who score extremely high on intelligence tests and may develop an intense, obsessive passion for a particular subject, but profoundly lack social skills. The Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger was the first to recognize the latter as a distinct group of patients (Asperger's syndrome), and autism has been classified as a spectrum disorder with repetitive behaviors and difficulty with empathy as common symptoms.

Genetic modifications
The heritability of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is high. ASD may run in families. The odds of developing autism are enhanced for a twin whose sibling is diagnosed with the disorder (Hallmayer and others, 2011). Gene sequencing has implicated a plethora of genes modified during late pregnancy. In addition, a recent genome-wide study showed that in sperm new genetic mutations known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) increase with male age, increasing the odds of SNPs to effect developmental disorders like autism and schizophrenia in children sired by older fathers (Kong and others, 2012). In particular cases of familial autism, genetic deletions have been identified, the precise role of which needs to be elucidated (Morrow and others, 2008).

Cellular and molecular modifications
People with ASD show no striking differences in gross brain anatomy, except for a modest diminution in the size of the corpus callosum (see review by Booth and others, 2011). The nerve cell connections between the cerebral hemispheres travel through this structure. The precise cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying the disorder remain poorly understood. However, a particular type of nerve cell in cerebral cortex, which Constantin von Economo called spindle cells, has recently been found associated with empathy (see my post with the title "Constantin von Economo's Spindle Cells & The Mind" published on Aug. 21, 2009) and may play an instrumental role in asocial behavior.

On the molecular level, the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate and its receptors, notably the ionotropic N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor, have been shown to be crucial for the plasticity of nerve cell connections important to learning and memory. The receptors, which are composed of voltage-gated calcium channels, help strengthen connections of nerve cells that are most active together. The American psychologist D.O. Hebb postulated this strengthening based on his observations on animal learning (see my post with the title "Cortical Development & Schizophrenia" published online Aug. 14, 2008).

Nerve cell connections in the developing brain undergo a period of exuberance during which nerve cells grow a multitude of arbors, seeking contact with other nerve cells (see my post with the title "Genes, Brain Plasticity & Memory" published online May 7, 2009). However, idle connections are subsequently pruned, while those that are used strengthen and endure as Hebb suggested. The survival of these connections depends on excitatory sensory input and is experience-dependent.

Potential treatments
Developmental mental disorders are thought to result from disruptions of Hebb's mechanism. Fragile X syndrome (FXS), which leads to behavior that can be considered autistic, may serve as example. The gene mutation involved in FXS blocks the synthesis of a regulatory protein, permitting excessive protein biosynthesis that leads to abnormalities in the development of glutamatergic nerve cell connections. Recent clinical trials have shown that some FXS patients improve with drugs affecting the glutamatergic nervous system (Berry-Kravis and others, 2012).

However, despite progress addressing the needs of specific groups of the spectrum, autism remains a disorder with manyfold causes affecting numerous molecular pathways in varied fashion. The effect of each genetic modification may be inconspicuous. Yet, molecular pathways crosstalk and their multiplexed interactions combined may decisively skew the experience-dependent development of cerebral nerve cell connections. In ASD, the synergism of the modified molecular pathways may diminish or defocus brain plasticity during a period in which the shaping of nerve cell connections peaks and the brain seems most susceptible to stimulation.

Because glutamate is the most prevalent neurotransmitter in the brain, the effects of the pathway modifications can be expected to be wide-spread, though the brain's most plastic structures may be particularly vulnerable. The latter include the hippocampus, which plays an instrumental role in memory, and the amygdala involved in fear responses. However, glutamate's ubiquitous role renders the development of a universal drug therapy specifically targeting autistic behavior difficult. Rather, each spectral subgroup's peculiar causes must be identified and therapies need to be developed that target these peculiarities.

ASD may not be based on genetic mutations alone. The famous feral child Kaspar Hauser, who was left in social depravity for years (see my post with the title "Theory of Mind I: Feral Children & Language Development" published online Dec. 31, 2008), might have well been diagnosed with ASD today. Despite his delayed entry into civil life, the adolescent Kaspar was able to learn language, calculus, fine arts and social skills from various caretakers and a professor, in whose hands he seemed to have thrived. In his time, Kaspar was cast as a devious, good-for-nothing 'idiot'. By contrast, with emerging expertise in child psychology and special education, modern-day children on the spectrum may reap benefit from early behavioral interventions that stimulate and strengthen nerve cell connections mediated by our own endogenous neurotransmitters and neuromodulators without the need for genomic sequencing and psychoactive drugs (Dawson and others, 2009).


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