Category: Research

Virtual Environments



UGA researchers are taking the battle against obesity into the virtual world. Using advanced computer simulations, specially designed avatars, virtual pets and interactive games, they hope to help students better understand how the choices they make affect their health.

“Just as the anti-smoking campaign changed the way people think, we need to use a multi-platform approach with social media to make an impact on obesity,” said Grace Ahn, an assistant professor of advertising in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. “Virtual environments help people to see the causality between what they eat and how it affects their bodies.”

During a simulation in Ahn’s virtual environment lab, a user can see what his or her avatar will look like 20 years from now. When students don a headset that covers the eyes, they see an animated reflection of themselves that ages-perhaps even gaining weight-as months and years pass by on a calendar next to the face.

“Research shows that virtual environments are doing the best in terms of truly modifying people’s behaviors because it allows them to see that cause and effect relationship,” Ahn said.

This spring, a First-Year Odyssey seminar taught by Scott Brown, a Meigs Professor and the Edward H. Gunst Professor of Small Animal Studies in the College of Veterinary Medicine, focused on kidney disease, which strongly is associated with obesity.

Brown recently was awarded a grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, a part of the National Institutes of Health, to improve student engagement in biomedical research through interactive technologies.

As part of the class, students will use new gaming software to act virtually like health professionals who are treating kidney disease patients. By flying into a dialysis machine and using components of the machine, the students will observe how their suggested changes affect the patient’s health.

“I’m hoping this will improve undergraduate education and understanding about obesity, diabetes and kidney disease,” Brown said.

On another part of campus, Kyle Johnsen, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering, is helping elementary schoolchildren understand the causes and complications of obesity.

During one study, a group of Georgia 4-H students learned the caloric density of different foods by using a haptic joystick, a device connected to a computer that allows the user to “feel” the physical properties of virtual objects by providing sensory feedback.

For example, Johnsen said, “water, chocolate milk and juice may feel the same until you switch the program to caloric density.”

Students often are surprised when picking up a potato versus fries or potato chips, he said. Although chips are much lighter than a whole potato, it’s heavier in the virtual world because they are full of calories rather than nutrients.

Now Johnsen and others are developing additional interfaces to allow students to compare the caloric contents of carbohydrates, proteins and fats and build a balanced plate of food.

In another project, Johnsen is linking the virtual world to the real-world effects of physical activity by asking students to take care of a virtual pet. The children will wear special pedometers that track their physical activity and diet, and they will be able to “fly into” the dog to see and feel the effects of obesity on the pet’s weight, energy and happiness.

Understanding Diabetes Through Virtual Gaming



When Scott Brown thinks about the future of education, he sees his undergraduate students taking notes on tablets and looking at 3-D models while maneuvering textbook pages with the flick of a finger.

Brown, professor of physiology and pharmacology and small animal medicine in the College of Veterinary Medicine, imagines veterinary offices running the same way, with providers using handheld tablets to show pet owners exactly what is wrong with their animals and how procedures will help them.

“Technology is going to be everywhere, even more than now,” said Brown. “We need to be at the cutting edge. We’ll fail in our teaching approaches otherwise.”

Brown received a $525,000, five-year grant to design, create and test interactive gaming technology that helps undergraduate students learn more about renal and cardiovascular physiology, diabetes and obesity by acting as virtual scientists studying renal physiology in a virtual research laboratory.

Funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the software will allow students to learn kidney functions by watching molecules interact and investigating tubular processes at microscopic levels. Students will also work on three digital case studies, allowing them to virtually examine renal and cardiac function of both healthy patients and those suffering from kidney disease and heart disease.

“The financial burden of diabetes is astronomical, and it’s rising dramatically,” he said. “Even if the current obesity trend hits a plateau, diabetes follows the onset of obesity by 10 to 20 years, so we will have this problem for decades to come. We need tools to help young people understand this.”

The research project is funded by the NIH grant 1R25DK094760 – 01A1.

Preventing Diabetes in Patients with Mobility Disabilities



Improvements in medical care have made it possible for paraplegics to live much longer than they would have in the past. However, living longer lives means they also must wrestle with common health problems other populations often face, including diabetes. In people with diabetes, the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin or their bodies aren’t able to use the insulin properly, which can lead to serious complications such as kidney failure, heart disease and blindness.

“People who are paralyzed are three to four times more likely to become diabetic,” said UGA researcher Kevin McCully, director of the Exercise Vascular Biology Laboratory in the College of Education’s department of kinesiology.

McCully and co-investigators from Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, one of the top rehabilitation hospitals in the nation, are investigating using electrical stimulation as a way of exercising leg muscles among people with mobility disabilities, with the goal of reducing complications from diabetes.

Featured News

Plant Compounds to Fight Obesity



Clifton Baile, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and D.W. Brooks Distinguished Professor of Animal and Dairy Science and professor of foods and nutrition, and his colleagues have been exploring the potential of plant-based compounds known as phytochemicals in weight loss for more than a decade.

Early research into compounds such as resveratrol – found in red wine and known for its anti-aging effects, and genistein, found in coffee, soy and other beans – revealed that the compounds can cause fat cells in cell cultures to die. In subsequent studies using mice, however, none of the compounds alone proved to be particularly effective, so Baile and his colleagues began exploring what happens when you combine compounds.

In a recent study, they found that older female mice given the combination of vitamin D, resveratrol, genistein and the compound quercetin gained less weight than a control group that did not receive the phytochemical cocktail. Weight gain and bone loss tend to occur at the same time in post-menopausal women, so the scientists studied the post-menopausal mice and found that those given the compounds also had greater bone density than the control group.

Baile and his team will need to test the compounds in humans, but so far the results are promising.

“It really is possible to impact adiposity, or fatness, as well as bone health with the right combination of phytochemicals in the right proportions,” he says.

Parasitic Worms May Help Treat Diseases Associated with Obesity



On the list of undesirable medical conditions, a parasitic worm infection surely ranks fairly high. Although modern pharmaceuticals have made them less of a threat in some areas, these organisms are still a major cause of disease and disability throughout much of the developing world.

But parasites are not all bad, according to new research by a team of scientists now at the University of Georgia, the Harvard School of Public Health, the Université François Rabelais in Tours, France, and the Central South University, Changsha, Hunan, China.

A study published recently in Nature Medicine demonstrates that once inside a host, many parasitic worms secrete a sugar-based anti-inflammatory molecule that might actually help treat metabolic disorders associated with obesity.

“All of the metabolic indicators associated with obesity were restored to normal by giving these mice this sugar conjugate,” said Donald Harn, study co-author who worked on the research while at Harvard School of Public Health and is now Georgia Research Alliance Distinguished Investigator in the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Infectious Diseases. Harn is also a member of UGA’s Faculty of Infectious Diseases and the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases.

“It won’t prevent obesity, but it will help alleviate some of the problems caused by it.”

“Obesity is an inflammatory disease, so we hypothesized that this sugar might have some effect on complications related to it,” said Harn.

Obesity and Bone Health



A team of researchers led by Rick Lewis, professor of foods and nutrition in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, found that obesity may also be bad for bone health. Overweight people tend to have more muscle surrounding their bones than do their leaner counterparts, leading most researchers to assume that being overweight is good for bone health. But the UGA researchers found that obese people were not making as much bone as they should for the amount of muscle they had.

Lewis says the exact mechanisms by which excess fat hinders bone strength are unclear, but studies of obese rats show that they produce more fat cells in bone marrow and fewer bone cells. Because fat and bone cells derive from the same precursor, it may be that fat-cell production is favored over bone-cell production in obese people as well.

Lewis says, “Childhood obesity could have a significant and long-lasting negative impact on the skeleton.”