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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
From children to adults, Georgians across the state are working toward a healthier lifestyle with the help of a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension fitness program called Walk Georgia. Since the program began in 2008, more than 20,000 participants have logged more than 2.2 million “virtual” miles of physical activity.
The online component of Walk Georgia provides an activity record for individuals or teams of up to four people to keep track of weekly physical activity and time. The activity is recorded and translated into “walked” miles, based on average rigor of the chosen activity and the time spent in activity. A wide range of activities, including aerobics, biking, swimming and even bowling, can be logged. The time spent exercising is translated into walked miles online as members work to travel across the state. The goal is to walk 15 miles per week.
As participants accumulate miles, they navigate a map of Georgia and chart their course to “walk” Georgia, moving virtually throughout the state, and viewing fun facts about each county visited. They also can see how they compare to other individuals throughout the state.
For nearly 15 years, David DeJoy, Mark Wilson and their colleagues in the Workplace Health Group in the College of Public Health have partnered with organizations of nearly all sizes and types—from Dow Chemical Co. to Home Depot Inc. and the Georgia Department of Community Health—on issues related to health and occupational safety. Their studies consistently have shown that employers can improve the health of their staff through programs that encourage healthy eating and physical activity. DeJoy and Wilson understand that employers have limited resources, so their research seeks practical, cost-effective solutions.
In a recent study that involved nearly 1,100 Union-Pacific Corp. employees, researchers found employees who were given counseling about healthy eating and participated in a program where they exercised for 150 minutes per week were able to maintain their weight. Their counterparts in the control group, on the other hand, saw their collective waistlines expand over the four-year study period.
DeJoy concedes that weight maintenance doesn’t sound like a huge win, but he points out that from a population health perspective, simply keeping people from gaining weight can dramatically improve outcomes while reducing health care costs.
“As people are gaining weight, they’re marching toward diabetes,” he said. “If you can get them to flatten that trajectory and maintain their weight, you’re lowering that risk.”
For more than a decade, Mary Ann Johnson and Joan Fischer, professors of foods and nutrition with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences, have been exploring the factors that put older adults at risk for obesity and designing and testing interventions to help them lead healthier lives. Working with the Athens Community Council on Aging and senior centers across the state, Johnson found that it is never too late for older adults to improve their health. In one study, a four-month series of classes that included chair exercises and encouraged participants to record their daily steps with a pedometer helped participants increase their physical activity by 26 percent.
As a result of the class, the number of participants reporting good physical function jumped from 17 percent to 25 percent. Another series of classes focused on healthy eating resulted in a 21 percent increase in the number of participants who consumed at least seven servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
Johnson says, “Older people are willing to change; they just need some help, guidance and support.”
Phillip Tomporowski and Bryan McCullick, kinesiology faculty members in UGA’s College of Education, are introducing fun and effective exercise games into the Clarke County after-school program curriculum. Previous research by Tomporowski and colleagues at Georgia Health Sciences University demonstrated the cognitive benefits of vigorous exercise programs among overweight school-age children.
The researchers are helping overcome obstacles such as lack of teacher professional development, as well as inadequate facilities to help teachers motivate children to be physically active.
“With preparation,” says Tomporowski, “after-school teachers can motivate children to be physically active and engage in games that are of the intensity and duration to reap health benefits.”
The University of Georgia Alumni Association is partnering with UGA’s Obesity Initiative to present “Dawgs on the Move,” a program that promotes a healthy lifestyle.
“Dawgs on the Move” is designed to encourage UGA alumni and friends to participate in physical activities-from organized races to family bike rides. The program aims to raise awareness for UGA’s Obesity Initiative, which was launched in January 2012 to address Georgia’s multi-faceted obesity problem through treatment, prevention and research.
On March 16, the Alumni Association will host the Sixth Annual Dawg Trot 5K, a walk, jog or run through the university’s historic campus. Nearly 1,000 people participate every year. An official Run and See Georgia Grand Prix race, Dawg Trot times can be used to qualify for an earlier starting time at the Peachtree Road Race and other official races across the country. For more information on the Dawg Trot, see www.alumni.uga.edu/dawgtrot.
For more information about “Dawgs on the Move,” see the UGA Alumni Association website at www.alumni.uga.edu, or contact Margaret Sullivan, Atlanta programs coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 404/814-8818