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McGill Reporter
May 15, 2008 - Volume 40 Number 17
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The hits just keep on coming. McGill researchers have been producing results worthy of global attention, as evidenced by headlines in the New York Times, the Economist, the Globe and Mail, and the Times of India, and appearances on CBC and CTV, among many others.

What follows is a brief roundup of some of the McGill research initiatives that have caught the world's eye over the last few weeks alone. The widespread coverage offers a glimpse into the important work that is driving the University's international reputation, not to mention changing the world for the better.

Breastfeeding may boost IQ

In the largest randomized study of breastfeeding ever conducted, Dr. Michael S. Kramer of the Department of Pediatrics has shown that breastfeeding raises children's IQs and improves their academic performance. Six-year old children who were breastfed exclusively for the first three months of life or longer scored nearly six points higher on IQ tests than children who were not breastfed. "Our study provides the strongest evidence to date that prolonged and exclusive breastfeeding makes kids smarter," Dr. Kramer said. "We can now make a causal inference between breastfeeding and intelligence – because of the randomized design of our study."

The healing power of a mother's touch

Dr. Celeste Johnston of the School of Nursing released a study showing that skin-to skin contact between a mother and her baby, known as kangaroo mother care, can greatly reduce the recovery time for premature babies following painful procedures. The researchers showed that even extremely premature babies (born from 28 to 31 weeks of gestation) can benefit from a mother's cuddle. Babies receiving KMC recovered from pain within a couple of minutes, whereas the incubator babies suffered longer. These findings could make a significant difference to the health of very preterm babies. "This is an opportunity for mothers to take back the maternal role of comfort in a generally high-tech and invasive environment," said Dr. Johnston.

Very premature babies at higher risk for autism

A study led by Dr. Catherine Limperopoulos of the departments of Neurology and Neurosurgery and Pediatrics demonstrates that very premature infants with low birth weight are more likely to show signs of early autism. "Our findings suggest that early screening tests for autistic features might be warranted in extremely premature infants," Dr. Limperopoulos said. "Should these children test positive on autism screening tests, follow-up specific diagnostic testing for autistic spectrum disorders should be performed." Autism is the world's fastest-growing developmental disorder, affecting one child in 150 worldwide.

New hope for breast-cancer patient outcome

Led by Dr. Morag Park, Director of the Molecular Oncology Group, researchers have drawn up one of the most detailed genetic profiles yet of breast cancer, a discovery that raises hopes of tailoring better therapies for each patient. Their studies demonstrate that the environment surrounding breast-cancer cells plays a crucial role in determining whether tumour cells grow and migrate or whether they fade away. "This revolutionizes how we think about the tumour, and it will give us the opportunity to build clinical tests," Dr. Park said.

Paging Dr. McSleepy

Dr. Thomas M. Hemmerling of the Department of Anesthesia and his research team successfully performed the world's first completely automated administration of an anesthetic. Nicknamed "McSleepy," the new system administers drugs for general anesthesia and monitors their separate effects with no manual intervention. "Think of McSleepy as a sort of humanoid anesthesiologist that analyses biological information and constantly adapts its own behaviour, even recognizing monitoring malfunction," said Dr. Hemmerling, who hopes that a commercial system may be available within the next five years.

Saliva-based HIV test to speed up detection

Dr. Nitika Pant Pai has successfully tested a new saliva-based test that gives results for HIV infection in approximately 20 minutes, much quicker than the more painful and intrusive traditional method requiring a blood sample. The test was shown to be highly effective in preventing transmission of the virus from HIV-positive mothers to their children, The method was field-tested in rural India, where "[most women] show up during labour without a history of HIV testing," according to Dr. Pant Pai. "So at that point, it's important to know their status to intervene and prevent transmission."

Rare genetic disease protects carriers against malaria

Dr. Philippe Gros of McGill's Department of Biochemistry and his partners discovered that the mutation which causes pyruvate kinase deficiency – a genetic disorder of blood cells – protects its carriers against malaria, demonstrating the profound influence of malaria on human evolution. "In previous mouse studies we showed that the anemia caused by pyruvate kinase deficiency actually protects the animals from the malaria parasite which attacks mice," Dr. Gros explained. In this follow-up study, researchers showed that humans carrying the pyruvate kinase deficiency gene are similarly protected against malaria.

Child abuse may 'mark' genes in the brains of suicide victims

A team of scientists led by Professors Moshe Szyf and Michael Meaney, and postdoctoral research fellow Patrick McGowan, has discovered important differences between the epigenetic marking (a chemical coating influenced by environmental factors) of the brains of suicide victims and the marking of so-called normal brains. The research demonstrates that suicide victims who suffered abuse as children show genetic changes in their brains. "The big remaining questions are whether scientists could detect similar changes in blood DNA – which could lead to diagnostic tests – and whether we could design interventions to erase these differences in epigenetic markings," Prof. Szyf said.

Hunger hormone makes food look more attractive

Dr. Alain Dagher of the Department of Neurology and his team conducted a new brain-imaging study which revealed that a stomach hormone, ghrelin, acts on specific regions of the brain to enhance our response to food-related cues associated with sight or smell. The findings suggest that that the hormone influences eating for pleasure, as opposed to only contributing to physiological necessity to eat. On an empty stomach, for example, "the brain views the food as more appealing, largely due to the action of ghrelin on the brain," explained Dr. Dagher. The study supports the view that obesity must be understood as a brain disease and that hunger should also be looked at as a kind of food addiction.

Physical activity, healthy eating and BMI not linked in older teens

Dr. Catherine Sabiston of McGill's Department of Kinesiology has completed a study which challenges many established assumptions, showing that there appears to be no link between body mass index (BMI) values and the diets and levels of physical activity in teens. These findings suggest that society may be too focused on things like appearance and weight rather than health. Dr. Sabiston explained that from a public-health perspective, we should "emphasize that healthy eating is not just about weight-change."

Genetic breakthrough explains dangerously high blood-glucose levels

Dr. Robert Sladek of the Department of Human Genetics and Dr. Constantin Polychronakos of the Department of Pediatrics were among an international team of researchers who identified a DNA sequence that controls the variability of blood-glucose levels, a significant discovery because high blood-glucose levels in otherwise healthy people often are indications of heart disease and higher mortality rates. The discovery "brings us to the idea of personalized medicine," Dr. Sladek explained. "Eventually, we might be able to customize treatment to an individual's unique genetic structure."

Stress-busting video game shows promise for golfers

Dr. Mark Baldwin of the Department of Psychology and his team have demonstrated how a video game they created, which reduces stress by training the mind to ignore negative social responses, could also help golfers improve their performance on the links. The game involves repeatedly locating a smiling face among a grid of 15 frowning faces. Participants who played this game were found to have lower stress levels – and demonstrably better golf games – than those who played a placebo video game, suggesting the mind can be trained to focus less on negative feedback in social situations and accentuate the positive. "Many kinds of performance – whether intellectual, creative or athletic – can be undermined by distracting thoughts about potential social evaluation and criticism," Dr. Baldwin explained.

Denis Thérien, Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations), believes that such results are characteristic of McGill, given the quality of its faculty. "McGill is an important player in the local and world communities," Thérien said. "The impressive research being conducted here is evidence of the world-class caliber of our researchers. McGill's reputation was built on excellence. And when you travel around the world today, the name McGill is recognized – even in the most remote places – because our researchers continue to pursue excellence as they address issues that affect people's lives."

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