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November 7, 2006, Volume 53, No. 11

Advanced Training Through Simulations for Med Students

The School of Medicine has two new “model” patients. A pair of interactive mannequins, controlled by computer and instructor, will assist with the advanced training of medical students this fall semester.

 The Measey Simulation Center features two adjoining suites each with its own multifunction patient simulator. Each simulated patient is connected to a computer that recreates various patient care scenarios—mostly emergency and intensive care scenarios—which the students will then manage through several different responses. These scenarios include difficult airway, shock and heart attack. Each simulator is equipped with an instructor-controlled microphone that supplies the voice of a complaining patient. The mannequin’s life-like characteristics do not stop there. Each can develop blood pressure and lung problems along with a host of other signs and symptoms frequently seen in emergency cases.

 “The advantage is the students will get hands-on experience that’s much safer than working on a live patient,” said Dr. Andrew Kofke, director of the Measey Simulation Center at Penn. “Students can memorize just about anything, but applying that knowledge is something different. That’s what the simulation center is for, a place to apply what the students learned.” Dr. Gail Morrison, Vice Dean for Education, stressed the importance of the simulators in Penn Medicine’s global strategy on safety. “The main purpose of the simulators is to create a safe environment in which students  can make a mistake, learn from their mistake, and then functional effectively in the clinical setting,” she said.

Black Youth and Depression

With depression on the rise among urban Black adolescents, researchers at the Graduate School of Education are examining how the stress of racism influences the mental and emotional welfare of young African-Americans.

In a recent study, Dr. Howard Stevenson, associate professor of education, and Dr. Gwendolyn Davis, a consulting psychologist at Resources for Change, have been looking at what measures might serve as a buffer for these kids. Suspecting that adaptive racial socialization experiences can serve as a buffer against emotional distress for these young people, they studied 160 urban African-American adolescents enrolled in a summer job preparation program.

They found, among other things, that cultural pride socialization helps protect against low self-esteem and lethargy, that those especially alert to discrimination experienced a relatively high sense of helplessness, and that—as with so many things—gender made a difference.

But in what seemed at first a counter-intuitive finding, Drs. Davis and Stevenson discovered that students encouraged to fit into the mainstream culture reported a greater number of depressive symptoms.

“It is our view,” the authors wrote, “that youth who primarily receive mainstream-fit socialization will be at a loss to emotionally manage the inherent contradictions of the American dream because of its illusory connections to Black culture, life, expression and history. Many Black youth dream like mainstream America, but they can’t always live like mainstream America.”

This study, “Racial Socialization Experiences and Symptoms of Depression among Black Youth,” appears in the June 2006 Journal of Child and Family Studies.

More Diverse Dinosaurs to be Discovered

In an issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Peter Dodson, professor of anatomy in the School of Veterinary Medicine and professor earth and environmental sciences,in SAS, revises his groundbreaking 1990 census on the diversity of discoverable dinosaurs upward by 50 percent.

Dr. Dodson proposes that 1,850 genera  (the plural of genus, an organizational group comprised of one or more separate species) will eventually be discovered. Since dinosaur research began in earnest in the 19th century, only 527 genera have so far been found, although that number is currently changing at the rate of 10 to 20 per year.

Dr. Dodson and co-author Dr. Steve Wang, a statistician at Swarthmore College, estimate that 71 percent of all dinosaur genera that could be found are still awaiting discovery. The researchers predict that 75 percent of discoverable genera will be found within 60-100 years and 90 percent within the next 140 years.

The 1990s saw an 85 percent increase in the number of new fossil discoveries. Historically, dinosaur discovery was largely in the hands of British, Canadian and American researchers, with few exceptions in other countries. In recent decades, however, the discovery of new fossil beds, especially in China and Mongolia, has resulted in a greater diversity among dinosaur researchers.

Drs. Dodson and Wang’s analysis also offers evidence that dinosaur populations were stable before their extinction. “We have enough information to say for certain that, within six million years of the meteorites’ arrival, dinosaur populations were stable,” Dr. Dodson said. But we don’t know for certain if there was a decline within that six-million-year slice of time before the extinction event.

Their estimates for total dinosaur diversity take into account the number of dinosaurs already found, the rate of discovery and potential richness of the fossil locations that can be reasonably explored. Their findings, combined with previous studies suggest that nearly half of all dinosaur genera that existed did not leave behind fossils that could be found.

Baby Talk is More Sophisticated Than Thought

Dr. Charles Yang, assistant professor of linguistics, argues in his new book, The Infinite Gift: How Children Learn and Unlearn the Languages of the World, that children learn their native language through a process of trial and error, searching for the correct grammar by trying out other grammatical systems and discarding the ones that don’t fit.

Dr. Yang is building on Dr. Noam Chomsky’s vastly influential theory of universal grammar, which claims that babies are born with an innate understanding of language and grammar.

“Only the grammar actually used in the child’s linguistic environment will not be contradicted, and only the fittest survives. In other words, children learn a language by unlearning all other possible languages, ” stated Dr. Yang.

In English, Dr. Yang points out, we say, “it rains,” even though the subject is essentially “a fake subject, a placeholder.” Children under the age of 3 often say simply “snows” or “rains,” omitting the “fake subject” until they learn that in English it’s needed. “Kids are always perfect,” said Dr. Yang. “Maybe not in English, but in Chinese.”

For parents who worry that their child is lagging behind in learning to speak or mastering complex sentence structures, Dr. Yang said, “If this view is right, they shouldn’t worry at all.” Though children may start talking on different schedules and vary in the speed with which they accumulate new words, learning language is a biological phenomenon, says Dr. Yang, and “children are infinitely better at learning languages than we are.” Our obsession with language learning, he adds, is a peculiarly western phenomenon. “In cultures where parents and kids have less interaction,” he said, “kids still learn fine.”   

Decreased Brain Activity When Speaking in Tongues

Glossolalia, otherwise referred to as “speaking in tongues,” has been around for thousands of years, and references to it can be found in the Old and New Testament. Speaking in tongues is an unusual mental state associated with specific religious traditions. The individual appears to be speaking in an incomprehensible language, yet perceives it to have great personal meaning. Scientists are attempting to explain what actually happens physiologically to the brain of someone while speaking in tongues.

Researchers in the School of Medicine have discovered decreased activity in the frontal lobes, an area of the brain associated with being in control of one’s self. This pioneering study, involving functional imaging of the brain while subjects were speaking in tongues, is in the November issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.

Radiology investigators observed increased or decreased brain activity—by measuring regional cerebral blood flow with SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography) imaging—while the subjects were speaking in tongues. They then compared the imaging to what happened to the brain while the subjects sang gospel music.

“We noticed a number of changes that occurred functionally in the brain,” comments Principal Investigator Dr. Andrew Newberg, associate professor of radiology, psychiatry and religious studies, and director for the Center for Spirituality and the Mind. “Our brain imaging research shows us that these subjects are not in control of the usual language centers during this activity, which is consistent with their description of a lack of intentional control while speaking in tongues.”

Dr. Newberg went on to explain, “These findings could be interpreted as the subject’s sense of self being taken over by something else. We, scientifically, assume it’s being taken over by another part of the brain, but we couldn’t see, in this imaging study, where this took place. We believe this is the first scientific imaging study evaluating changes in cerebral activity—looking at what actually happens to the brain—when someone is speaking in tongues. This study also showed a number of other changes in the brain, including those areas involved in emotions and establishing our sense of self.”

Dr. Newberg concludes that the changes in the brain during speaking in tongues reflect a complex pattern of brain activity. He suggests that since this is the first study to explore this, future studies will be needed to confirm these findings in an attempt to demystify this religious phenomenon.

Almanac - November 7, 2006, Volume 53, No. 11