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Week of June 10, 2013

Scholarship & Creative Work

U-M study challenges notion that umpires call more strikes for pitchers of same race

A U-M study challenges previous research that suggests umpire discrimination exists in Major League Baseball.

The study, a collaboration between researchers at U-M and the universities of Illinois and Florida, looks deeper into the controversial argument over whether MLB umpires discriminate by calling more strikes for pitchers of the same race. It found little statistical evidence to support that claim, said Jason Winfree, associate professor of sport management at the School of Kinesiology.

Photo by Matt A. Brown.

Winfree and co-authors Scott Tainsky of Illinois and Brian Mills of Florida, analyzed millions of pitches between 1997 and 2008 and ran the data through various statistical models. Their results suggest that findings of discrimination were questionable.

A draft of the earlier study that initially found evidence of discrimination was released in 2007 and published by the American Economic Review in 2011. National media reported on both the draft of the study and on its later publication.

In the U-M study, Winfree and his co-authors analyzed both their own data as well as that of the previously published study, but did not get consistent results when using different statistical methods and variables.

Winfree and colleagues found that the only specifications that suggested discrimination were when the analysis treated pitchers as completely separate players when pitching in stadiums where umpires were monitored. This seemed to drive much of the findings in the earlier study, they said.

The U-M study and others that look at discrimination in sports are significant not only for sports fans and franchises, but because it’s very difficult to test for discrimination in most other occupations, Winfree said. However, because professional sports keep such detailed statistics, discrimination (or lack of it) is more quantifiable.

The U-M study, “Further examination of potential discrimination among MLB umpires,” appears online in the Journal of Sports Economics.

 

Children of long-lived parents less likely to get cancer

Old parents may be good for your health.

Children of parents who live to a ripe old age are more likely to live longer, and are less prone to cancer and other common diseases associated with aging, according to a study co-authored by a U-M researcher.

People who had a long-lived mother or father were 24 percent less likely to get cancer, according to an international collaboration led by experts at the University of Exeter Medical School, supported by the National Institute for Health Research Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care in the South West Peninsula.

The scientists compared the children of long-lived parents to children whose parents survived to average ages for their generation.

Co-author Dr. Kenneth Langa, professor of internal medicine at the Medical School, is the associate director for the U-M-based Health and Retirement Study (HRS), which provided the data used for the study.

“The unique detailed longitudinal data available in the HRS allowed us to quantify the possible health benefits of having healthy and long-lived parents,” says Langa, who is also research investigator at the Center for Clinical Management Research at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System and member of the U-M Institute for Social Research, Institute of Gerontology and Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

“The considerable benefits that we found in our study—both in terms of decreased cancer risk and longer life-span—need to be followed up and confirmed in additional studies with more detailed genetic information so we can better pinpoint the potential links between healthy long-lived parents and their healthy long-lived kids.” 

 

U.S. health care: Does more spending yield better health?

Health care spending is much higher for older Americans than for younger adults and children, on average, and analysts have said that increasing spending leads to longer life expectancy.

But new research from U-M indicates that aging populations could view things differently.

Conducted by Dr. Matthew Davis, associate professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and Medical School, and Adam Swinburn, who earned his master’s degree from the Ford School in 2011, the study is the first in the United States to estimate health status-adjusted life expectancy — that is, to measure the remaining years of life for different age groups in terms of quality as well as quantity.

The researchers found that, overall, older Americans have markedly worse health compared with younger adults and children. Additional years of life for older people are perceived as less valuable by the individuals living them, compared to years of life experienced by younger people.

In contrast, they also found that as the population ages, the United States spends much more on health care but gets substantially less value for that spending — in terms of quality and quantity of life expectancy.

“Today in the United States, we are having essential conversations about the value of health care,” Davis said. “As a primary care doctor, I am concerned that older patients may not be getting much value from relatively expensive health care they are receiving, compared with benefits experienced by younger adults and children for lower amounts of health care spending.”

To get more value from spending on health care, the researchers suggest that health and public health programs base more decisions on both cost and benefit.

 

Researchers find potential brain ‘switch’ for new behavior

You’re standing near an airport luggage carousel and your bag emerges on the conveyor belt, prompting you to spring into action. How does your brain make the shift from passively waiting to taking action when your bag appears?

A new study from investigators at U-M and Eli Lilly may reveal the brain’s “switch” for new behavior. They measured levels of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which is involved in attention and memory, while rats monitored a screen for a signal. At the end of each trial, the rat had to indicate if a signal had occurred.

Researchers noticed that if a signal occurred after a long period of monitoring or “non-signal” processing, there was a spike in acetylcholine in the rat’s right prefrontal cortex. No such spike occurred for another signal occurring shortly afterwards.

“In other words, the increase in acetylcholine seemed to activate or ‘switch on’ the response to the signal, and to be unnecessary if that response was already activated,” said Cindy Lustig, one of the study’s senior authors and an associate professor in the Department of Psychology.

The researchers repeated the study in humans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity, and also found a short increase in right prefrontal cortex activity for the first signal in a series.

Together, the studies’ results provide some of the most direct evidence, so far, linking a specific neurotransmitter response to changes in brain activity in humans. The findings could guide the development of better treatments for disorders in which people have difficulty switching out of current behaviors and activating new ones. Repetitive behaviors associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder and autism are the most obvious examples, and related mechanisms may underlie problems with preservative behavior in schizophrenia, dementia and aging.

The study’s other authors included William Howe, Martin Sarter, Anne Berry and Joshua Carp from U-M.

The findings appear in the current issue of Journal of Neuroscience.

 

Nano-engineering boosts efficiency of materials that convert waste heat to electrical energy

High-performance thermoelectric materials that convert waste heat to electricity could one day be a source of more sustainable power. But they need to be a lot more efficient before they could be effective on a broad scale in places like power plants or military bases, researchers say.

A U-M researcher has taken a step toward that goal. By engineering a semiconducting material at the level of its individual atoms, Pierre Ferdinand P. Poudeu, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, has boosted its ability to convert heat into power by 200 percent and its electrical conductivity by 43 percent. That’s an important combination. Improving both of these figures at the same time is a major challenge for researchers working in the field.

The material Poudeu used is an alloy of titanium, zirconium, nickel and tin. While it’s not a particularly effective thermoelectric material at this point, Poudeu says it made a good testbed.

“This concept is new and exciting,” Poudeu said. “We think it can be adapted to other materials as well and pave the way for improved thermoelectric materials intended for high-performance energy conversion applications.

“If we want to build generators that convert waste heat to electricity and that are capable of replacing current technology, thermoelectric materials with much higher efficiency need to be discovered. We’ll have to about double the efficiency typically achieved today.”

Poudeu says his nano-engineering approach could achieve those gains if it can be used in current leading candidate thermoelectric materials systems.

The paper is published online in the Journal of the American Chemical Society and will appear in a forthcoming print edition.

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FACULTY SPOTLIGHT

Mark Newman, Paul Dirac Collegiate Professor of Physics, on the science of networks: “We study how social networks are important in the spread of ideas, fads, fashion, rumors, news, disease, and more.”

EVENTS

The Ann Arbor Summer Festival returns with Top of the Park Rackham stage shows and films, beginning at 7 p.m. June 14 at Ingalls Mall.

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