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Scholarship & Creative Work
Women and war: The toll of deployment on physical health

More than 80 percent of a sample of Air Force women deployed in Iraq and other areas around the world report suffering from persistent fatigue, fever, hair loss and difficulty concentrating, a study indicates.

The pattern of health problems reported by 1,114 women surveyed in 2006 and 2007 is similar to many symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome, the controversial condition reported by veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"It is possible that some unknown environmental factor is the cause of current health problems and of Gulf War Syndrome," says researcher Penny Pierce. "But it is also possible that these symptoms result from the stress of military deployment, especially prolonged and multiple deployments."

Pierce and U-M colleagues conducted a similar study of women veterans in 1992 following the Gulf War to assess the impact of deployment and combat exposure on physical and mental health.

An associate professor at the School of Nursing and a faculty associate at the Institute for Social Research (ISR), Pierce also is a colonel in the Air Force Reserve Program. With ISR psychologist Lisa Lewandowski-Romps, she presented the findings from the study Aug. 14 in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.

"Women now comprise approximately 15 percent of our nation's armed forces," Pierce says. "And since the Persian Gulf War, combat roles for women have expanded substantially. This study is an attempt to understand the impact of deployment and war-related stressors on the health of military women."

Unregulated nanoparticles from diesel engines inhibit lungs

Diesel engines emit countless carbon nanoparticles into the air, slipping through government regulation and vehicle filters. A new simulation shows that these nanoparticles can get trapped in the lungs and inhibit the function of a fluid that facilitates breathing.

Lung surfactant is a fluid containing protein and lipid molecules. It reduces surface tension in the lungs, prevents them from collapsing and helps transport foreign particles that ultimately will be expelled from the lungs.

Inhaled carbon nanoparticles, however, appear to behave differently than most foreign particles. Computer simulations indicated that they wouldn't be expelled, but would become trapped in the surfactant, entangled with fatty lipid molecules that wrapped their tails around the nanoparticles and into their central cavities.

"The presence of the nanoparticle can hinder the function of lung surfactant by affecting the interaction between the lipids and peptides," says Angela Violi, assistant professor in the College of Engineering. A peptide is a piece of a protein. Violi presented her findings Aug. 20 at the American Chemical Society meeting.

This is believed to be the first time researchers have demonstrated how these nanoparticles can get caught in the lungs and affect the behavior of surfactant. Other studies have shown that buildup of nanoparticles in the lungs can lead to inflammation, blood clotting and changes in breathing and heart rates.

"There is mounting evidence that very small particles have a greater negative impact on health than larger particles," says Violi, an assistant professor in the departments of Mechanical Engineering, Chemical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering.

Hidden infections crucial to understanding, controlling disease outbreaks

Scientists and news organizations typically focus on the number of dead and gravely ill during epidemics, but research suggests that less dramatic, mild infections lurking in large numbers of people are the key to understanding cycles of at least one potentially fatal infectious disease: cholera.

Using a model developed with new statistical methods, researchers and their collaborators came up with results that challenge longstanding assumptions about the disease and strategies for preventing it.

Their findings appear in the Aug. 14 issue of the journal Nature.

The goal of the study was to develop a model that would explain puzzling patterns seen in 50 years of cholera death records from 26 districts in Bengal, cholera's "native habitat."

"In that region, we see two cholera seasons per year, with peaks in spring and fall," says assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Aaron King, the study's lead author. In addition, longer-term ups and downs can be seen over periods of 3-5 years, with many cholera cases reported during some periods and few during others.

It's surprisingly hard to get really sick with cholera, an intestinal infection that causes diarrhea, vomiting and leg cramps. The bacterium that causes the illness, Vibrio cholerae, lives in surface waters, and in areas where sanitation is poor, food and water are commonly contaminated with the bug. But it takes 100 billion bacteria to cause severe illness when ingested with water; 100 million when taken in with food (which protects the bugs from stomach acid). As a result, in areas like Bengal where exposure is high, lots of people are walking around infected, but not ill.

The model, which revealed that as an epidemic spreads, many people develop this short-term immunity, raises the possibility that current vaccines could be given at the beginning of cholera season to squelch an incipient epidemic.

Fast quantum computer building block created

The fastest quantum computer bit that exploits the main advantage of the qubit over the conventional bit has been demonstrated by researchers at U-M, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the University of California at San Diego.

The scientists used lasers to create an initialized quantum state of this solid-state qubit at rates of about a gigahertz, or a billion times per second. They also can use lasers to achieve fundamental steps toward programming it.

A conventional bit can be a 0 or a 1. A quantum bit, or qubit, can be both at the same time. Until now scientists couldn't stabilize that duality.

Physics professor Duncan Steel, doctoral student Xiaodong Xu and their colleagues used lasers to coherently, or stably, trap the spin of one electron confined in a single semiconductor quantum dot. A quantum dot is like a transistor in a conventional computer.

The scientists trapped the spin in a dark state in which they can arbitrarily adjust the amount of 0 and 1 the qubit represents. They call this state "dark" because it does not absorb light. Therefore, light does not cause loss of coherence between the two states. In other words, the light does not destabilize the qubit. A paper on these findings will be published in Nature Physics and is available in the online edition.

Steel is the Robert J. Hiller Professor of Engineering in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science as well as a professor in the Physics Department. Xu, a doctoral student in Physics, is first author of the Nature Physics paper.

Low level cadmium exposure linked to lung disease

New research suggests that cadmium is one of the critical ingredients causing emphysema, and even low-level exposure attained through second-hand smoke and other means also may increase the chance of developing lung disease.

The School of Public Health (SPH) study suggests that higher cadmium levels in the body as much as double the risk of developing a pulmonary disease diagnosis such as emphysema or chronic bronchitis.

Though some studies have linked high levels of cadmium with decreased lung function in occupationally exposed workers, this is only the second known study to show that subjects with even slightly increased levels of cadmium had decreased lung function and the first known study to do so using repeated measures of lung function over time.

"The study suggests that the critical ingredient in smoking that may be causing emphysema is cadmium, a well-known contaminant of cigarette smoke," says Howard Hu, professor at the SPH and principal investigator in the study. "The worry is if you are exposed to this (cadmium) through other sources you can also be at risk for emphysema."

Non-smokers are exposed to cadmium when they eat contaminated foods or inhale second-hand smoke, as well as through a host of occupational exposures. Cadmium is a metal that is difficult for the body to dispel because kidneys tend to retain cadmium, and it recycles into the body, says Hu, who also is chair of the SPH Department of Environmental Health Sciences and has an appointment with the Medical School.

The study will appear in the September issue of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

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