Computer science doctoral student Bohan Xu (MS ’16) wants to understand more thoroughly brain-structure differences between individuals with psychiatric disorders and people in a “healthy” control group. Xu is undertaking this study at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR) under the supervision of Rayus Kuplicki (BS ’09, MS ’11, PhD ’14) from LIBR and Professor Sandip Sen. He is joined on the project by a number of other TU students: Mahdi Moradi, who is completing a doctorate in computer science; as well as Kelly Cosgrove, Danielle Deville, McKenna Pierson and Timothy McDermott, all of whom are clinical psychology doctoral candidates.
“Unlike diabetes or cancer, which can be diagnosed by medical tests,” remarked Xu, “most mental illnesses are determined by the psychological evaluation a physician or mental health professional carries out when they talk to you about your symptoms, thoughts, feelings and behavior patterns. Questionnaires are also sometimes used to help gather pertinent information. One goal at LIBR, however, is to find out a more reliable and precise way to identify mental disorders.”
Peering within the brain for answers
For the last few years as a TU/LIBR researcher, Xu’s work has focused on data analysis within the broad field of psychiatry; for example, the potential for diagnosing mental illness based on the concentrations of volatile organic compounds in exhaled breath and the relations between depression and C-reactive protein. Like his current undertaking, those projects entailed studying the relationship between subjects’ mental disorders/health status and different variables about their demographic information, bioassay tests and brain images.
At present, Xu and his fellow investigators are using brain-structure image data (voxel-wise gray matter volume) from healthy controls to build a normative regression model that accounts for age and gender. This trained normative model then estimates a normal range of gray matter volume based on the healthy controls.
“The more that patients deviate from those healthy controls, the more likely their observed gray matter volumes will be outside the estimated ranges,” Xu explained. “Furthermore, we should be able to use these deviations to locate the potential areas of the brain that result in mental disorders.”
To date, Xu and his team have built the normative model. When verifying that model, however, they discovered something they could not readily understand. “The healthy controls are randomly divided into two groups,” Xu explained. “First, one group is used to build the normative model and the other group is used to validate the model; however, we observed a constant pattern of deviation when validating the model, which is not supposed to happen since the validation group are healthy controls as well.” The team’s present task, therefore, entails searching for an answer to that anomaly.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently cited research from The University of Tulsa in a paper titled “Mental health in elite athletes: International Olympic Committee consensus statement.” The paper used research about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and stigma from the lab of Lisa Cromer, an associate professor of psychology at TU.
The research was originally performed as part of the Student Health Athletic Performance and Education (SHAPE), a free program started by Cromer to help student-athletes develop sport psychology skills. Cromer was not personally notified of the citation, but rather discovered it by chance.
“While working on a new manuscript, I wanted to double check a fact, and when I went to the web, this IOC article popped up. I started reading it and then realized they cited a lot of work from my lab, here at TU,” she recalled. “The International Olympic Committee consensus statement is basically a task force from the IOC telling the world about the health of elite athletes, so citing the work performed at TU in a paper about best practices is a tremendous honor.”
One of the citations caught her eye because it was the work of Mitchell Johnson, who was an undergraduate student at the time.
Johnson (BS ’12) was pleased with the recognition.
“When I heard the IOC was citing our work, I was thrilled to see this topic receiving greater attention within athletics, especially from one of sports’ highest governing bodies,” he said. “I expect this topic – the mental health of athletes – to continue to receive more attention at the high school, collegiate and professional levels, and it’s great that The University of Tulsa is contributing to this important work.”
Cromer recounted how Johnson came to work in the research lab. “I tend to have a lot of undergrads in my lab and support undergraduate research,” she said. “In this case, one student that was just a gem in my undergrad classes. He took advantage of the opportunity to work with my graduate students, and together their work was so impactful that now one of the most important committees of sport recognized it.”
Danielle Zanotti (MA ’16, PhD ’19), whose work was also cited, said that the research, in addition to the work of the SHAPE program at TU, is spotlighting an increasingly prevalent issue.
“Collegiate athletes are extremely resilient and high-achieving individuals,” Zanotti said. “However, that doesn’t mean they are immune to mental health issues and in some ways are at a higher risk for developing mental health issues due to the multiple and compounding stressors they face related to academic, athletic and developmental demands.
“It’s an honor to have played a role in several years of research and intervention carried out by the SHAPE research team that has contributed to a growing research base focused on understanding and improving the mental well-being of elite athletes. The citation from the IOC is both an honor and a reflection of the importance of the work that so many people at TU have contributed to.”
Cromer agreed, and said it was not a stroke of luck that work from an undergraduate was cited, but rather a combination of hard work and an environment that supports such research. “This highlights the strengths of TU: small class sizes allow me to get to know each student and his or her strengths; I have my own research lab; and having graduate assistants to help coordinate and support research allows me to publish work, including work with undergrads.”
She added, “I’ve always known I have incredible grad students and undergrads, but times like this show the world how special TU can be.”
The University of Tulsa is releasing a new podcast, TU Starter Pack, on Jan. 13, 2020.
Starter Pack will be the second podcast from The University of Tulsa podcasting, following the launch of TUniverse in fall 2019.
Unlike TUniverse, which aims to share TU-based research to all parts of the galaxy, Starter Pack has a different audience: current and prospective TU students.
Currently, the podcast has two focuses: health issues and insider tips.
For the health-related issues, the podcast will focus on mental and physical wellbeing. Episodes will feature experts and personalities from the Collins Fitness Center, Alexander Health Center, Counseling & Psychological Services Center and other on-campus entities.
The student success tips will come from standout TU students along with advice from different groups around campus, like the Center for Student Academic Success.
Senior Rizka Aprilia, who will be featured on the podcast, said these episodes will aid the transition into college life for many students.
“When I was a freshman, I didn’t know my way around TU,” she recalled. “It’s not until I met and talked to other students that I finally found my way throughout campus. Knowing that this podcast will have students talk about their experience around campus will be very helpful, especially to first-year students. Hearing wisdom from someone else who was once in the same shoes as you is a great tool for surviving college.”
The podcast will alternate the student health and student success episodes, with a new episode releasing every Monday. The episodes are short and full of information; none of them will have a longer runtime than the length of time it takes for a stroll across campus.
Starter Pack is designed to answer all sorts of questions students may have: How can I get personal fitness training? How do I pay my tuition bill? What are the best ways to get to know my professors?
Michael McClendon, a contributor to Starter Pack and director of Counseling & Psychological Services Center, believes the new show could be useful for a number of reasons.
“I think that podcasts are the perfect medium for students to access information when and where they need it,” McClendon said. “Not all of the structures in life align with the busy schedules of students, but anyone with internet access has podcasts at hand throughout the day. And with a podcast regularly stocked full of useful information about how to successfully navigate the gauntlet of university life, TU students can get some helpful insight whenever they need it. Of course, none of the information will be a silver bullet that will fix everything at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday, but it could help streamline the search or pursuit of the resources that will help change the course come the break of day.”
Be sure to tune in to Starter Pack by adding it on your favorite podcast app using our RSS feed or downloading it directly here. The podcast is available on these major podcast apps.
The Laureate Institute for Brain Research opened its doors 10 years ago to address one of Oklahoma’s worst health factors, mental health. As scientists and researchers discover the ways in which a person’s mental health is directly linked to their overall physical condition, LIBR, in collaboration with The University of Tulsa, is using new neuroscience tools and resources to answer old questions about Oklahoma’s health crisis.
LIBR was founded by the William K. Warren Foundation when then scientific director Wayne Drevets and five other colleagues from the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., transferred to Tulsa in 2009. Today, the organization includes seven principal investigators (PI) who are faculty within TU’s Oxley College of Health Sciences and have tenure track or tenure appointments in the OU-TU School of Community Medicine. The goal then and now is to conduct neuroscience-based research that will improve the diagnosis or prognosis of individuals with mental illness. LIBR Director Martin Paulus said the institute strives to respect the dignity of each patient while leveraging leading talent and technology to discover the causes of and cures for disorders related to mood, anxiety, eating and memory. “We’re trying to use neuroscience to find better ways to develop mental health interventions,” he said.
When Paulus joined the LIBR staff in 2014, he set a goal to create a large data set that would allow researchers to investigate mental health prognosis and diagnosis through behavioral processes, neuroimaging, neuromodulation, psychophysiology and bioassays. LIBR’s largest research project, the Tulsa 1000 (T-1000) study, began recruiting participants with mood, anxiety, eating and substance disorders to complete more than 24 hours of baseline testing. The 1,000th and final individual was enrolled in 2018 with the goal of determining whether neuroscience-based measures can be used to predict outcomes in patients with mental illness.
Data Analytics Lead Rayus Kuplicki (B.S. ’09, M.S. ’11, Ph.D. ’14) has been heavily involved in the technical setup and analysis of T-1000 since its inception. He said the standardization of this initial data collection at the institute is critical for quality research. “My work has made it possible to take raw data from thousands of participants and compute the quantifiable traits that we compare across groups,” he explained.
Data analysis of T-1000 participants continues and has generated more than 40 scientific papers, currently in progress. TU graduate students in the areas of psychology, engineering and biology contribute to T-1000 research through subsets of data analysis. Biology doctoral student Bart Ford is collaborating with LIBR PI Jonathan Savitz to examine the link between latent viruses and depression. “It is well established that early life stress and childhood trauma increase the risk of physical and mental health problems later in life, but the biological mechanisms by which this occurs are not well understood,” Ford said. “Dr. Savitz and I wondered if people who experience childhood abuse and neglect are perhaps more vulnerable to a common latent herpes virus called cytomegalovirus (CMV).”
The virus is usually harmless in otherwise healthy individuals but can weaken the immune system over time. Savitz and Ford studied a group of individuals with major depressive disorder and found that higher levels of self-reported childhood abuse and neglect were associated with a greater likelihood of testing positive for CMV. They then used the T-1000 cohort to replicate the study and discovered the same results with similar effects in size. The findings were published in the prestigious “JAMA Psychiatry” journal earlier this year. “We interpret this to mean that the stress of abuse and neglect during development may render a person susceptible to a CMV infection,” Ford stated. “This could suggest CMV contributes to later life health problems that are often seen in survivors of abuse.”
According to Savitz and Ford, T-1000 is beneficial in understanding the biological causes, mechanisms and outcomes of mental health disorders, and consequently, can help identify therapeutic targets that will lead to treatments of the sources and after-effects of mental illness.
In addition to T-1000, another primary project ongoing at LIBR is the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) initiative, a study of more than 11,878 children, ages 9 and 10, at 21 different sites nationwide. LIBR researchers have conducted detailed assessments of 743 of the participants. Follow-up visits and scans will continue for 10 years to examine the course of wellness and mental illness during the second decade of life when mental health disorders tend to emerge. One of the first papers the data generated in 2018 was accepted to the journal “NeuroImage” and entitled “Screen media activity and brain structure in youth: Evidence for diverse structural correlation networks from the ABCD study.”
Robin Aupperle is another LIBR PI and assistant professor of community medicine who uses neuroscience and psychological research to improve mental health and gain insight into the causes of anxiety, depression and trauma. She is interested in identifying factors that support resilience to college-related stress and strategies to optimize a student’s psychological well-being. Paulus said meta-analyses show one in three students will develop significant anxiety and depression during their first year of college — a major reason why some students choose to drop out of school. That’s why Aupperle developed the four-week TU Tough program that teaches the skills and mindset necessary for mental toughness to effectively respond to stressful or challenging situations. “This is the idea that our abilities are not set in stone — that we can learn, improve and adapt,” she explained. “Likewise, our ability to be resilient in the face of stress is not hard-wired but can be built and strengthened through practicing certain skills as we seek out and face challenges.”
Aupperle is a mentor to graduate students such as TU clinical psychology Ph.D. student Tim McDermott. His predoctoral training grant application to the National Institute of Mental Health received a qualifying score for funding, which will support McDermott’s research to study the brain circuits underlying people’s ability to manage their emotional reactions. Understanding the brain circuits involved in the processing and regulating of emotions could potentially inform future anxiety and depression treatments. “We will examine whether individuals can learn to regulate their prefrontal cortex activation during emotional processing in response to feedback about their brain activation during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning,” he said.
As an assistant in the TU Tough project, McDermott has led lectures in TU Tough modules and supervised small group leaders during breakout discussions. He also has managed data processing and analysis for fMRI neuroimaging scans performed before and after TU Tough treatment. Prepared by lead author Elisabeth Akeman (BS ’15) as well as Aupperle and McDermott, a recently published manuscript in the journal “Depression and Anxiety” reports findings from the first two cohorts of TU Tough. The research shows students who complete the program (compared to those who did not) experienced lower rates of self-reported stress and depression symptoms throughout their first semester of college, particularly as measured during finals week. Aupperle explained TU Tough is a strong example of LIBR research that can improve the overall mental health of Oklahomans. “By taking measures to improve resilience to stress and mental health among TU students, we are benefiting the community in general,” she said.“Supporting the health and well-being of our students is the equivalent to supporting the health and well-being of our community.”
Other ongoing treatment studies at LIBR use behavioral activation or cognitive behavioral therapy (as part of ongoing studies in Aupperle’s lab) or novel intervention approaches such as the Float Clinic and Research Center led by PI Justin Feinstein. His studies use flotation as an intervention approach to mental illness, providing patients with a way to disconnect with the world and reconnect with signals firing in their bodies. His research was featured on the CBS This Morning’s “Pay Attention” series in 2018.
TU and LIBR’s unique partnership
Paulus is pleased with the substantial data collection, analyses and treatment LIBR has been able to provide to residents within its first decade. Although Oklahoma has a long way to go in improving its overall mental health, he explained LIBR intends to serve as the starting point for large sets of basic health information that support a biotech approach to mental health treatment and diagnosis. “We want to know how far we can develop, how advanced is our research and can we potentially establish startups that can be developed into effective treatments and commercial products,” Paulus said. In one example, LIBR Chief Technology Officer and physicist Jerzy Bodurka, created a way to use a real-time MRI to train a specific part of the brain to give instant feedback on if the training is effective. Paulus explained the training has reduced levels of depression in research participants, and Bodurka now is developing a turnkey system that will allow for scalability of the intervention at any site with MRI imaging capabilities.
Behind every principal or associate investigator stands a team of student researchers eager to get involved, serving as valuable assets for LIBR’s mission. When asked if TU depends on LIBR or if LIBR relies on TU, Paulus said the partnership is unique in that it is based on both concepts; while the institute focuses on quality research, TU is a generator of knowledge. “TU’s primary mission is teaching, but the goal of our faculty is to be top-level researchers,” Paulus said. “The research provides training opportunities for students, and we couldn’t train them if we didn’t have this relationship with TU.”
Close ties to LIBR are an incentive for students, especially those at the graduate level, to choose TU for advanced experience in their field of research. Students are invited to participate in rotations through the institute and contribute to the facility’s mental health mission. Although LIBR’s primary method of research is brain imaging, Paulus said there will be opportunities for additional biology-based research in the future as researchers pursue exciting advancements into the new decade.
The first-ever Schweitzer Leadership Summit welcomed more than 60 graduate students and professionals from across the country to Tulsa earlier this month to learn how local leaders are improving health disparities and strengthening the Schweitzer Fellowship U.S. network.
The event was hosted November 2-4 by current and past Albert Schweitzer Fellows who saw an opportunity to bring their counterparts to Tulsa and expand the organization’s network of alumni through meaningful engagement.
The role of a Schweitzer Fellow
“Schweitzer Fellows and alumni are talented, passionate individuals who do ground-breaking work to address health disparities,” said Rachel Gold, director of the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship Tulsa chapter. “The goal of this leadership summit was to reinforce the energy, passion and spark that drove Fellows and alumni to the Schweitzer Fellowship in the first place, and that will continue to inspire them towards reaching their leadership goals.”
Schweitzer Fellows are competitively selected from graduate and professional degree programs statewide in traditional health-focused fields such as medicine, nursing, dentistry and public health as well as related fields including education, social work, law and the arts. Schweitzer Fellows gain knowledge and experience in innovative project design, leadership and community health by designing and implementing yearlong initiatives that address health disparities and social determinants of health such as poverty, the environment and education.
Past projects include a concept developed by University of Tulsa clinical psychology doctoral student Danielle Zanotti, a member of the inaugural class of Tulsa Schweitzer Fellows in 2016. Zanotti implemented a program to help veterans strengthen parenting skills and gain developmentally appropriate knowledge about what to expect from their children. The community site was The Coffee Bunker — a place in Tulsa where veterans can connect. After her year of Schweitzer service, Zanotti was selected for an internship at a VA hospital in Houston and plans to return to Oklahoma to pursue her career in mental health and community leadership.
A deep dive into Tulsa, growing as a leader
Other fellows such as Ekene Ezenwa, a third-year student in the University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine, focused their projects directly on health education. Ezenwa and her Schweitzer Fellow partner established a health leadership program called HEAL at Union Middle and High Schools, where they connected participants to health professions and supported them in designing health workshops for younger students.
“This fellowship is good for anyone who wants to do a deep dive into Tulsa and be able to not only help the community grow but also grow as a leader,” Ezenwa said. “The Schweitzer Fellowship provides participants with so many resources and so much guidance to do the things they want to do – design projects that the community really wants and needs, learn how to successfully write grant proposals and advocate in the community.”
Through careful planning, including a series of virtual meetings with counterparts around the country, the Schweitzer Fellowship Leadership Summit planning team, including seven Tulsa Schweitzer alumni and Gold, created an agenda that shone a spotlight on the status of health and social issues in Tulsa, the second-largest city in a state that ranks 48th, 49th or 50th in many national health measures. Gold says Tulsa was the perfect backdrop for Schweitzer Fellows and alumni to reunite and take a closer look at Tulsa efforts to reduce community health gaps while brainstorming new strategies for improving health outcomes.
“This conference reinforced the leadership skills of our planning team, refined their own career goals related to improving health and promoted self-awareness of their capabilities and visions for the local and national Schweitzer Fellowship communities,” Gold said.
Renewed inspiration from a Schweitzer alumna
Award-winning writer, skilled photographer and honored public health leader Leslie Hsu Oh served as keynote speaker for the event. As a 1997-98 alumna of the Schweitzer Fellowship at Harvard University School of Public Health, she founded the Hepatitis B Initiative to tackle the prevalence of hepatitis B in Boston’s Asian communities by offering free screenings and vaccinations. Her Schweitzer project is still in operation.
A special session led by Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum and University of Tulsa President Gerard Clancy discussed health disparities in the city. Participant-led workshops at Tulsa’s 36 Degrees North entrepreneurial hub focused on approaching mental health through a social justice lens, gratitude as an act of leadership and transforming health care organizations through immigrant-friendly policy. Conference attendees visited facilities for Women in Recovery, the Take Control Initiative, the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, the Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges and Community Health Connection. The weekend concluded with a tour of The Gathering Place.
Sponsors included the TU Oxley College of Health Sciences, Morningcrest Foundation, George Kaiser Family Foundation, TYPROs, the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma and Trust Co. of Oklahoma.
Study aims to examine first-year college students on academics and psychological well-being
Since 2016, The University of Tulsa and the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR) have partnered to host a study aimed at examining the impact of mental toughness training on academic success and psychological well-being of first-year college students at TU.
Initial results indicate that a brief, four-session training program can improve psychological well-being over the first semester of college and may reduce the risk of students leaving college. Future efforts will aim to identify ways of further enhancing the benefits of the program.
Assistant Professor of Community Medicine Robin Aupperle, a principal investigator at LIBR, is leading the study. Her research focuses on using neurocognitive methods to enhance understanding of anxiety, depression and resiliency to stress.
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.