Mass General Research Roundup for April 2019

Research Roundup is a brief recap of recent research news from investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Chronic Health Problems Common After Addiction Recovery

Investigators from Massachusetts General Hospital’s Recovery Research Institute found that a third of individuals in recovery from substance use disorder continue to suffer from chronic physical diseases that have been exacerbated by their substance use.

In a study of 2,000 individuals in recovery from drug or alcohol use disorders, researchers found 37 percent had been diagnosed with one or more of nine alcohol- and drug-exacerbated diseases and health conditions: liver disease, tuberculosis (TB), HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), cancer, hepatitis C, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease and diabetes.

The presence of these diseases was shown to be associated with significant reductions in participants’ quality of life, and all are known to reduce life expectancy.

“Earlier and more assertive intervention is needed for individuals with alcohol and other drug problems to help prevent these other diseases,” says David Eddie, PhD, the lead author of the study.

“In addition, addiction treatment needs to be more seamlessly integrated with primary health care, and more research is needed to explore the complex relationships between alcohol and other drug use and physical disease.”


Oxytocin Weakens the Brain’s Reward Signals for Food

Previous research studies have shown that oxytocin—a naturally occurring hormone that is known for promoting bonding—acts on brain pathways related to eating behavior and may be a promising treatment for obesity. But how exactly does it work?

Researchers from Mass General’s Department of Endocrinology found that oxytocin reduces the communication between different brain areas involved in the cognitive, sensory and emotional processing of food cues that people with obesity demonstrate when they look at high-calorie foods.

“Knowing how the drug exerts its effects is a critical step toward establishing oxytocin as a drug treatment for overeating and obesity,” said the study’s lead investigator, Liya Kerem, MD, MSc.


Older Women Benefit Significantly When Screened with 3-D Mammography

Breast cancer is the most common cancer and the second most common cause of death from cancer among women in the United States.

In the new study, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) sought to learn more about the performance of 2D mammography and 3D mammography in older women (mean age of 72 years).

They compared screening mammograms from more than 15,000 women who underwent 2D mammography with those of more than 20,000 women who underwent the 3D screening.

Both approaches were highly effective at detecting cancer, but 3D mammography had some advantages over the 2D approach, including a reduction in false-positive examinations.

3D screenings also had a higher positive predictive value, the probability that women with a positive screening result will have breast cancer, and higher specificity, or the ability to distinguish cancer from benign findings.

“We’ve shown that screening mammography performs well in older women, with high cancer detection rates and low false-positives, and that tomosynthesis (3D screening) leads to even better performance than conventional 2D mammography,” said study lead author Manisha Bahl, MD, MPH.


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Scientists Find Physical Activity Could Prevent Depression

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) — a planet-scale array of eight ground-based radio telescopes forged through international collaboration — was designed to capture images of a black hole. In coordinated press conferences across the globe, EHT researchers revealed that they succeeded, unveiling the first direct visual evidence of the supermassive black hole in the centre of Messier 87 and its shadow. The shadow of a black hole seen here is the closest we can come to an image of the black hole itself, a completely dark object from which light cannot escape. The black hole’s boundary — the event horizon from which the EHT takes its name — is around 2.5 times smaller than the shadow it casts and measures just under 40 billion km across. While this may sound large, this ring is only about 40 microarcseconds across — equivalent to measuring the length of a credit card on the surface of the Moon. Although the telescopes making up the EHT are not physically connected, they are able to synchronize their recorded data with atomic clocks — hydrogen masers — which precisely time their observations. These observations were collected at a wavelength of 1.3 mm during a 2017 global campaign. Each telescope of the EHT produced enormous amounts of data – roughly 350 terabytes per day – which was stored on high-performance helium-filled hard drives. These data were flown to highly specialised supercomputers — known as correlators — at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy and MIT Haystack Observatory to be combined. They were then painstakingly converted into an image using novel computational tools developed by the collaboration.

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