Study Breaks: Intriguing Health Findings from Michigan Universities

Predicting the next pandemic, misinformation on the internet, and more health-related findings.
Stock photograph from Adobe Stock

In our 2023 Health Guide, we shared some of the most interesting recent health findings from Michigan researchers. Check out some of those findings.

Surprise! The internet is full of lies!

This may come as a big shock, but people who get their health-related news from social media and lesser-known websites believe more misinformation than folks who rely on more traditional, mainstream media, according to a study of media habits in the United States, Singapore, and Turkey.

Researchers from the University of Michigan and scientists in both other countries surveyed more than 3,600 people about their views on vaccines, genetically modified foods, and alternative medicine.

Respondents who sought information from “legacy” news outlets were less likely to fall for incorrect ideas about health matters, “perhaps because of editorial gatekeeping differences across news, social, and alternative media,” says researcher and U-M communications professor Scott Campbell.

Hooray for nanofoam padding!

More flexible padding for football helmets, tested in labs at Michigan State University, can offer players greater protection against concussions and brain injuries, according to a study published in the journal Matter. The material, reusable liquid nanofoam, has been shown to be more resilient and effective than the standard foam pads currently in use, says MSU engineer Weiyi Lu, the lead author.

“The nanofoam was able to mitigate continuous multiple impacts without damage; the results were identical from test 1 through test 10,” Lu says.

Stopping bad bacteria

Researchers at Michigan State University say they have identified a new way to inhibit the production of proteins that are believed to play a role in causing Alzheimer’s disease, tetanus, botulism, and food poisoning, among other ailments.

The findings, published in the journal eLife, are the result of work led by MSU biochemistry and molecular biology professor Lee Kroos, who says of the laborious research, “It was like putting together a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle without knowing what it looks like.”

Seniors super satisfied with elective surgery

Two-thirds of Americans ages 50 to 80 reported being very satisfied after elective procedures — stuff like knee replacements, gall bladder removal, and cataract surgery that addresses non-life-threatening issues, according to the National Poll on Healthy Aging, a product of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation in partnership with Michigan Medicine and AARP.

Of people who are in excellent or very good health, 79 percent were pleased with the outcome of the surgery, versus 53 percent of folks in fair or poor health. Of the roughly 2,100 people polled across the country, 30 percent had considered having or had an elective procedure in the past five years.

Crowdfunding pays but shames

Hundreds of thousands of cash-strapped cancer patients turn to sites like GoFundMe to finance lifesaving treatments every year, but young people who must do so find the process humiliating, according to a survey published in the Journal of Cancer Survivorship.

GoFundMe hosts some 250,000 medical fundraisers that collectively raise more than $650 million each year, but only about half meet their goals. The process has become embarrassing but necessary as health care costs rise, and researcher and University of Michigan postdoctoral nursing student Lauren V. Ghazal says young cancer patients are in an especially vulnerable position because they’re “beginning to achieve financial independence and finding career employment” when cancer derails their plans.

Aging in place requires planning

Nearly 90 percent of Americans ages 50 to 80 say it is very or somewhat important to them to live in their homes when they’re old and infirm, but only 15 percent have given “a lot” of consideration to how to make that happen, according to findings of a survey from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

The National Poll on Healthy Aging, which surveyed 2,277 adults in early 2022, also found that 48 percent of those who live alone don’t have anyone who could provide care to them and only 19 percent of those surveyed are “very confident” they could afford to pay someone to do errands and help them out.

Predicting the next pandemic

Researchers at Michigan State University have been awarded $2.7 million by the National Institutes of Health to further develop artificial intelligence algorithms that can predict how viruses will evolve. The team’s models have already made accurate predictions about new COVID-19 variants.

“What we’re doing is making our predictions more accurate and more timely,” says Guowei Wei, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at MSU. “And now our work isn’t just for COVID but also for many other viral infections.”

These algorithms could someday help with the creation of universal vaccines and medicines that are more effective against a variety of viral diseases, such as the flu, COVID, HIV, and Ebola — even as they evolve.

Rethinking sperm age

Most infertility studies assess the likelihood of pregnancy based in part on would-be parents’ ages, but new research at Wayne State University finds the “epigenetic” age of the male contribution may yield more accurate predictions.

In the study, published in the journal Human Reproduction, lead author J. Richard Pilsner, WSU’s director of molecular genetics and infertility, asserts that a formula that accounts for genetic and environmental factors is better for assessing the true “biological age” of cells. (Smokers, for instance, have sperm with significantly higher epigenetic ages.)

“The ability to capture the biological age of sperm may provide a novel platform to better assess the male contribution to reproductive success, especially among infertile couples,” Pilsner says. Knowing whether the sperm is epigenetically “old” would allow couples “to realize their probability of achieving pregnancy during natural intercourse.”

Down to the bone

Two experiments on bone density from University of Michigan engineers have been launched (literally!) on the International Space Station. The studies’ findings could provide insight into both osteoporosis, which affects about 10 million Americans, and astronauts’ bone health.

The researchers hypothesize that when bone cells aren’t exposed to gravity, they become less stiff, causing changes similar to osteoporosis — and that they can prevent those changes by mechanically compressing bone cells to mimic gravity. If the hypothesis is correct, we may soon see astronauts wearing compressive space suits to prevent bone loss. For non-astronauts, the information gleaned could lead to better diagnostics and treatment for bone decay.

Fixing the medical supply chain

Wayne State University researchers are leading a $3.88 million national effort to build a better medical goods supply marketplace that could prevent the shortages that caught the country off guard as the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020.

The effort involves creating an online system called the Rx Product Marketplace Orchestrator that will be capable of efficiently matching fluctuating consumer demands with manufacturers, says lead researcher Kyoung-Yun Kim of WSU’s Smart Manufacturing Demonstration Center. WSU shares the grant from the Department of Commerce with collaborators at Oregon State University and Iowa State University.

Staving off dementia

Addressing mental health disorders earlier in life could be an important way to avert neurodegenerative diseases later, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, Duke University, and the University of Auckland. The analysis focused on a three-decade observation of some 1.7 million New Zealanders and was published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

The lead author, U-M psychologist Leah Richmond-Rakerd, says it’s unclear what exactly connects mental disorders and dementia, but knowing there is a link may prompt doctors to encourage patients with such disorders to engage in healthy behaviors that reduce dementia risk, such as exercise.

Left-right brain pingpong

A University of Michigan psychology lab has identified key features of a brain rhythm that helps the brain’s left and right hemispheres communicate better, according to a study in the journal Cell Reports. The researchers call this rhythm “splines,” because the brain waves resemble the interlocking teeth of gears. “Spline rhythms … are like the left and right brains playing a game of very fast — and very precise — pingpong,” says lead author and professor Omar Ahmed.

“[It] represents a fundamentally different way for the left brain and right brain to talk to each other.” Splines occur during REM sleep and during movement, becoming even more precise at faster running speeds. “This is likely to help the left brain and right brain compute more cohesively and rapidly when an animal is moving faster and needs to make faster decisions,” says U-M doctoral student Megha Ghosh.

The researchers also discovered that spline rhythms are strongest in the retrosplenial cortex, which is one of the first brain regions to become impaired in people with Alzheimer’s disease — a finding that may soon help doctors identify the disease in early stages.

This story is part of the 2023 Health Guide. Read more in our Digital Edition.