NYU Alumni Magazine Fall 2007


Cutting-Edge Research

Clock Ticks on Heart Procedure

by Samme Chittum

For years, angioplasty has been a popular treatment for heart attack survivors—regardless of when it's performed. But a groundbreaking study now shows that, with some exceptions, the procedure saves lives in only the first 12 hours after a heart attack begins. Once that window has closed, explains Judith S. Hochman, director of the Cardiovascular Clinical Research Center at the NYU School of Medicine, many of the more than 50,000 Americans who receive this treatment annually are just as safe using prescription drugs to prevent further heart damage.

"We were surprised because we did expect angioplasty to benefit all patients," admits Hochman, who designed and led the Occluded Artery Trial (OAT) study to resolve a controversy in the field over the effectiveness of the treatment, in which a balloon catheter is inserted through the arm or groin to unclog arteries that are then held open with stents. The OAT team enrolled 2,166 patients at 217 hospitals across the country and abroad—half received drug therapy only; the others received drug therapy and underwent angioplasties three to 28 days after an attack.

After tracking the health of both groups for an average of three years, researchers found that the rates of heart attack, heart failure, and death were the same. "The main issue here is that medical therapy"—medications, such as statins, angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, and aggressive risk factor modification—"has gotten better," Hochman says, eliminating the need for many survivors to undergo a procedure that can cost from $10,000 to $15,000.

This news made national and international headlines—including a front-page article in The New York Times—last year following the report's release in The New England Journal of Medicine. The OAT study was also number five on the American Heart Association's top 10 list of articles published in 2006. "Change in practice is definitely happening," Hochman confirms, "although at this stage it is anecdotal."

Hochman estimates that one-third of eligible patients who survive a heart attack do not receive angioplasty within the 12-hour treatment window, often because they arrive at the hospital too late. The problem is that many don't recognize the subtle symptoms of a heart attack, such as shortness of breath, sudden fatigue, or tightness in the chest. Being attuned to these is essential—as Hochman notes, time lost is heart muscle lost.

social psychology

The How and Why of Attraction

by Jason Hollander / GAL '07

Before a big date, some women and men take pains sweating on the elliptical, getting primped at the salon, or choosing the most flattering outfit. And while this sounds like practical preparation, the effort might all be for naught if you've got the wrong wiggle or swagger. A new study reveals that a person's gait is just as important as his or her appearance when others size up their gender, the first step to determining attractiveness. For heterosexual men, "a woman who moves in a feminine manner will have a higher rating than a woman who's moving in a masculine manner," says Kerri Johnson, until recently a research scientist in the Department of Psychology.

While this may seem like a shallow method of evaluation, sex categorization is part of a natural, obligatory foundation for judging others, according to Johnson and co-author Louis Tassinary of Texas A&M, who recently published their findings in an article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The two conducted studies in which participants rated computer-generated animations and drawings on degrees of masculinity, femininity, and attractiveness. The results indicated that body shape—one's waist-to-hip ratio—and body motion, mixed with preconditioned gender perceptions, provide the essential launching points for all other ingredients of attraction.

If it's natural to judge people, researchers found that participants still had some unnatural expectations— especially for women. Another study found that when both sexes were asked to select the figure of a "typical" male, most got it right, picking bodies in a normative range. But the majority believed the "typical" female body is one more akin to an anatomically exaggerated cartoon character—say, Jessica Rabbit or a Barbie doll—something that "doesn't exist in nature," says Johnson, which has major implications for how women evaluate their own bodies.

But females aren't the only victims of perception. Johnson jokingly calls herself an aspiring "men's libber" because guys, she says, suffer the most from social expectations on how they carry themselves. "We have much greater latitude for women to behave in a masculine way," says Johnson, noting that men must adhere to an alarmingly narrow set of behaviors deemed appropriate. "When they step beyond that, they receive harsh penalties for it. It begins early in life, and it continues throughout."


Heredity Hidden in the Gums

by Janelle Nanos / GSAS '05

Our mouths might seem an unlikely place to unravel the mystery of human evolution, but the bacteria hiding in them offers new evidence of how our species spread from Africa to Asia to Europe, according to Page W. Caufield, a professor in the College of Dentistry. "Every human wants to know where they came from," says Caufield, lead author of a recent Journal of Bacteriology article that reports how the oral bacteria Streptococcus mutans has evolved alongside its human hosts. "The pieces of that puzzle are scattered all over the place. We learn from genomes, from paleontology"— and now dentistry.

Since 1994, Caufield has gathered mouth-swab samples from African-American, Caucasian, and Hispanic Americans, and journeyed to the Central African Republic, China, Brazil, Australia, Sweden, and Guyana for more. The resulting samples span the evolutionary equivalent of up to 200,000 years. With the help of David H. Fitch, a professor in the biology department and co-author on the report, Caufield was able to locate the DNA biomarkers that linked the samples together—all the way back to a single common ancestor, or "Ancestral Eve."

Because oral bacteria is our first line of defense—creating vitamins, digesting food, and fending against pathogens—the research sheds light on both the susceptibility of some ethnic groups to tooth decay, as well as a greater story of human survival. "DNA is DNA," Fitch says, "and it contains information and a historical record. The history is all there—you have to be smart enough to find it."

Illustration © The Heads of State