An “odd” class of dim stars sheds light on dark energy. (Brad Gallagher, George Jordan/Flash Center for Computational Science)

Faculty research

Researchers test our hard-wiring for morality and justice, discover how chemical signals from cells spread ovarian cancer, detect dim stars that shed light on dark energy, and prove that it’s not the thought that counts.

The justice instinct

Witnessing intentional acts of harm prompts an instinctive, emotional brain response—part of the human “evolutionary heritage” to be sensitive to the pain of others,  says neuroscientist Jean Decety. Along with Stephanie Cacioppo, assistant professor in psychology, Decety mapped the brain activity in adults watching videos of people suffering intentional and accidental injuries. Published in the December 1 Journal of Neurophysiology, the study found that intentional harm triggered reactions within 180 milliseconds in the parts of the brain associated with emotion and moral decision making. Accidental harm did not prompt those responses. The brain’s perceptiveness about others’ suffering, Decety says, “constitutes a natural foundation for morality and sensitivity to justice.”

Remission: possible

Ovarian cancer spreads by generating a vicious cycle of disease: cancer cells send chemical signals that induce nearby healthy cells to become cancer promoters, after which each new cancer cell prompts surrounding cells to modify their production of microRNAs, the strands of genetic material that regulate gene expression. That, in turn, produces more cancer cells. In the December Cancer Discovery, researchers from the University of Chicago Medicine and Northwestern identified three microRNAs associated with this process. UChicago gynecologist Ernst Lengyel,  one of the study’s lead authors, says that the “cancer-associated fibroblasts” produced by microRNAs are more stable than typical cancer cells, making them a target for treatment and offering “a new way to fight this disease.” By altering the microRNA signals, researchers caused the cancer-associated fibroblasts to revert to their normal state.

Star search

Thousands of exploding stars are classified as type Ia supernovae, used by astrophysicists as cosmic distance indicators, and they demonstrate that the universe is accelerating because of the mysterious force known as dark energy. Most type Ia supernovae resemble each other, but about 20 are “a little bit odd,” says George Jordan, research scientist at the Flash Center for Computational Science. Supercomputer simulations have revealed that these dim stars are likely from a class of duds, but they could still shed light on dark energy. Comparing the odd and normal type Ia supernovae could help astrophysicists more precisely define the nature of the force central to the universe’s acceleration, Jordan says. With simulations on Argonne’s supercomputer Intrepid, which will be detailed in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, Jordan and three colleagues defined the class as white dwarf stars that failed to detonate.

Intended receiver

It’s the thought that counts? Not really, says Chicago Booth behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley. In a study in the November Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Epley and coauthor Yan Zhang, MBA’09, PhD’09,  tested the old adage. In experiments in which subjects recalled past gifts—given and received, good and bad—and participated in a gift exchange,  the researchers found that people preferred receiving a gift they’d asked for to getting one that was unrequested but thoughtful. “Even when thoughtfulness leads to choosing better gifts,” the researchers write, “it does not increase gift receivers’ appreciation and gratitude beyond the quality of the gift itself.” The thought does count for gift givers, however: putting in the extra effort and attention made them feel closer to the recipients of their gifts.