UChicago research roundup

New findings on alcohol use disorder, a little-studied memory condition, and more.

Sketchy memory

While most people are intimately familiar with their homes, those with a rare condition called aphantasia—which impairs visual memory—can’t easily picture the places they spend their lives. In a February Cortex study, psychologist Wilma Bainbridge sought to experimentally characterize the little-studied condition through drawing. Bainbridge and colleagues asked participants with aphantasia, recruited from online forums, and a control group to look at photographs of rooms and draw them first from memory, and again while looking at the photo. From memory, the control group drew prominent objects with moderate detail. Those with aphantasia drew a few simple objects and sometimes relied on words, like labeling a rectangle “window.” Yet they placed those objects in the correct locations, demonstrating that while their object memory was lacking, their spatial memory was intact.

Rethinking binge drinking

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) has long been associated with increased tolerance, but a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry online in January challenges that dogma. In a decade-long longitudinal study of alcohol use, psychiatrist Andrea King, director of the Clinical Addictions Research Laboratory, found that a heightened, rather than dampened, sensitivity to alcohol’s pleasurable effects led to greater consumption. King’s team tested 190 social drinkers in several lab-based binge-drinking investigations, studying acute response to alcohol compared to a placebo. King also interviewed the participants over 10 years to track drinking patterns and any possible AUD symptoms. She found that individuals who exhibited AUD in year 10 had a more rewarding response and were more stimulated by alcohol initially, and those effects intensified over time. This revised understanding of the relationship between pleasure and alcohol use could help in the development of new treatment and prevention measures.

Holistic approach

Soft, flexible living tissues and hard, rigid static electronics aren’t often compatible. As medicine increasingly incorporates technology into living bodies—drug delivery systems, biosensors, moveable prostheses—researchers aspire to make the natural-synthetic interface seamless. Typically a device is engineered and then scaled down and modified to fit a living system—a “top-down” approach. But in a February Nature Nanotechnology paper, researchers, including chemist Bozhi Tian and PhD students Aleksander Prominski, SM’17, and Lingyuan Meng, describe a “bottom-up” process, using building blocks called micelles to form carbon-based bioelectronics. Micelles are groups of molecules that self-assemble into spheres in the presence of water. These spheres can then aggregate into thin sheets, dotted with holes—or pores—that increase flexibility and surface area, helping the sheet mesh better with biological membranes.

Computer virus

As biological entities go, viruses are pretty simple. But modeling their interactions, particularly with host cells, is complicated, so many researchers focus on just one piece of the virus. Yet parts of a virus work in cooperation, chemist and computational scientist Gregory Voth says, and studying isolated pieces doesn’t tell the whole story. Published in Biophysical Journal in March, the first usable computational model of SARS-CoV-2 in its entirety was created by researchers including Voth, Alvin Yu, Alexander Pak, and Peng He, using a technique called “coarse-graining.” The method, which Voth’s team helped pioneer, involves finding and incorporating the most important characteristics of each viral component while ignoring the rest to build a comprehensive model that can still be run on a computer. The framework can also be used to simulate potential drug therapies and investigate the effects of mutations.