Kristina Bigsby just solved college football’s biggest mystery. She can predict where high school players will commit.

By Jacob Bogage

There is an entire industry built up around deciphering where 16- and 17-year-olds will play college football. Websites boast “crystal ball” predictions of where top high school recruits will suit up. Companies charge for premium subscriptions with claims that they can decode the caprice and whimsy of children.

And then there’s Kristina Bigbsy, a PhD candidate at the University of Iowa who is probably better than all of them.

She developed a mathematical model that predicts with 70 percent accuracy where a high school football player will go to college. And she uses nothing but their basic biographical information and Twitter account.

In other words, she can read the minds of some of sports’ most sought-after prospects by reading their tweets and looking up some basic biographical information. Her paper on those findings was published this month in the INFORMS journal “Decision Analysis.”

In other words, she could completely own Nick Saban and Urban Meyer on the recruiting circuit if she really wanted to, with just the use of a fancy spreadsheet and some half-decent computer code.

“If you really want to see where someone is committing, you shouldn’t overlook [social media] data,” she said.

Bigsby developed the model as part of her PhD program in information science. She wanted to study wrestling recruiting — Iowa consistently fields a top wrestling team — but went with football because the sport was more popular and because of the national obsession around recruiting classes.

She mined data from 573 athletes in 2016 from the 247Sports recruiting database who had at least two Division I scholarship offers and public Twitter accounts. Then she pulled their tweets, followers and accounts they followed each month and distilled the data into a model that makes it all easy to understand.

She found that if a recruit tweeted a hashtag about a school, his likelihood of committing there jumped 300 percent. For every coach the athlete followed from a given school, his likelihood of committing went up 47 percent. When a coach follows an athlete, likelihood increases 40 percent.

“The most significant actions online are the actions the athlete is doing,” Bigsby said. “Who is he following? What is he tweeting? What hashtags is he using?”

Her model crunched those numbers along with other data sets — i.e.: a college’s location relative to the recruit’s home town, a college’s academic ranking, a college’s recent football performance, and more — and spit out a list of universities a recruit was likely to attend, along with each school’s odds.

The model correctly predicted a recruit’s choice 70 percent of the time. And if the model was wrong, recruits generally chose the “second-place” college, Bigsby’s paper shows.

“We can narrow most people’s choices down to two schools,” she said, “but you never know what teenagers are thinking.”

The model could provide better predictions, Bigsby said, if researchers pulled recruits’ Twitter data every week instead of every month. Plus, she’s still tweaking the model to better interpret what tweets mean.

An athlete posting “Just got an offer from Iowa,” and “Can’t wait to visit Iowa,” mean very different things, Bigsby said. The first is self-promoting, and probably doesn’t do much for the Hawkeyes’ chances of landing a commitment. The second one is “ingratiating.” The athlete is trying to join an online community conversation about Iowa. That certainly helps the Hawkeyes’ odds.

So imagine the following: Alabama beats South Carolina and then has a bye week. Crimson Tide assistant coaches fan out across the continental United States on recruiting trips equipped with weekly reports on prospects’ online activity and their current likelihood of choosing Alabama.

That’s what this model can do, Bigsby said. It can really give teams an edge in the valuable, year-round recruiting game.

Only one problem: You need an information science expert to run the numbers. Bigsby has a potential solution for that, too.

“I’m careening toward graduation,” she said. “If a football team wants to call me, I will certainly pick up the phone.”

This 13-year-old built his own tiny house for $1,500

Luke Thill is 13 and built his own house.

He doesn’t consider it a playhouse, and neither did those who invited him to speak Saturday at a tiny home festival in Colfax, Iowa. The eighth-grader from Dubuque, Iowa, calls the 89-square-foot structure in his parents’ backyard a “starter home.” He built it for $1,500 by cutting lawns, raising money online, gathering reclaimed materials and bartering for labor.

An electrician neighbor helped him wire it — if Thill cleaned out his garage.

A Scout leader he knew helped him lay carpet in the loft bedroom — if he cut the man’s lawn.

He used leftover siding from his grandma’s house and a front door he got from his uncle’s friend.

“I liked the minimalism,” he said, sounding much older than 13. “And I wanted to have a house without a huge mortgage.”

Tiny homes less than 500 square feet have piqued the imagination of a nation fighting the American urge for more and bigger in the past decade, said Renee McLaughlin, the organizer of last weekend’s TinyFest Midwest, who lives in a smaller home than Thill’s. Her rural Oskaloosa home is 87 square feet. “I think we’ve reached a threshold where this ‘stuff’ is running our lives. We spend all our time working to buy it, clean it and organize it,” said McLaughlin, 48. “It’s not making us happy.”

Her fest at the Jasper County Fairgrounds included several tiny homes to tour, a presenter who is 6-foot-8, proving they can fit anyone, and attendees from 18 states, including a family of four who lives in a tiny home. It was Thill’s first speaking engagement after gathering attention and more than 700 subscribers with his YouTube series on the build.

Thill’s dad, Greg, told him when he started the project 18 months ago that if he was going to do it there were simple rules: You raise the money. You build it. And you own it. Greg Thill said he worked alongside his son to guide him, but that Luke learned much on his own — framing a structure and wiring, dealing with adults, making tough financial decisions and staying on budget.

“It was a chance for a kid to do something more than play video games or sports,” he said. “It teaches life lessons.”

Luke says his home, which is 5½ feet wide and 10 feet long and includes a loft, is made of 75 percent reclaimed materials, including several windows. He built a small deck outside. The siding is half cedar shakes, half vinyl Inside, a small kitchen area with a counter and shelving leads to a back sitting area with a large ottoman for a couch, a flip-down table and a wall-mounted TV. A ladder leads to an upstairs loft with a mattress. It’s wired for electric but has no plumbing, so Greg Thill says city codes consider it “a glorified shed.”

Luke Thill said he learned how to overcome disappointment. A big moment was his “counter-top fail.” He placed broken colored glass below what was going to be a lacquer surface. But when he poured the lacquer, it was “too watery,” and ran all over. But he made the most of it — the lacquer created a bond that held the counter to the wall. “Doesn’t have a screw in it,” he said.

He attached a traditional counter surface over the messed-up lacquer surface with a hinge for a lift-top storage space.He sleeps in it a couple of nights a week, does homework there after school and entertains friends. “The main purpose is to be my starter home,” he said. “I’m going to save money and expand.” In a couple of years, he hopes to build a larger tiny home on a trailer so he can perhaps haul it to college for cheaper living.

His message at the festival was this: “I want to show kids it’s possible to build at this age.”

There’s also an Iowan on the festival schedule who lives in a tiny home at the age of 80.

One trend is their ever-shrinking size — including micro-homes of fewer than 100 square feet, McLaughlin said. She sold her 3,300-square-foot home and 18 months ago moved into a space smaller than one of the four bathrooms in her former dwelling. How? She simply got rid of stuff — though clothes and shoes were the hardest. She shops less, buys less and throws less garbage into the landfill. A small bag that fits in a public trash can is all she tosses in a week. It fits her environmental ethic, which includes heating her water with solar. “I’m a simple girl, but a girl, nonetheless,” she said. So she accommodated her clothes problem with a hanging rod that swings into the shower.

While it sounds spartan, McLaughlin said people have gone from feeling sorry, telling her that “it will get better,” to saying that her home on wheels is cool. “I now own everything outright with no debt,” she said. “I can move around. It’s nice to know I can just go.” Her home sits on a relative’s property — that’s one of the issues with living in a tiny home: finding a piece of land to park it.

Despite widespread publicity fueled by reality TV shows, the growth of tiny homes is still difficult to quantify. The average new home continues to grow bigger — to 2,687 square feet in 2015, or a thousand square feet larger than in 1973. According to an analysis of homes on the Multiple Listing Service last fall by, only 3,000 of the 1.5 million homes listed in the U.S. were tiny homes.

“A huge part of it tends to be secret. They may be living in a backyard under the radar,” said Jay Shafer, a keynote speaker at the festival, who is viewed by tiny home enthusiasts as the “godfather” of the movement.e started living in a 130-square-foot home in Iowa City nearly 20 years ago, and his story spread across the country. He now designs tiny homes in California. While inroads have been made to allow tiny home builders in the U.S. to finance and ensure the structures, city codes are still prohibitive. Many have foundation or size requirements. For example, Des Moines housing codes require a home to be at least 24 feet wide.

Shafer said there has been progress, pointing to the recent change in the International Residential Code, which now requires U.S. homes to be a mere 88 square feet in 2018.

To a 13-year-old, it’s the future.

“Everyone had to have a big house, and now people have changed and realized it’s not practical,” Luke Thill said. “You can save money, travel the world and do what you want instead.”

A small city in Iowa is devoting 1,000 acres of land to America’s vanishing bees

By Sarah Fecht

You’ve probably heard the news that our nation’s bees are in trouble. Pollinators have been disappearing for decades, and the population crash could threaten the global food supply. Now, a small city in Iowa has decided to do something about it.

This spring, Cedar Rapids (population: 130,000) will seed 188 acres with native prairie grasses and wildflowers. The city’s plan is to eventually create 1,000 acres of bee paradise by planting these pollinator-friendly foodstuffs.

Scientists think the pollinator crisis is caused by a variety of factors, including pesticides, pathogens, and climate change. Meanwhile, with farms, parking lots, mowed lawns, and other human developments replacing wildflower fields, bees have been losing habitat and their food supply. While many of the drivers behind bee population decline remain mysterious, the people of Cedar Rapids hope to at least give pollinators places to perch and plants to feed on.

The 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative ( grew out of a partnership with the Monarch Research Project(MRP), whose goal is to restore monarch butterfly populations. It was Cedar Rapids Park Superintendent Daniel Gibbins who proposed converting 1,000 acres into pollinator habitat over five years. So far, the project has secured $180,000 in funding from the state and the MRP.

“With the agricultural boom around 100 years ago, about 99.9 percent of all the native habitat of Iowa has been lost,” says Gibbins, who is spearheading the project. “When you convert it back to what was originally native Iowa, you’re going to help a lot more than just native pollinators. You’re helping birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals—everything that’s native here relies on native vegetation.”

Prairie revival

Cedar Rapids has developed a special mix of grasses and wildflowers to help restore that native habitat. The seed mix includes 39 species of wildflowers, and 7 species of native prairie grasses. While bees and butterflies are mostly attracted to the flowers, the hardy prairie grasses will prevent weeds and invasive species from moving in and choking out the flowers.

Gibbins and his team have catalogued all the unused public land where they could potentially plant the flowers and grasses. The list includes not only the rarely frequented corners of parks, golf courses, and the local airport, but also sewage ditches, water retention basins, and roadway right-of-ways, totaling nearly 500 acres. Cedar Rapids is working with other cities within the county to reach its 1,000-acre target.

Before they can seed the land with the special pollinator plant mix, Gibbins’ crew has to “knock back the undesirable vegetation.” That means mowing down, burning off, or in some cases applying herbicide to get rid of grass, weeds, and invasive species. They’ll lay down the special seed mixture in the spring and fall.

“You can’t just seed them and walk away,” says Gibbins. Although the pollinator habitat will be lower maintenance than a green turf that needs to be mown every week, the prairie grasses will require some care, including mowing once a year or burning every few years.

Everyone can help

You don’t need to have 1,000 spare acres to help bees and butterflies. Even devoting a few square feet of your garden—or even a few small planters—to wildflowers native to your area could make a difference, says Gibbins.

“When creating pollinator gardens, the most important thing is to have a big diversity of wildflowers and heirloom crops that bloom in the spring, summer, and fall,” says Stephen Buchmann, a pollination ecologist at the University of Arizona and author of The Reason for Flowers. (Buchmann isn’t involved in the 1,000 Acre Initiative.)

Buchmann recommends against using herbicides or insecticides, or, if necessary, applying them at night when bees aren’t active. Providing nesting sites for certain bee species can help, too.

“People think they’ll just plant the wildflowers and the bees will come,” he says. “And that’s true in some cases, but the smaller the bee is, the less far it can fly. Some can only fly a few hundred meters.”

Some species nest in hard substrates, like the bare ground (bees hate mulch, says Buchmann), or in holes that you can drill in adobe or earthen bricks. Others nestle in sand pits or dead wood that’s been tunneled through by beetles. And it helps to have mud and water on the premises. The Xerces Society has a handy how-to guide on creating homes for bees.

The 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative is still looking into funding for the next four years, and they don’t expect to see huge jumps in the number of pollinators immediately. But Cedar Rapids is confident it will help, and they hope the project will serve as a model for the rest of the country.

And if enough local businesses and private landowners get involved, there’s no reason to stop at 1,000 acres, says Gibbins. “There’s a big push to extend this initiative up to maybe 10,000 acres in Linn County.”

An Iowa City’s football player’s Pokémon Go game ends with four police guns pointed at his face

By Cindy Boren

Faith Ekakitie, a defensive end for the University of Iowa, described in harrowing detail an encounter he had with police as he played Pokémon Go in an Iowa City park last week. This story, sobering as it is, ended not in tragedy but with Ekakitie thanking police.

“Today was the first time I’ve truly feared my life,” the 23-year-old senior wrote Wednesday on Facebook, “and I have the media to thank for that.”

The 6-foot-3, 290-pounder wrote that he was “happy to be alive” after five police officers stopped him and pointed four guns at him because he fit the description of a man who had just robbed a bank. At a time when police shootings of black men are under scrutiny, Ekakitie described the encounter from his perspective and tried to look at it through the eyes of police, too.

“My pockets were checked, my backpack was opened up and searched carefully, and I was asked to lift up my shirt while they searched my waistband,” Ekakitie wrote. “Not once did they identify themselves to me as Iowa City Police officers, but with four gun barrels staring me in the face, I wouldn’t dare question the authority of the men and woman in front of me. This is what happened from my point of view.

“From the police officers’ point of view, all they knew was that a bank had just been robbed less than ten minutes ago. The suspect was a large black male, wearing all black, with something on top of his head and the suspect is armed. As they drive past an Iowa City park that was less than 3 minutes away from the bank that was just robbed, they notice a large black man, dressed in all black, with black goggles on his head. They quickly move to action and identify themselves as the Iowa City police and ask me to turn around and place my hands up. I do not comply, they ask again, and again no response from me. So they all draw their guns and begin to slowly approach the suspect.”

Ekakitie wrote that he did not immediately respond to officers because he was wearing headphones and they approached him from behind. He was, he realized, in a situation in which “things can go south very quickly.” He wrote:

In this situation, what the media would fail to let people know is that the suspect had his headphones in the entire time the Police Officers approached him initially. The suspect had actually just pulled up to the park because he was playing a newly popular Game called Pokemon Go. The suspect didn’t realize that there were four cops behind him because his music was blaring in his ears. The suspect had reached into his pockets, for something which was his phone, but for all the cops could have known, he was reaching for a gun. The suspect could very well become another statistic on this day. I am not one to usually rant on Facebook or anywhere else, but with all of the crazy things that have been happening in our world these past couple of weeks it is hard to stay silent. I am thankful to be alive, and I do now realize, that it very well could have been me, a friend of mine, my brother, your cousin, your nephew etc. Misunderstandings happen all the time and just like that things can go south very quickly. It is extremely sad that our society has brainwashed us all to the point where we can’t feel safe being approached by the police officers in our respective communities. Not all police officers are out to get you, but at the same time, not all people who fit a criminal profile are criminals.

Jorey Bailey, a sergeant with the Iowa City police, told the Des Moines Register that the armed robbery had occurred less than a block from the park and that, because Ekakitie matched the description of a large black man in black clothes and did not respond, it was “reasonable” that officers drew their guns. He told ESPN that the officers were in uniform, not undercover, and told SB Nation on Sunday that more information would be forthcoming in the next few days. An Iowa spokesperson confirmed for ESPN that the Facebook account and its contents were Ekakitie’s.

“I don’t think race played a factor in this, nor does it in circumstances like this because of the detailed description, the location given by the person and the short time span in which this all occurred,” Bailey said.

Ekakitie urged people to be aware of their surroundings and to “unlearn some of the prejudiced that we have learned about each other.”

I would like the thank the Iowa City Police department for handling a sensitive situation very professionally. I would also urge people to be more aware of their surroundings because clearly I wasn’t. Lastly, I would urge us all to at least to attempt to unlearn some of the prejudices that we have learned about each other and now plague our minds and our society. I am convinced that in the same way that we learned these prejudices, we can also unlearn them.

New study may explain gene’s role in major psychiatric disorders

A new study shows the death of newborn brain cells may be linked to a genetic risk factor for five major psychiatric diseases, and at the same time shows a compound currently being developed for use in humans may have therapeutic value for these diseases by preventing the cells from dying.

In 2013, the largest genetic study of psychiatric illness to date implicated mutations in the gene called CACNA1C as a risk factor in five major forms of neuropsychiatric disease — schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder, autism, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). All the conditions also share the common clinical feature of high anxiety. By recognizing an overlap between several lines of research, scientists at the University of Iowa and Weill Cornell Medicine of Cornell University have now discovered a new and unexpected role for CACNA1C that may explain its association with these neuropsychiatric diseases and provide a new therapeutic target.

The new study, recently published in eNeuro, shows that loss of the CACNA1C gene from the forebrain of mice results in decreased survival of newborn neurons in the hippocampus, one of only two regions in the adult brain where new neurons are continually produced – a process known as neurogenesis. Death of these hippocampal neurons has been linked to a number of psychiatric conditions, including schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety.

“We have identified a new function for one of the most important genes in psychiatric illness,” says Andrew Pieper, MD, PhD, co-senior author of the study, professor of psychiatry at the UI Carver College of Medicine and a member of the Pappajohn Biomedical Institute at the UI. “It mediates survival of newborn neurons in the hippocampus, part of the brain that is important in learning and memory, mood and anxiety.”

Moreover, the scientists were able to restore normal neurogenesis in mice lacking the CACNA1C gene using a neuroprotective compound called P7C3-A20, which Pieper’s group discovered and which is currently under development as a potential therapy for neurodegenerative diseases. The finding suggests that the P7C3 compounds may also be of interest as potential therapies for these neuropsychiatric conditions, which affect millions of people worldwide and which often are difficult to treat.

Pieper’s co-lead author, Anjali Rajadhyaksha, associate professor of neuroscience in Pediatrics and the Feil Family Brain and Mind Research Institute at Weill Cornell Medicine and director of the Weill Cornell Autism Research Program, studies the role of the Cav1.2 calcium channel encoded by the CACNA1C gene in reward pathways affected in various neuropsychiatric disorders.

“Genetic risk factors that can disrupt the development and function of brain circuits are believed to contribute to multiple neuropsychiatric disorders. Adult newborn neurons may serve a role in fine-tuning rewarding and environmental experiences, including social cognition, which are disrupted in disorders such as schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders,” Rajadhyaksha says. “The findings of this study provide a direct link between the CACNA1C risk gene and a key cellular deficit, providing a clue into the potential neurobiological basis of CACNA1C-linked disease symptoms.”

Several years ago, Rajadhyaksha and Pieper created genetically altered mice that are missing the CACNA1C gene in the forebrain. The team discovered that the animals have very high anxiety.

“That was an exciting finding, because all of the neuropsychiatric diseases in which this gene is implicated are associated with symptoms of anxiety,” says Pieper who also holds appointments in the UI Departments of Neurology, Radiation Oncology, Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the Iowa City VA Health Care System.

By studying neurogenesis in the mice, the research team has now shown that loss of the CACNA1C gene from the forebrain decreases the survival of newborn neurons in the hippocampus – only about half as many hippocampal neurons survive in mice without the gene compared to normal mice. Loss of CACNA1C also reduces production of BDNF, an important brain growth factor that supports neurogenesis.

The findings suggest that loss of the CACNA1C gene disrupts neurogenesis in the hippocampus by lowering the production of BDNF.

Pieper had previously shown that the “P7C3-class” of neuroprotective compounds bolsters neurogenesis in the hippocampus by protecting newborn neurons from cell death. When the team gave the P7C3-A20 compound to mice lacking the CACNA1C gene, neurogenesis was restored back to normal levels. Notably, the cells were protected despite the fact that BDNF levels remained abnormally low, demonstrating that P7C3-A20 bypasses the BDNF deficit and independently rescues hippocampal neurogenesis.

Pieper indicated the next step would be to determine if the P7C3-A20 compound could also ameliorate the anxiety symptoms in the mice. If that proves to be true, it would strengthen the idea that drugs based on this compound might be helpful in treating patients with major forms of psychiatric disease.

“CACNA1C is probably the most important genetic finding in psychiatry. It probably influences a number of psychiatric disorders, most convincingly, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia,” says Jimmy Potash, MD, professor and DEO of psychiatry at the UI who was not involved in the study. “Understanding how these genetic effects are manifested in the brain is among the most exciting challenges in psychiatric neuroscience right now.”

Meditating in a tiny Iowa town to help recovery from war

By Supriya Venkatesan

At 19, I enlisted in the U.S. Army and was deployed to Iraq. I spent 15 months there — eight at the U.S. Embassy, where I supported the communications for top generals. I understand that decisions at that level are complex and layered, but for me, as an observer, some of those actions left my conscience uneasy.

To counteract my guilt, I volunteered as a medic on my sole day off at Ibn Sina Hospital, the largest combat hospital in Iraq. There I helped wounded Iraqi civilians heal or transition into the afterlife. But I still felt lost and disconnected. I was nostalgic for a young adulthood I never had. While other 20-somethings had traditional college trajectories, followed by the hallmarks of first job interviews and early career wins, I had spent six emotionally numbing years doing ruck marches, camping out on mountaintops near the demilitarized zone in South Korea and fighting someone else’s battle in Iraq.

During my deployment, a few soldiers and I were awarded a short resort stay in Kuwait. There, I had a brief but powerful experience in a meditation healing session. I wanted more. So when I returned to the United States at the end of my service, I headed to Iowa.

Forty-eight hours after being discharged from the Army, I arrived on campus at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. MUM is a small liberal arts college, smack dab in the middle of the cornfields, founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the guru of transcendental meditation. I joked that I was in a quarter-life crisis, but in truth my conscience was having a crisis. Iraq left me with questions about the world and grappling with my own mortality and morality.

Readjustment was a sucker punch of culture shock. While on a camping trip for incoming students, I watched girls curl their eyelashes upon waking up and burn incense and bundles of sage to ward off negative energy. I was used to being in a similar field environment but with hundreds of guys who spit tobacco, spoke openly of their sexual escapades and played video games incessantly. Is this what it looked like to be civilian woman? Is this what spirituality looked like?

Mediation was mandatory for students on campus, and the rest of the town was composed mainly of former students or longtime followers of the maharishi. Shortly after arriving, I completed an advanced meditator course and began meditating three hours a day — a habit that is still with me five years later. Every morning, I went to a dome where students, teachers and the people of Fairfield gathered to practice meditation. In the evening, we met again for another round of meditation. During my time in Fairfield, even Oprah came to meditate in the dome.

I was incredibly lucky to have supportive mentors in the Army, but Fairfield embraced me in a maternal way. I cried for hours during post-meditation reflection. I released the trauma that is familiar to every soldier who has gone to war but is rarely discussed or even acknowledged. I let go, and I blossomed. I was emancipated of the unhealthy habits of binge-drinking and co-dependency in romantic interludes, as well as a fear that I didn’t know controlled me.

Suicide and other byproducts of post-traumatic stress disorder plague the military. In 2010, a veteran committed suicide every 65 minutes. In 2012, there were more deaths by suicide than by combat. In Iraq, one of my neighbors took his M16, put it in his mouth and shot himself. Overwhelmed with PTSD-related issues from back-to-back deployments and with no clear solution to the problem, in 2012, the Defense Department began researching meditation practices to see whether they would affect PTSD. The first study of meditation and the military population, done with Vietnam veterans in 1985, had shown 70 percent of veterans finding relief, but meditation never gained in popularity nor was it offered through veterans’ services. Even in 2010, when I learned TM, the military was alien to the concept.

But today, the results of the studies showcase immense benefits for veterans. According to the journal Military Medicine, meditation has shown a 40 percent to 55 percent reduction in symptoms of PTSD and depression among veterans. Furthermore, studies show that meditation correlates with a 42 percent reduction in insomnia and a 25 percent reduction in the stress hormone cortisol in the veteran population. To complement meditation, yoga has also been embraced as a tool for treatment by the military. With the growing acceptance of holistic approaches, psychological wounds are beginning to heal.

The four-day training course to learn TM is now available at every Veterans Affairs facility for those who have PTSD or traumatic brain injury. Even medical staff and counselors who help veterans at the VA are offered training in both TM and mindfulness meditation. Additionally, Norwich University, the oldest military college in the country, has done extensive research on TM and incoming cadets, and many military installations have integrated meditation programs into their mental health services. When I had first learned to meditate, many of my active-duty friends found it a bit too crunchy. But with the military’s recent efforts at researching meditation and funding it for all veterans, the stigma is gone, and my battle buddies see meditation as a tool for building resilience.

For me, meditation has created small but significant changes. One day, while going for a walk downtown, I stopped and patted a dog. A few minutes later, I came to a halt. I realized what I had done. While in Iraq, during a month when we were under heavy mortar attack, a bomb-sniffing K-9 had become traumatized and attacked me. This, coupled with a life-long fear of dogs, had left me guarded around the canines. I touched the scar on my elbow from where the K-9 had latched on and could no longer find the fear that had been there. Soon I was shedding all the things that held me back from living my life in an entirely unforeseen way.

For the first time in my life, I found forgiveness for those who had wronged me in the past. I literally stopped to smell the flowers on my way to work every day. And I smiled. All the freaking time. I even felt smarter. Research shows that meditation raises IQ. I’m not surprised. After graduation, I went on to complete my master’s at Columbia University.

Fairfield is also home to generations of Iowans who are born there, brought up there and die there. Many of these blue-collar Midwesterners have had animosity toward the meditators. Locals felt as if their town had been overtaken. They preferred steak to quinoa, beers at the bar to yoga and pickup trucks to carbon-reducing bicycles. And with MUM having a student body from more than 100 countries, the ethnic differences were a challenge. However, things are changing. Meditators and townspeople now fill less stereotypical roles. And with the economic boom that meditating entrepreneurs have provided the town, the differences are easier to ignore.

It was strange for me to live removed from the local Iowans. When I went shopping at the only Walmart the town had, I’d see the “Wall of Heroes” — a wall of photos of veterans from Fairfield. One day, I noticed a familiar face — a soldier from my last assignment. Fairfield and other socioeconomically depressed areas are where most military recruits come from. Here I was living among them, but not moving in step with them. Having that synchronous experience made me come back full circle. When I had first learned to meditate, my teacher had asked me what my goal was. I told her, “I want to be in the world, but not of it.” And that’s exactly what I got.

For me, this little Iowan town provided a place of respite and rejuvenation. It was easy for me to trade one lifestyle of order and discipline for another, and this provided me with nourishment and an understanding of self. Nowhere else in America can you find an entire town living and breathing the principles of Eastern mysticism. It goes way beyond taking a yoga class or going to the Burning Man festival. I continue my meditation practice and am grateful for the gifts it has provided me. But in the end, my time had come, and I had to leave. As residents would say, that was just my karma.

Why some believe the Iowa caucuses have hijacked democracy


The armies of the media are gathering in the American heartland. With each new poll come shrieks of joy, or panic. When Monday night finally arrives, this first test of the candidates will be treated as an immeasurably consequential event, honored by column-miles of type and pixels, and uncountable hours of analysis—almost all of which will conceal the cold, hard reality: The Iowa caucuses have become a blight on American politics.

For 40 years, a state with an otherwise admirable civic life has been the scene of a quadrennial exercise that is the antithesis of a rational, accessible democratic process. By any measure—participation and representativeness, to mention two—it fails the most basic test of what you would want in an exercise that so dominates the attention and resources of campaigns and the media.

Iowa looks nothing like the rest of the nation, and its wintry, time-consuming caucuses make participation difficult, if not impossible, for much of the citizenry—especially those with limited economic means. The Democratic caucuses in particular take two of the core principles of a free system—the secret ballot and one-person-one-vote—and throw them away.

Indeed, if you look beyond the color and the pageantry, beyond the county fairs and butter cows, and appreciate the real workings and impact of the caucuses, you realize that Iowa is neither a useful bellwether or an important test for candidates. Moreover, there are baleful consequences of the inflated status of Iowa: It distorts the political process and leads to bad public policy.

Iowa survives and flourishes as a political ritual for the same reason that bad people remain in power and bad policies remain in place: those who benefit from it can make the cost of challenging it too high. If there is no hope of unseating the caucuses from their privileged perch, it’s at least worth understanding how we got here—and at what cost.

Iowa isn’t an immutable fact of American political life. It began its rise to outsize importance only a few decades ago, through mere happenstance. In 1968, opponents of the Vietnam War, looking to mount challenges to the policy and to President Lyndon Johnson, discovered in state after state that they were effectively shut out of the process of choosing delegates. Primaries were few, and in many states, delegates had been chosen months before, with little or no public notice. In the wake of the tumultuous, divisive Chicago Democratic National Convention, a commission was formed to propose ways of opening up the process. Many states chose the primary route; Iowa chose a different path.

For decades, Iowa parties had used a multistage caucus process to choose the state’s national convention delegates; part of a system that was also designed to let party members debate and discuss party platforms and other matters. After 1968, with national mandates requiring greater representation, Iowa Democrats changed their calendar to provide more time between each stage. Since the 1972 caucus was scheduled for May 20, that meant the first stage—precinct caucuses—had to be held four months earlier, on January 24. There was no intent to turn these caucuses into a major event on the presidential nominating calendar, but that’s what happened. Suddenly, Iowa was first. And one campaign was quick to see the possibilities.

In 1972, George McGovern, the long-shot antiwar candidate for president, was looking for a way to demonstrate that he had more support than the national polls suggested (3 percent according to a January 1972 Gallup poll). Rallying antiwar Democrats, McGovern managed to win a bit less than a quarter of Iowa’s “delegate equivalents” (a number designed to reflect a candidate’s strength at the next stage of the process, one that still sows confusion four decades later), finishing behind Ed Muskie and “Uncommitted.” Following McGovern’s eventual nomination victory, the potential power of the caucuses drew the attention of the next long-shot contender—and that’s where everything changed.

In the 1976 cycle, the cash-strapped, much-mocked campaign of Jimmy Carter targeted Iowa as the place to demonstrate early, surprising support—and it paid off when Carter won a straw poll at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Ames. The next day, R.W. “Johnny” Apple, the star political reporter of the New York Times, filed a story headlined “Carter Appears to Hold a Solid Lead in Iowa.” On caucus night, Carter won more “delegate equivalents” than any other candidate at the caucuses. Though he actually finished second, behind “Uncommitted,” he instantly turned from “Jimmy Who?” into the front-runner.

In the decades since, potential candidates have signaled their intentions by visiting Iowa at the pre-larval stage of the election calendar. Rep. Dick Gephardt, a 1988 contender, made his first visit on March 25, 1985—barely two months after Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural. This year’s current Iowa leader, Ted Cruz, made his first trip to Iowa more than two years ago, in August 2013, seven months after taking his seat as a freshman in the U.S. Senate. And unlike in the Carter-era experience, the media are now there to detect the first, faint signs of campaign activity.

For its part, while Iowa did not set out to make itself the 800-pound gorilla of presidential politics, it quickly embraced the benefits—financial, political and otherwise. This is fully understandable. What Iowan wouldn’t want the perks that come from being first? Local party officials are courted for months; local reporters are showcased in and on national media. Tens of millions of dollars pour into local radio and TV stations, hotels, restaurants, car rental offices and retail outlets, always happy to supply foul-weather gear to clueless operatives and media types who seek to navigate the elements in unlined trench coats and loafers. While the defensiveness can be grating, it’s no more so than a Kentuckian’s insistence that coal is a healthy fuel, or a New York hedge-fund big shot embracing the “carried interest” rule. It usually comes with a suggestion that critics of the caucus are contemptuous of smaller “fly-over states,” though they do not explain why the same smaller, fly-over state gets to be first every time.

Well, you might ask, what’s wrong with Iowa as the starting point of the process? It’s a state with a high literacy rate, an exceptionally high turnout rate in general elections, an un-gerrymandered congressional map, and a reputation for clean government. Its population of 3 million-plus and its location put it more or less in the middle of the country by size and site. Doesn’t it make sense to have a venue that doesn’t require millions of dollars’ worth of campaign contributions to be competitive?

To begin with, there’s the uncomfortable fact that Iowa is not really a representative state. The most obvious is demographic: It is 94 percent white, 2.8 percent black and 5.5 percent Hispanic, making it one of the five whitest states in the nation. It’s also the fourth oldest state in the union. This is one reason why a victory by Bernie Sanders in Iowa and then in New Hampshire—another very, very white state—may signal much less about the state of the Democratic Party race than first appears. As longtime Democratic operative Joe Trippi notes, “After Iowa and New Hampshire, the Democratic Primary race the rest of the way is an electorate that is 54 percent white and 46 percent minority.” Thus, a victory in Iowa (and New Hampshire) is about as unreflective a measure of Democratic sentiment as imaginable.

When it comes to the Republican side, Iowa is similarly out of phase. Some 57 percent of GOP caucus-goers consider themselves “evangelicals,” higher than any non-Southern or border state. That goes a long way toward explaining why the Rev. Pat Robertson finished ahead of the sitting vice president of the United States in 1988, why ordained minister Mike Huckabee beat Mitt Romney in 2008, and why Rick Santorum narrowly bested Romney four years ago—all candidates with scant national appeal.

Demographics, however, are the least of it. It’s the process and the timing of the caucuses—particularly the Democrats’ process—that demonstrates why this is so unsuited to the outsize role it has assumed. Together, those two factors combine in a toxic blend.

Adherents of the caucuses extol their open, freewheeling nature, where civic-minded Iowans join with each other in a celebration of democracy. But the central fact about the Iowa caucuses is that they inherently, inevitably, lead to very low turnout. Back in 2008, the last time both parties had contests, the coverage, particularly on the Democratic side, centered on Barack Obama’s ability to draw first-time participants, with much talk about the record-breaking number of participants.

And, after years of focus on Iowa, after a historic effort by the Obama campaign to draw new participants to the caucuses and a major push by evangelicals on the Republican side for Huckabee, what were the numbers? According to Thomas Patterson of the Kennedy School of Government, the combined two-party turnout amounted to just 16.3 percent of the eligible electorate. While the turnout of 350,000 was widely touted as a record-breaking showing, a Harvard Kennedy School study put that figure in context. “In percentage terms, Iowa’s turnout was hardly earthshaking—only 1 in 6 of the eligible adults participated. The Democratic winner, Barack Obama, received the votes of just 4 percent of Iowa’s eligible voters. Mike Huckabee, the Republican victor, attracted the support of a mere 2 percent of Iowa adults,” the study said. By contrast, take a look at the other massively covered early contest: The combined turnout in New Hampshire, the first primary state, was 51.9 percent.

This should surprise no one. In New Hampshire, as in any primary state, the polls are open from morning until night. You can vote on your way to work, on your lunch break, on your way to pick the kids up at school, on or way home from work; and the process will take about 10 minutes. In Iowa, you must attend in person, at night; a night that is usually freezing, if not blanketed in snow, with roads that would make the Michelin tire man quake. If you’re working the night shift—as a firefighter, waitress, nurse, maintenance worker—or if you’re a single parent of limited means, you are effectively shut out of the process. (There are no absentee ballots in a caucus). You must show up and sit through either a half hour of speeches, or—if you’re a Democrat—a process that takes hours. Why is the turnout so low, compared to a primary? Because the people of Iowa are not damned fools. They calculate the cost-benefit ratio, and the overwhelming majority of eligible participants stay home.

After all that attention, all the ads, all the visits, all the massive focus on Iowa, the actual participation rate is, or should be, an embarrassment to both parties. When it comes to the actual process of the caucuses, however, the two parties diverge sharply; and that divergence makes the Democratic Party look particularly bad.

The Republican Party from the outset recognized that the traditional purpose of the caucuses—attending to party matters—had become completely overshadowed by the presidential campaign. So it decided that the caucuses would begin with a straw poll; after listening to speeches on behalf of the candidates, attendees would scribble the name of their favorite on a piece of power, and the results would be phoned into state headquarters. It was sloppy—to this day, there are those who insist that Reagan in fact got more votes than George H.W. Bush in 1980—but it’s how we know that Huckabee outpolled Romney in 2008 by 40,481votes to Romney’s 29,949.

But the Democrats? Ah, nothing so simple, thank you. If you ask anyone, even the most esteemed Iowa expert, how many votes Obama got in 2008, that expert cannot tell you. Nobody can tell you, because the Iowa Democrats don’t count votes. Instead, they break out into candidate support groups. If the chair determines that a candidate does not have 15 percent of the caucus, that candidate is “not viable.” His or her supporters can either leave, or join another candidate’s group, whose backers importune the “non-viables” with offers of food, drink, a slot at the next convention or a bushel of corn. (A recent episode of “The Good Wife” had a colorful rendering of the process.) When the evening ends, the candidates are allotted “state delegate equivalents”—an estimation of how much strength they will have at later stages in the process. That’s why the only numbers you will find in the records of 2008 reveal that Obama got 37.58 percent of “state delegate equivalents,” John Edwards got 29.75 percent and Hillary Clinton got 29.47 percent. Did Clinton actually get fewer “votes” than Edwards, thus consigning her to third place with its attendant shame? No one knows.

Those who’ve studied this ritual are at pains to explain why the Democrats have chosen this bizarre method.

“The Democratic caucuses were never intended to be elections or straw polls,” says Hugh Winebrenner, a Drake University professor who aroused the ire of his fellow Iowans with a 1987 book that concluded that “the public interest is not well-served” by the caucuses. Winebrenner explains today: “Their purpose was to develop platform issues, select precinct officials, and select delegates to the county conventions. When the caucuses emerged as the first nominating event, the Democratic Party had to come up with ‘results,’ but they did not want to turn the event into a straw poll, so they came up with the ‘delegate equivalent’ as an outcome.” Put less kindly, Iowa Democrats lack the Republican Party’s candor in recognizing that the caucus process is not equal to the demands of presidential politics.

For anyone who persists in the Democratic caucuses seriously, three aspects of the process deserve particular scrutiny. First, it does not measure the actual level of support from living, breathing Democrats. If Martin O’Malley somehow managed to win the support of 14 percent of Iowa Democrats at every precinct caucus, he would still remain below the threshold and wind up with, literally, zero “state delegate equivalents.” Second, imagine a caucus that’s been allocated eight delegates. Under the rules, a candidate garnering 85 percent of that caucus’ participants would get all eight delegates. So if, say, 100 people show up and 86 of them back Clinton, she’d get all the delegates. But suppose she’s generating a wave of enthusiasm, and 500 people show up and most of them support her.

That’s a huge difference, but it wouldn’t change the results in the least: Unlike the GOP, there’s no individual head count. If you think this is merely hypothetical, take a look at last week’s POLITICO piece by Gabriel Debenedetti that lays out how Sanders’ huge support in college towns may do him less good than the numbers suggest, because their individual votes won’t be tabulated.

Third, it’s true many caucus-goers find the whole process of standing up for a candidate and beseeching others to join them “exciting and fun,” in the words of one academic study of the process. There are others, however, who might not want to let their political views be known to their boss, or their shop steward, or their overbearing brother-in-law, or the banker who holds their mortgage. Every genuinely free society in the world has solved this problem with a secret ballot. Today, it would be hard to find any political theorist who did not recognize the potentially chilling effect of requiring someone to publicly declare his or her political choice. If you’re an Iowa Democrat, though, you have no choice: Speak up or stay home.

OK, so the Democratic caucuses are a mathematically bizarre, anti-democratic exercise. But surely the Republican caucuses have some value?

Not so fast. For the Democrats, Iowa has had clear political consequences. John Kerry’s first-place finish in 2004 re-righted his campaign, and put him on a path to virtually unbroken primary success. (Howard Dean’s infamous “scream” happened late that night, after his collapse into third place and after he had begun cratering in New Hampshire.) In 2008, Obama’s victory shattered any notion of Clinton’s inevitability. As for the Republicans … here’s the truth that dare not speak its name: The Iowa caucuses have never had had any serious impact on the ultimate outcome.

In 1980, George H.W. Bush’s win over Reagan in Iowa was followed by a Reagan landslide in New Hampshire and then his nomination. In 1988, Bob Dole beat Bush in Iowa—before going down to defeat in New Hampshire and the subsequent nomination. In 2000, George W. Bush’s caucus win in Iowa was eclipsed by John McCain’s New Hampshire win; it took an ugly Bush victory in South Carolina to reset his campaign. And in the past two elections? Those were won by Huckabee and Rick Santorum, candidates whose victories served to demonstrate the outsize power of evangelicals in Iowa, and little more.

This year, however, may reverse the political polarities. Given Clinton’s strength in minority communities, a Sanders win in Iowa—and New Hampshire—may not produce much down the primary road, other than hysteria in some Democratic circles. As Trippi noted, her strength among minorities means that she could well become the second Democrat to lose both early contests and prevail—and the second Clinton as well. As for the Republicans, there may be an analogy to what happened in 2008 with Democrats. The most significant impact of Obama’s victory was that he showed that a black candidate could win in a virtually all-white state.

This year, the remaining skepticism about Donald Trump centers on his supporters: Will they show up? The fact that they will wait for hours in freezing weather to attend his rallies is not necessarily decisive; the question is whether they are also voters. If they turn out in Iowa, a state where logistics and the weather make participation a burden—and if they demonstrate that their intensity equals the evangelical fervor of Cruz’ supporters—that will very likely inspire Trump voters in the primary states, where participation is far less burdensome.

However February’s caucuses change the historical pattern,there is one thing that will not change: The Iowa caucuses will continue to remain the first, deeply flawed stop on the presidential campaign trail. The state could solve its quadrennial weather problem by moving the caucuses to, say, April. But then it wouldn’t be first. It could change to a primary. But then it wouldn’t be first. (Bill Gardner, who has been New Hampshire secretary of state since Daniel Webster was defending Dartmouth College, has in past cycles cheerfully announced he would move his primary to the preceding year to preserve its position.) And being first is worth tens of millions of dollars and the far more significant political benefit to Iowans of being courted for years by potential presidents. Back in 2007, Joe Biden—who did not fare well in Iowa—observed tartly: “This isn’t a caucus—it’s an industry.”

Iowa will retain its privileged position because neither major political party wants the headache of battling for a calendar change, and risking losing the state’s six competitive electoral votes. It will remain a process that persuades potential presidents to bend the knee to corn-based ethanol. (The New York Times suggests this may be changing, but Cruz, despite modifying his opposition by calling for a five-year phaseout, still faces the hostility from Gov. Terry Branstad, who wants him defeated solely on the ethanol issue. Hillary Clinton, who in 2002 called the subsidy “an astonishing new anti-consumer government mandate,” now cheerfully embraces it.) Most important, the Iowa caucuses will continue to be celebrated as a colorful, all-American exercise in democracy—an exercise that in fact is a lot closer to a political Potemkin village.

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The Stanford band made everybody furious at the Rose Bowl for the third time in four years

In 2013, Stanford went to the Rose Bowl, and their band made people upset.

In 2014, Stanford went to the Rose Bowl, and their band made people upset.

In 2016, Stanford went to the Rose Bowl to play the Iowa Hawkeyes, and guess what happened at halftime when the Hawks were down 35-0….

They played sinks and skateboards:

They brought out a cow:


They didn’t explain what the cow was — it just kinda walked around — but Iowa people sure hated it and booed.

Thanks to Pete Cuomo and Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

This already prescribed drug may also effectively treat patients infected with Ebola.

by Jennifer Brown

The recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa has claimed more than 11,300 lives—a stark reminder of the lack of effective options for treating or preventing the disease.

Progress has been made on developing vaccines, but there is still a need for antiviral therapies to protect health care workers and local populations in the event of future outbreaks.

Now, a new study suggests that gamma interferon, an FDA-approved drug, may have potential as an antiviral therapy to prevent Ebola infection when given either before or after exposure to the virus.

The findings, published in the journal PLOS Pathogens, show that gamma interferon, given up to 24 hours after exposure, inhibits Ebola infection in mice and completely protects the animals from death.

Ebola infection appears to be a stepwise process. First, the virus targets and infects macrophages or dendritic cells, two types of immune system cells found in the liver, spleen, and lymph nodes. Ebola then replicates in those cells. Following this initial infection, which happens at day 3 or 4 in non-human primates, Ebola virus is released into the blood and infects a plethora of other different cell populations.

“It goes from an early stage with a very targeted infection of only these few cell types, to everything being infected,” says Wendy Maury, professor of microbiology at the University of Iowa.

“We think what’s happening with gamma interferon is that it’s targeting macrophages and blocking the infection of those initial cell targets so you don’t get the second round of infection.”

The University of Iowa does not have a specializing BioSafety Level 4 (BSL4) lab that is required for experiment using Ebola virus, so the researchers made their initial findings using a surrogate virus, which targets and infects the same cells as Ebola, but does not cause the disease.

This Ebola lookalike—a sheep in wolf’s clothing—consists of a less dangerous vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) that expresses Ebola glycoproteins on its surface.

All of the results found using the surrogate virus were then repeated using mouse-adapted Ebola virus in the BSL4 lab of Maury’s longtime collaborator Robert Davey at Texas Biomedical Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

Gamma interferon inhibits the virus’s ability to infect human and mouse macrophages, in part by blocking virus replication in the cells. Pre-treating mice with interferon gamma 24 hours before exposure protects the animals from infection and death. The researchers were surprised to find that treatment up to 24 hours after what would have been a lethal exposure also completely protected the animals from death, and they could no longer detect any Ebola virus in the mouse’s cells.

The findings suggest that interferon gamma may be useful both as a prophylaxis and post-exposure treatment against Ebola. The team still has to determine how late gamma interferon can be given to the mice and still prevent infection. However, the results suggest a window of time after exposure when gamma interferon may be an effective antiviral therapy.

“My guess is that if you delay the gamma interferon too much, you miss this window of opportunity to block the infection in macrophage cells and the gamma interferon can no longer provide protection,” Maury says.

Maury and colleagues investigated how gamma interferon might be helping the cells fight off the Ebola virus. They identified that the expression of more than 160 genes in human macrophages is stimulated by gamma interferon. Introduction of some of these genes into cells was sufficient to prevent Ebola infection.

“This mechanistic information might suggest more precise drug targets rather than the broad effects, including adverse side-effects, that are produced by gamma-interferon,” she says.

Gamma interferon is already approved by the FDA to treat chronic granulomatous disease (an immune disease) and severe malignant osteopetrosis.

In addition to moving the studies into larger animal models, Maury next plans to study the ability of gamma interferon to inhibit Ebola infection in conjunction with other developing antivirals.

“Right now, there are no FDA-approved antiviral therapies for Ebola, but there are some being developed that target virus entry,” she says. “We know that gamma interferon blocks replication but not entry into cells. So combining an entry inhibitor with gamma interferon may allow us to reduce amount of gamma interferon needed and target two different steps in the virus’s life cycle, which has been shown in HIV to be critically important for controlling the virus.”

Exploring the Biology of Eating Disorders

With the pressure for a certain body type prevalent in the media, eating disorders are on the rise. But these diseases are not completely socially driven; researchers have uncovered important genetic and biological components as well and are now beginning to tease out the genes and pathways responsible for eating disorder predisposition and pathology.

As we enter the holiday season, shoppers will once again rush into crowded department stores searching for the perfect gift. They will be jostled and bumped, yet for the most part, remain cheerful because of the crisp air, lights, decorations, and the sound of Karen Carpenter’s contralto voice ringing out familiar carols.

While Carpenter is mainly remembered for her musical talents, unfortunately, she is also known for introducing the world to anorexia nervosa (AN), a severe life-threatening mental illness characterized by altered body image and stringent eating patterns that claimed her life just before her 33rd birthday in 1983.

Even though eating disorders (ED) carry one of the highest mortality rates of any mental illness, many researchers and clinicians still view them as socially reinforced behaviors and diagnose them based on criteria such as “inability to maintain body weight,” “undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation,” and “denial of the seriousness of low body weight” (1). This way of thinking was prevalent when Michael Lutter, then an MD/PhD student at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, began his psychiatry residency in an eating disorders unit. “I just remember the intense fear of eating that many patients exhibited and thought that it had to be biologically driven,” he said.

Lutter carried this impression with him when he established his own research laboratory at the University of Iowa. Although clear evidence supports the idea that EDs are biologically driven—they predominantly affect women and significantly alter energy homeostasis—a lack of well-defined animal models combined with the view that they are mainly behavioral abnormalities have hindered studies of the neurobiology of EDs. Still, Lutter is determined to find the biological roots of the disease and tease out the relationship between the psychiatric illness and metabolic disturbance using biochemistry, neuroscience, and human genetics approaches.

We’ve Only Just Begun

Like many diseases, EDs result from complex interactions between genes and environmental risk factors. They tend to run in families, but of course, for many family members, genetics and environment are similar enough that teasing apart the influences of nature and nurture is not easy. Researchers estimate that 50-80% of the predisposition for developing an ED is genetic, but preliminary genome-wide analyses and candidate gene studies failed to identify specific genes that contribute to the risk.

According to Lutter, finding ED study participants can be difficult. “People are either reluctant to participate, or they don’t see that they have a problem,” he reported. Set on finding the genetic underpinnings of EDs, his team began recruiting volunteers and found 2 families, 1 with 20 members, 10 of whom had an ED and another with 5 out of 8 members affected. Rather than doing large-scale linkage and association studies, the team decided to characterize rare single-gene mutations in these families, which led them to identify mutations in the first two genes, estrogen-related receptor α (ESRRA) and histone deacetylase 4 (HDAC4), that clearly associated with ED predisposition in 2013 (1).

“We have larger genetic studies on-going, including the collection of more families. We just happened to publish these two families first because we were able to collect enough individuals and because there is a biological connection between the two genes that we identified,” Lutter explained.

ESRRA appears to be a transcription factor upregulated by exercise and calorie restriction that plays a role in energy balance and metabolism. HDAC4, on the other hand, is a well-described histone deacteylase that has previously been implicated in locomotor activity, body weight homeostasis, and neuronal plasticity.

Using immunoprecipitation, the researchers found that ESRRA interacts with HDAC4, in both the wild type and mutant forms, and transcription assays showed that HDAC4 represses ESRRA activity. When Lutter’s team repeated the transcription assays using mutant forms of the proteins, they found that the ESRRA mutation seen in one family significantly reduced the induction of target gene transcription compared to wild type, and that the mutation in HDAC4 found in the other family increased transcriptional repression for ESRRA target genes.

“ESRRA is a well known regulator of mitochondrial function, and there is an emerging view that mitochondria in the synapse are critical for neurotransmission,” Lutter said. “We are working on identifying target pathways now.”

Bless the Beasts and the Children

Finding genes associated with EDs provides the groundwork for molecular studies, but EDs cannot be completely explained by the actions of altered transcription factors. Individuals suffering these disorders often experience intense anxiety, intrusive thoughts, hyperactivity, and poor coping strategies that lead to rigid and ritualized behaviors and severe crippling perfectionism. They are less aware of their emotions and often try to avoid emotion altogether. To study these complex behaviors, researchers need animal models.

Until recently, scientists relied on mice with access to a running wheel and restricted access to food. Under these conditions, the animals quickly increase their locomotor activity and reduce eating, frequently resulting in death. While some characteristics of EDs—excessive exercise and avoiding food—can be studied in these mice, the model doesn’t allow researchers to explore how the disease actually develops. However, Lutter’s team has now introduced a promising new model (3).

Based on their previous success with identifying the involvement of ESRRA and HDAC4 in EDs, the researchers wondered if mice lacking ESRRA might make suitable models for studies on ED development. To find out, they first performed immunohistochemistry to understand more about the potential cognitive role of ESRRA.

“ESRRA is not expressed very abundantly in areas of the brain typically implicated in the regulation of food intake, which surprised us,” Lutter said. “It is expressed in many cortical regions that have been implicated in the etiology of EDs by brain imaging like the prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, and insula. We think that it probably affects the activity of neurons that modulate food intake instead of directly affecting a core feeding circuit.”

With these data, the team next tried providing only 60% of the normal daily calories to their mice for 10 days and looked again at ESRRA expression. Interestingly, ESRRA levels increased significantly when the mice were insufficiently fed, indicating that the protein might be involved in the response to energy balance.

Lutter now believes that upregulation of ESRRA helps organisms adapt to calorie restriction, an effect possibly not happening in those with ESRRA or HDAC4 mutations. “This makes sense for the clinical situation where most individuals will be doing fine until they are challenged by something like a diet or heavy exercise for a sporting event. Once they start losing weight, they don’t adapt their behaviors to increase calorie intake and rapidly spiral into a cycle of greater and greater weight loss.”

When Lutter’s team obtained mice lacking ESRRA, they found that these animals were 15% smaller than their wild type littermates and put forth less effort to obtain food both when fed restricted calorie diets and when they had free access to food. These phenotypes were more pronounced in female mice than male mice, likely due to the role of estrogen signaling. Loss of ESRRA increased grooming behavior, obsessive marble burying, and made mice slower to abandon an escape hole after its relocation, indicating behavioral rigidity. And the mice demonstrated impaired social functioning and reduced locomotion.

Some people with AN exercise extensively, but this isn’t seen in all cases. “I would say it is controversial whether or not hyperactivity is due to a genetic predisposition (trait), secondary to starvations (state), or simply a ritual that develops to counter the anxiety of weight related obsessions. Our data would suggest that it is not due to genetic predisposition,” Lutter explained. “But I would caution against over-interpretation of mouse behavior. The locomotor activity of mice is very different from people and it’s not clear that you can directly translate the results.”

For All We Know

Going forward, Lutter’s group plans to drill down into the behavioral phenotypes seen in their ESRRA null mice. They are currently deleting ESRRA from different neuronal cell types to pair individual neurons with the behaviors they mediate in the hope of working out the neural circuits involved in ED development and pathology.

In addition, the team has created a mouse line carrying one of the HDAC4 mutations previously identified in their genetic study. So far, this mouse “has interesting parallels to the ESRRA-null mouse line,” Lutter reported.

The team continues to recruit volunteers for larger-scale genetic studies. Eventually, they plan to perform RNA-seq to identify the targets of ESRRA and HDAC4 and look into their roles in mitochondrial biogenesis in neurons. Lutter suspects that this process is a key target of ESRRA and could shed light on the cognitive differences, such as altered body image, seen in EDs. In the end, a better understanding of the cells and pathways involved with EDs could create new treatment options, reduce suffering, and maybe even avoid the premature loss of talented individuals to the effects of these disorders.


1. Lutter M, Croghan AE, Cui H. Escaping the Golden Cage: Animal Models of Eating Disorders in the Post-Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Era. Biol Psychiatry. 2015 Feb 12.

2. Cui H, Moore J, Ashimi SS, Mason BL, Drawbridge JN, Han S, Hing B, Matthews A, McAdams CJ, Darbro BW, Pieper AA, Waller DA, Xing C, Lutter M. Eating disorder predisposition is associated with ESRRA and HDAC4 mutations. J Clin Invest. 2013 Nov;123(11):4706-13.

3. Cui H, Lu Y, Khan MZ, Anderson RM, McDaniel L, Wilson HE, Yin TC, Radley JJ, Pieper AA, Lutter M. Behavioral disturbances in estrogen-related receptor alpha-null mice. Cell Rep. 2015 Apr 21;11(3):344-50.