The Heart-Brain Connection: The Link between LQTS and Seizures

brain and heart interactions concept best teamwork

In a study published this week in Neurology, researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center found a clear association between the heart and the brain in patients with a rare cardiac disease called Long QT Syndrome (LQTS). Patients carrying LQTS genetic mutations were three times more likely to have experienced seizures in their past, compared to their family members who did not carry any LQTS mutations. Interestingly, LQTS patients who had a history of seizures also tended to have worse cardiac symptoms with about 20% having survived at least one lethal cardiac arrhythmia in their life.

Lead author, David Auerbach, Ph.D., senior instructor of Medicine in the Aab Cardiovascular Research Institute of the University of Rochester Medical Center, set a new clinical precedence for the link between seizures and LQTS with this study. He believes this provides a case for doctors to pay more attention to what is happening in LQTS patients’ brains or, more broadly, to “look outside the classic organ of interest” in any disease.

As a postdoctoral fellow, Auerbach studied the heart-brain connection in a severe genetic form of epilepsy, and found that cardiac arrhythmias were one cause of sudden unexplained death in people with epilepsy. When he came to URMC, he began investigating the converse – whether a genetic heart disorder was also associated with issues in the brain.

David Auerbach, PhD

In a KL2 Career Development project funded by the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at URMC, Auerbach tapped into the Rochester-based LQTS Patient Registry to answer this question. This unique resource was developed 40 years ago by the senior author of the study, Arthur Moss, M.D., Bradford C. Berk, MD, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Medicine at URMC. The registry contains information about more than 18,000 people including LQTS patients and their affected and unaffected family members, who provide a nearly ideal group of controls. “In essence, they have the same genetic makeup, except theoretically, the LQTS-causing mutation,” says Auerbach.

Auerbach and his colleagues found that patients with the three different types of LQTS (LQTS1-3) showed similar heart rhythm symptoms, but vastly different prevalence of seizures. LQTS1 and LQTS2 patients had much higher prevalence of seizures than LQTS3 or no mutation – with LQTS2 at the greatest risk.

Further investigation of the LQTS-causing mutation showed that the specific location of the mutation greatly affected the risk of cardiac arrhythmias and seizures.  In one location on the gene, the mutation protected against these symptoms, but in another location on the same gene, the mutation increased the risk of those symptoms. Understanding what each of these mutations does may shed new light on a basic mechanism of seizures and may inform LQTS treatments in the future.

To read the full study, click here.


This study involved a multi-disciplinary, collaborative effort of authors from the Departments of Medicine-Heart Research, Medicine-Aab Cardiovascular Research Institute, Neurology, and Pharmacology/Physiology at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

The University of Rochester Medical Center is home to approximately 3,000 individuals who conduct research on everything from cancer and heart disease to Parkinson’s, pandemic influenza, and autism. Spread across many centers, institutes, and labs, our scientists have developed therapies that have improved human health locally, in the region, and across the globe. To learn more, visit

CTSI Faculty Pilot Project Identifies New Hearing Test for Autism Risk

A new study born out of a Faculty Pilot project funded by the Clinical and Translational Science Institute may offer a new way to screen very young children for Autism. The study, which was published in the journal Autism Research, shows that children with Autism may have inner ear deficiencies that impact their ability to recognize speech.

Child in a hearing test

Many signs of Autism, such as social-communication impairments and restricted and repetitive behaviors, are present before age two, but most children with ASD are not diagnosed until age four. Most tests for ASD look for abnormalities in auditory communication and rely on speech to determine these abnormalities. Since speech delays are common among children affected by ASD, these tests are often ineffective.

Anne Luebke, Ph.D., associate professor in the University of Rochester Medical Center Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience and study co-author, believes that the hearing test described in the study may lead to earlier ASD diagnoses and treatment, which will optimize the impact of the treatment.

In the study, researchers used speaker/microphone earplugs to measure hearing deficiencies in children between the ages of 6 and 17, roughly half of whom have been diagnosed with ASD. They found that the children with Autism showed signs that the ear was having difficulty processing sounds at a specific frequency (1-2 kHz) that is important for processing speech.  They also found a correlation between the degree of hearing impairment and the severity of ASD symptoms.

Loisa Bennetto, Ph.D., associate professor in the University of Rochester Department Of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology and a co-author of the study, suggests that difficulty in processing speech could contribute to some symptoms of ASD. “Consequently, early detection could help identify risk for Autism and enable clinicians to intervene early and correct impairment with hearing aids or other approaches that can improve the range of sounds that the ear can process,” she says.

Because the test is non-invasive, inexpensive, and does not require the subject to respond verbally, the team is currently exploring ways to adapt this technique to screen infants.


Luebke and Bennetto received a Faculty Pilot Award from the UR CTSI in 2010 to study cochlear efferent feedback in Autism. 

New Study: Race, Not Gender, is Key Factor in NIH Funding

ThinkstockPhotos-87671566A new study in Academic Medicine has found that race, not gender, is the most significant factor influencing funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The study, led by University of Kansas economist, Donna Ginther, PhD, demonstrated that women of color were less likely to receive NIH funding compared with Caucasian women.

This research follows Ginther’s 2011 study on “Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards”, which showed that Asian and African American applicants were less likely to be awarded NIH research grants than Caucasian peers from similar backgrounds and with similar qualifications regardless of gender. In the current study, Ginther and her colleagues set out to identify possible “double binds”, or additional barriers, that Asian and African American women may face when applying for NIH funding.

Although researchers self-identify race, ethnicity, and gender, on grant applications, this information is removed prior to peer review. Nonetheless, applications may contain biographical features that provide clues to the applicant’s racial or gender identity. Ginther and her colleagues analyzed gender, race, professional degree, and level of experience of R01 awardees from 2000 – 2006.

Study results showed a lower probability of obtaining NIH grant funding among Asian and African American women PhDs and African American women MDs, compared to Caucasian women MDs and PhDs. Caucasian women were also just as likely as Caucasian men to obtain an R01. In fact, the study showed no disadvantage for women when race was not taken into account, suggesting that race/ethnicity plays a larger role than gender in NIH funding disparities.

While gender was not a factor in probability of securing NIH funding, the study reported that women submitted fewer applications and were more likely than men to drop out of the R01 applicant pool after a single, unsuccessful application. These trends are supported by previous studies and may explain why women constitute only about 30% of overall research project grant Principle Investigators (PIs), and only about 20% of NIH research center and small business research program PIs.

While the biomedical research workforce is becoming more diverse, certain racial/ethnic groups, women, and people with disabilities remain underrepresented. In 2010 African Americans comprised 12.6% of the U.S. population, but only accounted for 1.1% of scientists who received research project grants from the NIH. In comparison, Caucasians made up 72.4% of the general population and 71% of the NIH-funded scientists pool.

The findings from this study highlight the importance of addressing the racial gap among NIH awards. Researchers from under-represented populations should be encouraged to take advantage of various NIH mechanisms, such as the National Research Mentoring Network and the Women of Color Research Network, to obtain mentorship and professional development.

REDCap Tip of the Month: Adding Progress Bars in REDCap

Having a progress bar can be a nice visual aid for survey respondents and may help reduce survey dropout. REDCap doesn’t have the capability to create a progress bar out of the box, but you can add one with some clever use of HTML.

The following HMTL can be cut and pasted into any section of REDCap that accepts HTML. However, we do recommend that you use either a section header or a descriptive field for your progress bar.

Progress Bar

To create a custom progress bar, change the value of the bolded text in a HTML statement to the percentage you want. We do recommend you start with a progress of 2% instead of 0% in order to alert your participants to the existence of a progress bar.

Additionally, you change the color of the progress bar by changing the background color values. See a list of web-safe colors and their hex values (i.e. #8491A2).

This tip of the month was based on an idea by Luke Stevens of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia.


This is a running update of the REDCap tip of the month provided by the University of Washington Institute of Translational Health Sciences. To read more tips on the ITHS website, click here.

UR CTSI Welcomes New Medical Students in the Academic Research Track

Each year, the University of Rochester Clinical and Translational Science Institute (UR CTSI) funds a handful medical students during a mentored “year-out” for research experience.  The Academic Research Track (ART) program offers students who are interested in pursuing research as part of their careers the opportunity to delve into basic, clinical, educational, or translational research through seminars, mentored research and an enriched medical school curriculum.

This highly competitive program offers NIH-level stipends with some additional funds to support students’ research projects. The UR CTSI also offers tuition reimbursement for funded scholars who wish to pursue a Master’s Degree at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry concurrent with their year of research.

The new crop of ART scholars are now underway with a variety of research projects:

IanDeandreaLazarus2Ian De Andrea-Lazarus will be studying “Early Life Lead Exposure and Executive Functions Using the Stroop Day-Night Task” under the mentorship of Todd Jusko, Ph.D., during his year out.

Ian grew up in Bergenfield, NJ, and earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with a minor in Chemistry at Gallaudet University, where he graduated summa cum laude and with University Capstone Honors. He is currently pursuing dual M.D./M.P.H. degrees at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry (UR SMD).

Ian has demonstrated a keen interest in biomedical research since his undergraduate studies, conducting research in linguistic analysis at Gallaudet, and population health in the National Center for Deaf Health Research at UR CTSI. After graduating from Gallaudet, Ian studied thermoregulation and pain receptors associated with cancer during a two year Post-baccalaureate fellowship in the Laboratory of Cancer Biology and Genetics at National Cancer Institute while teaching Psychology as an adjunct professor at Gallaudet University.

Ian’s career goals are vast and varied. He has a passion for medicine – with an eye on neurosurgery, neurology, or psychiatry as a specialty – but he also considers himself an innovator. As a Deaf scholar, he is trying to develop new technologies to provide live captioning and interpretation for Deaf or Hard of Hearing individuals when interacting with hearing individuals – something a Deaf physician may have to do dozens of times a day.

Chase Kwon_Headshot1Chase Kwon, mentored by Lisa Beck, M.D., will implement, “A Systems Biology Approach to Identify Determinants of Staphylococcus Aureus Colonization in Atopic Dermatitis” during his ART study.

Chase grew up in Fort Lee, NJ, and attended Cornell University, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Biological Sciences in 2012. As an undergraduate, he worked in the Cerione Lab at Cornell, examining the role of a novel cellular signaling pathway in the transformation of healthy cells to cancerous cells.

Chase will return to his fourth year of medical school at URSMD after his year of research experience in the ART program. In the future, he hopes to pursue a career in academic medicine, combining his passion for clinical dermatology, medical education, and scientific research.

MagnoJinno Jinno (Tony) Magno, under the supervision of Jessica Shand, M.D., M.H.S., will study “HMGB1 modulation of inflammation and immune responses in MLL rearranged infant acute lymphoblastic leukemia”.

Tony grew up in Florence, CO, and graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 2012 with a dual Bachelor of Arts in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology and Integrative Physiology. While pursuing his undergraduate degree, he conducted two research projects that gave him experience in both basic and population-based research.

At UC Boulder, Tony studied signaling pathways that influenced the development of neurons that play a major role in anxiety and depression. Shortly thereafter, he teamed up with the Colorado Area Health Education Centers to investigate whether health care education programs for high school and undergraduate students could increase the number of healthcare providers from rural and underrepresented backgrounds.

As a third year medical student, Tony has been conducting research related to his ART project for the past several years at URSMD. His research focuses on the role of a specific inflammatory molecule in treatment resistance of a deadly childhood cancer, called Mixed Lineage Leukemia-rearranged infant acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Developing drugs that target this inflammatory molecule – or other molecules in its signaling pathway – may help eradicate this cancer in affected children.

headshotWeisenthal1Sam Weisenthal will conduct an ART research project titled, “Using machine learning to predict ICU readmissions 48 hours before they occur”, under the mentorship of Martin Zand, M.D., Ph.D., while pursuing a Master’s degree in Data Science.

 Sam grew up in Syracuse, NY, and graduated magna cum laude from nearby Hamilton College with departmental honors and a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics in 2013. He is also a member of the Phi Beta Kappa academic honor and Sigma Xi scientific research societies.

After college, Sam received an intramural research training award (IRTA) from the National Institutes of Health for which he helped build an open-source system to monitor the amount of X-ray radiation a patient receives during a CT scan. He also recently received funding from the Office of Medical Education to analyze text data via topic modeling.

During his undergraduate career, Sam had several volunteer experiences that allowed him to interact with patients. These experiences and the prospect of analyzing large amounts of electronic medical record data drew him to a career in medicine. Ultimately, he would like to marry his love of math, computer science, and medicine as a clinician and data analyst.


Under-Represented Scientists Stay in the Game with Help from the National Research Mentoring Network

The biomedical sciences have struggled with diversity for a long time. Research shows that many groups who are under-represented in the general population, are even further under-represented in the biomedical science workforce. In fact, one study found that black scientists were less likely to receive NIH funding than their white peers who had similar training experiences, publication records and educational backgrounds.

To combat this, the NIH developed a Diversity Program Consortium that administers the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN). The network consists of biomedical professionals and institutions that offer mentorship and professional development to mentors and trainees from under-represented racial and ethnic groups, those with disabilities or who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) in the biomedical, behavioral, clinical, and social sciences.

Multi-ethnic Diverse Group of People In Circle

NRMN currently connects about 1,300 mentees and 740 mentors across the nation through in-person and virtual mentoring programs and offers a valuable wealth of resources regarding coaching on grant writing and mentor training. The nationwide mentoring initiative behind NRMN seeks to increase under-represented trainees’ access to quality mentors from diverse groups and backgrounds – “across race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, able-ism, and geography”.

Vivian Lewis M.D., vice provost for Faculty Development & Diversity and professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at URMC, knows that culturally responsive mentoring is key to the success of any researcher.  But she also knows that “just being a good researcher doesn’t make you a good mentor automatically. Here at University of Rochester we’ve had a lot of experience training mentors.”  

In fact, Lewis leads the UR Mentors program that offers support and training to faculty across the university, including those in biomedical research, on how to be an effective mentor. One of the program’s major initiatives is to discuss the role of diversity and bias in the mentor-protégé relationship and understand the implications. Through the program, faculty gain confidence, knowledge, and skills to help them give their protégés the best leg up.

URMC also collaborates with Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically black college that is a NRMN academic partner and is funded by NRMN’s sister program, Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD).  Many of Xavier’s pre-medical and pharmacy students have trained at University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry over the years, but fewer biomedical research students have taken advantage of that partnership. Lewis hopes to recruit more under-represented students to come to URMC for mentored research experiences and to forge more faculty research collaborations through the NRMN partnership with Xavier.

John Cullen, PhD., director of Diversity and Inclusion at the CTSI and coordinator of Outreach in the Susan B. Anthony Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center, recently signed up to be a NRMN mentor and encourages both trainees and faculty to join the network.  He cautions, “though the NRMN website primarily focuses on mentorship, it is extremely important for under-represented trainees to sign up as mentees. Anyone from undergraduates up through junior faculty can join as a mentee.”

To access NRMN’s mentor training resources, click here. To join NRMN as a mentor or mentee, click here.

CTSI in the News


A reporter from the Rochester Business Journal recently caught up with CTSI co-director Karl Kieburtz, M.D., M.P.H., to talk about what the CTSI has been up to in the past 10 years.

The CTSI’s new focus on bioinformatics – using digital technology to collect and analyze massive amounts of data – was the major focus of the article.  Over the past ten years, the CTSI researchers have kept pace with the boom in new technologies like FitBits and smartphones, and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter by using these technologies as research tools. Several research project in the Center for Human Experimental Therapeutics, which is tightly integrated with the CTSI, utilize these technologies to track aspects of physical and psychological health of individual patients or entire populations.

Recognizing the opportunity and burden presented by rapidly collect enormous amounts of data, the CTSI has forged new partnerships with bioinformatics groups across the University of Rochester, including the Goergen Institute for Data Science. Providing easily accessible bioinformatics resources to help researchers perform informatics-related projects is one of the CTSI’s new major aims.

Kieburtz, who is also the senior associate dean of Clinical Research and Robert J. Joynt Professor of Neurology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, also highlighted the recent change in the CTSI’s administrative structure – doing away with the typical hierarchy with a single administrator at the top in favor of a three equal partners directing the institute. As Kieburtz pointed out, he and his two co-directors, Martin Zand, M.D., professor of Nephrology and Public Health Sciences at URMC, and Nancy Bennett, M.D., director of the Center for Community Health and professor of Medicine and Public Health Sciences at URMC, all have different areas of expertise.  Each brings something special to the table, fostering the spirit of innovation and collaboration that is endemic to the CTSI.

To read the full Rochester Business Journal article, click here.

Supplemental Funding from the NIH Promotes Diversity in Research

The National Science Foundation has shown that individuals from certain racial and ethnic groups, including Black/African Americans, Hispanics or Latinos, American Indians or Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders are greatly underrepresented in health sciences across the nation. In addition, individuals with physical or mental disabilities or who come from disadvantaged backgrounds experience significant barriers to joining the health science research workforce.

Smiling technician using microscope in laboratory

Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research from the National Institutes of Health are designed to create a pipeline for under-represented individuals to help them overcome those barriers.  Investigators with current NIH grants may apply for supplemental funding to recruit or retain under-represented trainees at various stages in their career, from high school students to early career principal investigators.

NIH Diversity Supplements foster the recruitment of the most talented researchers from all backgrounds, which in turn improves our ability to recruit research participants from diverse backgrounds to better address and eliminate health disparities among under-represented populations. Workforce diversity in health research will also improve training environments by inviting a greater range of ideas and balancing perspectives to address research questions and determine research priorities.

In order to apply for the Diversity Supplement, investigators should have at least 2 years remaining on existing NIH grants to support a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow, or at least 1 year remaining for high school, undergraduate, or post-baccalaureate student support.

Diversity Supplements are supported using funds specifically set aside for this purpose and thus can be approved by NIH Project Officers without peer review. This significantly expedites the review process and removes yet another barrier to funding for under-represented individuals.

Many Institutes or Centers accept these applications on a rolling basis, though some may have specific application deadlines. Applicants are strongly urged to consult the following Program Announcement (PA-15-322) for guidance and should contact their program officer prior to submitting an application.

For more information, contact John P. Cullen, Ph.D., CTSI Director of Diversity and Inclusion.

Tackling US Veteran’s Issues

Saunders Vet Wall

“Let us never forget the sacrifices made by our veterans and their families, and may the research within this building bring healing to them and others.” – E. Phillip Saunders

This Memorial Day, while we celebrate and honor the many Americans who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country, we are also reminded of the many issues faced by our veterans who have returned home.

When Phillip Saunders donated $10 million to the University of Rochester Medical Center for the construction of a new home for clinical and translational research, he stipulated that the building, which now bears his name, honor U.S. armed forces. Visitors of the Saunders Research Building may recognize the Veteran Memorial Wall, which is prominently displayed in the building’s atrium.

Because the CTSI has benefited from Saunders’ generosity and dedication to clinical and translational research, and in order to promote new collaborations among researchers at the VA and URMC, the fall CTSI Seminar Series will honor his request by highlighting veteran research occurring at the University of Rochester, the Rochester Outpatient Clinic/Canandaigua Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center, and across the country.

The series will explore research on veteran’s issues such as combating insomnia, preventing suicide, and managing pain. Other topics will include opportunities for research collaborations with the VA, how to improve the quality and evaluation of extended care for veterans, and how to become a VA researcher.

More information about the seminar series, which begins in September, will be included in the CTSI Weekly Update in the near future.

Click here to sign up for the CTSI Weekly Update.

Closing out Mental Health Awareness Month

As we near the end of Mental Health Awareness Month, the CTSI would like to highlight some mental health research projects it has funded in the past 10 years.


Mental Health Awareness Month is the longest running national initiative of Mental Health America. Every May since 1949, has been dedicated to fighting damaging stigma about mental illnesses while fostering awareness that these illnesses are real and treatable. The organization also provides tools to help connect people in need with services and treatment for their mental illnesses.

The following are just a sampling of the many mental health research projects the CTSI has supported.

Megan Lytle

Megan Lytle, Ph.D.

In 2014,  Megan Lytle, Ph.D., senior instructor of Psychiatry Research at the University of Rochester Medical Center, was funded by the KL2 Career Development Program to investigate health disparities in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities with a focus on suicide prevention. While the precursor risks for suicide are similar among different groups, members of diverse LGBT populations tend to have a high burden for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.

Lytle and her mentor, Vincent Silenzio, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor of Psychiatry Research, Family Medicine, and Public Health Sciences at URMC, delved into the racial, ethnic, and religious diversity within the LGBT community. Across the board, LGB individuals were more likely than heterosexuals to report self-harm, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and depression. They also found that transgender individuals, were at higher risk for suicidal behaviors – especially if they also identified as LGB or a racial/ethnic minority.

Anthony Pisani

Anthony R. Pisani, Ph.D.

Another KL2 scholar, Anthony R. Pisani, Ph.D, associate professor of Psychiatry (Psychology) and Pediatrics at URMC, investigated the role of emotion regulation and connectedness at home, school, and community in adolescent suicide attempts.

Under the mentorship of Peter Wyman, Ph.D., professor of Psychiatry at URMC, Pisani found that students from rural and underserved areas who had strategies for recovering from emotional upset and connections with ‘trusted adults’ across different settings in their lives had few suicide attempts. This finding built on Pisani’s previous work showing that, among students who had seriously considered suicide, there was a greater likelihood of disclosing thoughts and seeking help if students held positive social norms about help-seeking and about the capability of adults at school to help students with serious problems. Most notably, these norms predicted help-seeking disclosure even after controlling for depression and demographic factors. These studies helped to bring a greater attention to social factors in adolescent suicide, where the focus traditionally has been on individual factors or symptoms.

Kimberly Van Orden

Kimberly Van Orden, Ph.D.

Kimberly Van Orden, Ph.D., assistant professor of Psychiatry Research at URMC, was also funded by a KL2 award in 2012 to study the role of social connectedness in preventing late-life suicide under the mentorship of Yeates Conwell, M.D., professor of Geriatric Psychiatry at URMC. Van Orden has found that suicide among the elderly may be linked to feelings of loneliness and perceiving themselves to be a burden on others, and that increasing social connectedness may combat this. She is currently testing interventions to target loneliness and perceived burden, including peer companionship and psychotherapy.


Beau Abar, Ph.D.

The CTSI has also funded – and is currently funding – research regarding the mental health of the elderly.

Currently, KL2 scholar Beau Abar, Ph.D., assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at URMC, is trying to identify and eliminate barriers to treatment for depression in older adults. His work is focused on testing a variety of barriers to care for depression using an experimental design.

Adam Simning

Adam Simning, M.D., Ph.D.

Adam Simning, M.D., Ph.D., Psychiatry resident at URMC, performed a cross-sectional study of 190 public housing residents 60 years and older in Rochester for his Ph.D. dissertation, which was funded by the CTSI and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Under the mentorship of Edwin van Wijngaarden, Ph.D., associate professor of Public Health Sciences, and Yeates Conwell, M.D., professor of Psychiatry, Dr. Simning found that mental illness was common among older adults in Rochester public housing, but was largely untreated. Based on their findings, Dr. Simning recommended multidisciplinary collaborative care approaches to address these complex issues in the future.