The Scoop: A Publication of the University of Texas Medical School at Houston

Visual learning study challenges common belief on attention

Dr. Valentin Dragoi

Dr. Valentin Dragoi

A visual learning study by Health Science Center scientists indicates that viewers can learn a great deal about objects in their field of vision even without paying attention. The findings appeared in the April 14 print issue of the journal Current Biology.

Contrary to common belief, attention may actually impair the ability of people to draw conclusions based on the visual images or stimuli they observe, reports Dr. Valentin Dragoi, the study’s senior author and assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy.

“Even when you ignore environmental stimuli, your brain may still be sensitive to their content and store information that will influence subsequent decisions,” Dragoi said. “Paradoxically, paying attention may actually reduce learning during repeated exposure to visual images.”

This new insight into visual attention could lead to novel teaching strategies to help people with sensory impairment after stroke or attention deficit disorder, Dragoi said.

Six people participated in the multiple-day study designed to measure the ability of human subjects to process visual stimuli in the absence of attention.

Participants were asked to stare at a dot in the center of a computer monitor while paying attention to one flashing stimulus and ignoring another. To make sure they were paying attention, study subjects were asked to press the spacebar when the stimulus they were concentrating on varied in contrast.

In the subsequent sessions, participants were tested to see how well they could detect changes in the angles of the flashing stimulus at both the location they were supposed to attend and the one they were supposed to ignore. The flashing stimulus in the exposure part of the study was a circle with parallel bars. It was later replaced with 15 natural images.

“Surprisingly when subjects were tested for their ability to discriminate fine orientation differences between new stimuli, their learning performance was greater at the unattended location,” Dragoi said. “That is, ignoring the stimuli presented over days of exposure was more effective than actually attending them. We believe this finding can be explained by the fact that, typically, attention filters out unwanted stimuli so they are not consciously processed. However, in the absence of attention, stimuli are able to escape the attentional mechanisms and induce robust learning after multiple exposures.”

The next step, according to Dragoi, is to learn more about the neurophysiological mechanisms associated with this phenomenon, as well as to conduct additional experiments to investigate the generality of the findings. “The same could hold true with other sensory modalities, such as auditory or tactile,” he said.

“It is conceivable that the brain has developed mechanisms to take advantage of the signals outside the spotlight of attention… Although it is well accepted that ‘practice makes perfect,’ we show here that robust learning can arise from passive, effortless exposure to elementary stimuli,” the authors wrote.

The study, “Attention Alters Visual Plasticity During Exposure-Based Learning,” was supported by the Pew Scholars Program and the James S. McDonnell Foundation. GSBS graduate research assistant Bryan J. Hansen and former UT Medical School postdoctoral fellow Dr. Bogdan Iliescu also collaborated on the study. Iliescu is now a neurosurgery resident at the “Gh. Asachi” Medical School in Iasi, Romania.

-R. Cahill

Students head back to school to interest youth in medicine

Kenneth Barning

Brittany Serratos, secretary-elect and event chair of AMA/TMA
chapter of the Medical School (bottom center), and fellow chapter
members visit students from Wheatley High School as part of the
AMA Doctors Back to School Program.

In 2002, the American Medical Association (AMA) created a unique program called Doctors Back to School (DBTS) to address the underrepresentation of minorities among physicians and to encourage minority students to consider a career in medicine. It works by connecting current medical students with minority youth through meetings at area schools.

This year, the Medical School became involved in the program through Brittany Serratos, who recently was elected event chair of the Medical School’s Chapter of the AMA and the Texas Medical Association (TMA).

“The DBTS program immediately caught my attention,” Serratos said.

Serratos is admittedly passionate about helping under-privileged youth and has already developed an impressive philanthropic résumé. However, she also offers astounding statistics to reinforce the importance of the DBTS program.

“Although more than one-third of the U.S. population is African-American, Hispanic, or Native American, these populations only represent about 6-7 percent of health care professionals,” Serratos said.

The chapter set to work spreading this important message in February of this year. In this short time, 12 chapter members have already volunteered to share their time and this important message with students at HISD’s Wheatley, Washington, and Madison high schools.

A typical school visit begins with a general discussion of medical education and the path to medical school. The volunteer medical students then discuss practical matters, such as undergraduate and medical school applications and financial aid. If time permits, students break into small groups and one medical student works directly with them to facilitate further discussion and answer questions.

The medical students who volunteer in DBTS receive equally surprising revelations about the students they are asked to inform.

“Many of our DBTS students have had to support themselves financially and emotionally since they were children. When you are forced into adulthood this quickly, there is not time for dreaming. These students wanted facts, figures, and thorough outlines of the application process. The maturity of some of the students and their ability to realistically ponder their future not only surprised me, but impressed me as well,” Serratos said.

One of Serratos’ personal experiences during a DBTS small group session synthesizes the obstacles that led the AMA to create this program, and illustrates the crux of its success.

“We had separated into small groups, and I was talking to three girls about what type of doctor they wanted to be and what obstacles they faced personally. One of the girls asked me how much I was getting paid to be there. When I told her that I was volunteering my time because I cared about her future, the look on her face was priceless. I offered her my e-mail address at the end, and she contacted me that day.

“As cliché as it sounds, sometimes these kids just need someone from the outside world who genuinely cares about others to step into their world, acknowledge their obstacles, and provide them with the education, confidence, and strength to make that difference in their future,” Serratos said.

Serratos encourages her classmates to join the organization’s worthy efforts.

“If you want to really make a difference and reach out to a community that needs you, please join our chapter and volunteer for DBTS,” she said.

- D. Heeth

Anderson wins prestigious award from Journal of the American College of Cardiology

Dr. H. Vernon Anderson

Dr. H. Vernon Anderson

Dr. H. Vernon Anderson, professor of medicine, has been chosen out of thousands of researchers who review manuscripts for the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC) to receive the Simon Dack Award.

“The editors have placed Dr. Anderson’s evaluations at the highest in terms of critical thinking, constructive comments, and value in reaching a decision relative to competing papers,” said Dr. Anthony DeMaria, editor-in-chief of JACC.

A researcher who evaluates manuscripts for the journal must consider the science of the paper and the potential clinical relevance and interest to readers. Dr. Simon Dack was the founder of JACC and its editor-in-chief for more than 30 years.

“This award represents a major acknowledgement for Dr. Anderson in spearheading scientific peer review,” said Dr. David McPherson, professor and James T. and Nancy B. Willerson Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine. “Dr. Anderson is an outstanding physician, researcher, and teacher.”

In 2007, Anderson, who is an interventional cardiologist, was voted Teacher of the Year by the cardiology fellows at the Medical School. Anderson joined the faculty in 1990.

His current research interests include reperfusion in acute myocardial infarction, antiplatelet and antithrombin therapies in acute coronary syndromes, and quality of care and evidence-based medicine in coronary artery disease.

Anderson is the author of 95 abstracts, 81 articles, 31 reviews and editorials, and 23 book chapters.

-M. McDonald

Antibody named Molecule of the Year

Dr. Sudhir Paul

Dr. Sudhir Paul

Dr. Sudhir Paul, director of the Clinical Immunology and Therapeutics Research Center, along with his research team, recently received the award for Molecule of the Year 2008 in recognition of their groundbreaking work toward a cure for HIV. This award is perhaps especially meaningful to Paul and his team because it was bestowed upon them by their peers at the International Society for Molecular and Cell Biology and Biotechnology Protocols and Researches (ISMCBBPR).

Paul and his team of researchers — including Stephanie Planque, Yasuhiro Nishiyama, Hiroaki Taguchi, Maria Salas, and Carl Hanson — co-authored the study “Catalytic antibodies to HIV: Physiological role and potential clinical utility last year.” The study revealed the team’s discovery of the anti-SAG 421-433 catalytic IgA molecule, an HIV antibody capable of fragmenting and destroying the function of the virus.

Although the molecule is technically the winner of the ISMCBBPR’s annual award, it will no doubt share the limelight with the dedicated team of UT researchers at the Health Science Center who are harnessing the power of this tiny molecule to make enormous strides in the fight to better manage, further prevent, and ultimately cure HIV.

-D. Heeth

Interdisciplinary Team Competition focuses on disaster preparedness

The Houston Geriatric Education Center (HGEC) is hosting its second annual Interdisciplinary Team Competition 5:30 - 7:30 p.m., Monday, April 20.

Two teams of students from various fields of study (pharmacy, social work, public health, medicine, nursing, dentistry, dental hygiene, physical and occupational therapy, and health informatics) will be judged on their ability to develop and present a plan for disaster preparedness for community dwelling elders.

The competition will be held in the 1st Floor Auditorium of the UTHSC-H School of Nursing and Student Community Center. A reception honoring the participants will be held immediately following the competition.

For more details, contact Kyler Godwin at 713.500.9170.

12th annual Sprint for Life Run/Walk supports ovarian cancer research

M. D. Anderson's Gynecologic Oncology Department will host the 12th annual Sprint for Life 5K Run and Walk and Sprint for Sprouts Kids' Run May 9, an event dedicated to raising funds for ovarian cancer research and building awareness about the risk factors and symptoms of the disease.

This year's event will be hosted on the campus of M. D. Anderson and will begin at 7:30 a.m., followed by the Sprint for Sprouts Kids' Run at 9 a.m.

Online registration is available through May 6. To join the Medical School’s team, specify “UT-Houston Medical School” when registering.

    Registration prices
  • $25 for the 5K Non-Competitive Run/Walk (time will not be recorded)
  • $28 for the 5K Competitive Run (price includes disposable timing tag)
  • $15 for Sprint for Sprouts, 12 years and younger (time will not be recorded)

For those who cannot attend, you can still show support by registering online by April 24 and selecting "Sprinting in Spirit." A "Spirit" packet — a Sprint T-shirt, pin, shoelaces, and race number — will be mailed for a contribution of $50.

For further information, call 713.792.2765, visit the Sprint for Life Web site, or e-mail Kellie Reed.


Out in the sun

First-year students from the Baylor College of Medicine enjoy class in the sunshine at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston's Webber Plaza.

First-year students from the Baylor College of Medicine enjoy class in the sunshine at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston's Webber Plaza.


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Events to Know

April 16

Neurobiology and Anatomy Seminar Series: Dr. Donald Wilson (New York Univ. School of Medicine) presents “Cortical Plasticity and Odor Perception.”
3 p.m., MSB 2.103.

Microbiology and Molecular Genetics Seminar Series: Dr. Scott Hultgren (Washington University School of Medicine) presents E. coli biofilms, bottlenecks and host responses in urinary tract infections.”
4 p.m., MSB 3.301.

April 17

Neurology Grand Rounds: Dr. Randy Evans presents “Post-Traumatic Headaches Among United States Soldiers Injured in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Noon, MSB 2.135.

Next” — Book Review and Discussion led by Dr. John H. Wilson (Baylor).
Noon, Houston Academy of Medicine–Texas Medical Center Library, Street Level Conference Room. Lunch will be served to the first 25 individuals to register. For further information and to register, call 713.799.7139.

April 20

Quarterly meeting of the MSRDP Board of Directors
3 - 5 p.m., MSB 2.103. All clinical faculty invited to attend.

April 21

Department of Internal Medicine Grand Rounds: Dr. Ilan Nevah, assistant professor of internal medicine, presents “Hepatitis C Virus.”
Noon - 1 p.m., MSB 2.103.

April 22

The Fourth Annual Louis A. Faillace Lecture: Dr. James Scully, (American Psychiatric Association) presents “The Workforce in Psychiatry:How Many Do We Need?”
1 p.m., MSB 3.001. Hosted by the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

April 23

Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences: Dr. Rodrigo Hasbun, associate professor of internal medicine, presents “Aseptic Meningoenecphalitis Syndrome in Adults.”
Noon - 1 p.m., UTPB, Suite 1100. Contact Linda Gilbert.

April 24

Center for Nursing Research Seminar Series: Dr. Terri Armstrong, associate professor of integrative nursing care, presents “Symptom Clusters: An Illustration of the Process of Instrument Development and Assessment in Neuro-Oncology.”
Noon – 1 p.m., SON 508.

April 27

Dean’s Town Hall meeting.
Noon, MSB 3.001 and at LBJ, COS 101, via live webcast (room change from Room 210).
Lunch available for first 100 at Medical School and first 20 at LBJ. Questions may be e-mailed in advance to

April 28

Department of Internal Medicine Grand Rounds: Dr. Gazala Siddiqui, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology, presents “Update in Urinary Incontinence.”
Noon - 1 p.m., MSB 2.103.

April 29

Family & Community Medicine Grand Rounds: Dr. P. Syamasundar Rao, professor of pediatrics and medicine, presents “Pediatric Heart Murmurs: How to Evaluate and When to Refer.”
1 - 2 p.m., MSB 2.135.

April 30

Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences: Dr. Lorraine Frazier, professor of nursing systems, School of Nursing, presents “CCTS Biobank Opportunities.”
Noon - 1 p.m., UTPB, Suite 1100. Contact Linda Gilbert.

May 1–2

Spring Musculoskeletal Update Course, sponsored by the Medical School and Memorial Hermann–TMC. Memorial Hermann Conference Room.

May 10

Art Wall deadline for submission for fall exhibit.

May 14

Dean’s Teaching Excellence Award Ceremony.
3:30 – 6 p.m., Fifth Floor Gallery.

May 21

Microbiology and Molecular Genetics Seminar Series: Dr. Masaya Fujita (University of Houston) presents “Systems analysis of Bacillus subtilis sporulation initiation network.”
4 p.m., MSB 3.301.


Kevin Dillon, M.B.A., C.P.A., executive vice president, chief operating and financial officer of the Health Science Center, recently shared with University of Houston students his observations “from the front” about health care economics and possibilities for reform. Dillon was a guest lecturer in Professor Will Dickey’s undergraduate course, “Social Work with Latino Immigrants,” April 9.

Dr. Sam Luber has been named the new program director of the Department of Emergency Medicine training program. Luber is currently an assistant program director at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas and plans to join the Medical School this summer.

Scoop is a weekly electronic newsletter providing timely information to the Medical School.

Submit event items or news tips for Scoop by noon on Thursday preceding the week of publication in which you would like your event or news to appear (seven days in advance).

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