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Research Roundup
September 30, 2008, Volume 55, No. 6

Is the US Ready for a Woman President?

After Senator John McCain chose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate on August 29, 2008, self-identified Republicans and Independents are significantly more likely to think that the United States is ready to elect a president who is a woman, according to the National Annenberg Election Survey. Governor Palin is the first woman the Republican Party has nominated to run on a national ticket.

The findings, released September 9 are based on across-time analyses of the 10 days prior and 10 days after. The percent of Republicans thinking that the US is ready to elect a president who is a woman jumped almost 10 percent (9.7%) after the introduction of Governor Sarah Palin while independents jumped 8.4 percent. Both increases are statistically significant. There was not a statistically significant shift among Democrats on this question.

Data for this study were collected between August 1 and September 7, 2008 from 8,974 adults in the United States.

Philanthropists Share Charitable-Giving Approaches

A sizable percentage of high-net-worth givers do not see themselves as philanthropists even though each gives away about a million dollars or more annually. That is among the findings of a study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy (CHIP).

The CHIP study involved structured interviews with 33 anonymous high-net-worth individuals, each capable of giving $1 million annually. “I’m Not Rockefeller: 33 High Net Worth Philanthropists Discuss Their Approach to Giving” examines how these people approach their charitable giving.

Researchers found a set of diverse and evolving practices, a strong reliance on peers for information, a narrow and negative view of evaluation and difficulty exiting established relationships with non-profits, even when the philanthropist felt it was the right thing to do.
And about a third of the study participants did not view themselves as “philanthropists,” despite their considerable generosity.

“Several participants said things like, ‘I’m a really nice guy who gives money to charities. I don’t think that makes me a philanthropist,’” Katherina Rosqueta, CHIP executive director, said.

“Or, ‘the word “philanthropist” still cracks me up because it sounds so hoity-toity. I’m not Rockefeller.’ This, despite the fact that their giving is much greater than the average charitable contribution of the top US income group,” Ms. Rosqueta said.

The study offers implications for those working to improve philanthropic effectiveness.

“The good news,” Ms. Rosqueta said, “is that these philanthropists are capable of giving much more than they do, and many acknowledge that. The bad news is that the lack of time and trusted resources mean that, despite their good intentions, many just sit on the capital because they don’t feel confident about making smart decisions. Unless we can figure out ways to get them to make good decisions faster, we will be missing out on a lot of good that this latent capital could create.”

The study’s findings, key themes and implications for the field are available from the Center’s website: www.impact.upenn.edu.

Tolerance of Mental Illness the Same as 10 Years Ago

A new study by Dr. Jason Schnittker, associate professor of sociology, shows that, while more Americans believe that mental illness has genetic causes, the nation is no more tolerant of the mentally ill than it was 10 years ago. The study, published online in the journal Social Science and Medicine, uses a 2006 replication of the 1996 General Social Survey Mental Health Module to explore trends in public beliefs about mental illness in America, focusing in particular on public support for genetic arguments.

Prior medical-sociology studies reveal that public beliefs about mental illness reflect the dominant mental-illness treatment, the changing nature of media portrayals of the mentally ill and the prevailing wisdom of science and medicine.

Dr. Schnittker’s study, “An Uncertain Revolution: Why the Rise of a Genetic Model of Mental Illness Has Not Increased Tolerance,” attempts to address why tolerance of the mentally ill hasn’t increased along with the rising popularity of a biomedical view of its causes. His study finds that different genetic arguments have, in fact, become more popular but have very different associations depending on the mental illness being considered.

“In the case of schizophrenia, genetic arguments are associated with fears regarding violence,” Dr. Schnittker said. “In fact, attributing schizophrenia to genes is no different from attributing it to bad character—either way Americans see those with schizophrenia as ‘damaged’ in some essential way and, therefore, likely to be violent. However, when applied to depression, genetic arguments have very different connotations; they are associated with social acceptance. If you imagine that someone’s depression is a genetic problem, the condition seems more real and less blameworthy: it’s in their genes, they’re not weak, so I should accept them for who they are.”

Dr. Schnittker’s study also shows that genetic arguments are associated with recommending medical treatment but are not associated with the perceived likelihood of improvement. “While the stigma surrounding mental illness has not diminished, the rate of treatment for psychiatric disorders has increased,” Dr. Schnittker wrote.

According to Dr. Schnittker’s research, genetic arguments have, in fact, increased public support for medical treatment but at the same time aren’t clearly associated with improvements in overall tolerance levels. The study explores tolerance in terms of social distancing: unwillingness to live next door to a mentally ill person, have a group home for the mentally ill in the neighborhood, spend an evening socializing with a mentally ill person, work closely with such a person on the job, make friends with someone with a mental illness or have a mentally ill person marry into the family.

Detecting Alzheimer’s Disease Earlier

Researchers from the School of Medicine have identified two new techniques to detect the progression of Alzheimer’s disease earlier. By catching Alzheimer’s disease before symptoms are apparent, physicians can prescribe treatments to slow down the disease progression. In one study, researchers identified abnormal structural changes in the brains of seemingly normal elderly adults that indicated mild cognitive impairment, a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. In a second study, researchers detected changes in cells that may help predict the transition from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s disease. The studies were presented at the 2008 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease.

Dr. Christos Davatzikos, professor of radiology at the School of Medicine, Dr. Susan Resnick, of the National Institute on Aging and colleagues found brain deterioration in elderly adults who were classified as cognitively normal. They used a highly accurate measurement tool, based on MRI images from the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease, to look at the MRI images of normal elderly and identify any remarkable structural changes. By comparing these images, researchers were able to identify subtle structural changes in the brain tissue of healthy elderly adults with no noticeable symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Results of the study demonstrated: Significant brain deterioration was evident in a number of individuals who had no apparent symptoms when compared to cognitively healthy elderly; adults an increase of changes or abnormalities in brain structure was accompanied by a decrease in cognitive performance; there was an increase in Alzheimer’s-like brain deterioration as people aged.

In addition, researchers uncovered a connection between two risk factors for dementia. Alzheimer’s-like structural changes were accompanied by diseases of small blood vessels in the brain.

In a second study, Dr. Leslie Shaw, professor of pathology and lab medicine and director of the Penn ADNI Biomarker Core Laboratory, and colleagues found they could predict when patients with mild cognitive impairment may convert to Alzheimer’s disease by measuring significant cellular signatures.

Researchers determined benchmark concentration levels of certain biological indicators in three populations: elderly who were cognitively normal, mildly cognitively impaired and had Alzheimer’s disease. Examining cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) samples collected from more than 50 study sites, they determined baseline levels of three proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease (total tau, P-Tau181P, and ß-Amyloid1-42). What they found were significant differences in the level of these biomarker concentrations between groups.

“Analyzing changes in these CSF biomarker levels in people with mild cognitive impairment can detect the conversion to Alzheimer’s disease, especially when used in conjunction with neuroimaging and psychological tests,” said Dr. Shaw. “By defining significant differences in biomarkers, we are able to accelerate our drug development efforts to look for compounds that modify these discrepancies and may treat Alzheimer’s disease.”

Dr. Davatzikos’ study used MRI images from participants in two long term studies—the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA) and the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI).


Almanac - September 30, 2008, Volume 55, No. 6