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Despite continuing pandemic, UI Health Care research continues apace with two papers published in Nature

Date: Tuesday, January 11, 2022

At a time when the omicron surge is dominating the news cycle and affecting day-to-day activities, University of Iowa Health Care scientists continue to make discoveries that advance our understanding and treatment of other health conditions.

As an example, on Jan. 5, the journal Nature published two separate contributions online from UI Health Care research teams, focusing on pregnancy health and language generation. Both studies also demonstrate the critical role our patients play in advancing research with far-reaching benefits.

RNA profiles reveal signatures of future health and disease in pregnancy

Donna Santillan, PhD, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, and Mark Santillan, MD, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, were authors on a study demonstrating that RNA sequencing from a single maternal blood draw can be used to accurately determine the gestational age of a pregnancy and also predict the likelihood of preeclampsia, a dangerous complication that occurs in some pregnancies.

The key to this discovery, says Donna Santillan, is the participation of pregnant women who donated tissue to biobanks, including the Women’s Health Tissue Repository at the UI that she directs.

“Pregnancy is very understudied,” Santillan says. “These samples [provided by pregnant mothers] are critical to making this research possible.”

A speech planning network for interactive language use

Jeremy Greenlee, MD, Matthew Howard, MD, PhD, and Christopher Kovach, PhD, in the Department of Neurosurgery, along with colleagues at New York University, have identified a speech-planning brain network that is responsible for the snappy repartee of natural conversation.

Using a series of clever word games with patients who were awake while their brain activity was being monitored with electrocorticography (ECoG) electrodes placed on the surface of the brain, the team teased out the speech planning network that is central to natural language generation during social interaction.

This brain circuit includes the caudal inferior frontal cortex (Broca’s region) and the caudal middle frontal gyrus (cMFG). Although the Broca’s region has long been known to be important for language, the cMFG has not previously been linked to speech planning.

The discovery of the circuitry could help understand communications disorders like stuttering and apraxia, where speech planning is disrupted or abnormal.