Boston University’s Top Ten Research Highlights of 2019

By Molly Gluck and Michelle Seo

From memory boosting and manipulation, to mental health outcomes, to plastic pollution, to an instant Ebola diagnostic and real-life mute button — we give you the ten top breakthrough research discoveries out of Boston University’s 17 schools and colleges during the past year (in no particular order).

Photo courtesy of John G. Mabanglo/AFP/Getty Images

To date, we do not know much about how the devastating neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) impacts women because studies have historically focused on males. In fact, only two cases of CTE have been diagnosed in women. Researchers at the Boston University CTE Center are launching a first-of-its-kind study analyzing the brains of professional soccer players, including former US soccer stars Brandi Chastain and Michelle Akers. See how soccer headers could be contributing to CTE.

Photo courtesy of Cydney Scott

What sounds would you mute if you could? Would it be a highway or plane roar, construction, a crying baby, or even a coworker? Your wishes are answered — researchers from the College of Engineering discovered how to mathematically design an object that can block the sounds of anything. The lightweight, open, beautiful “acoustic metamaterial” can block out noise but preserve air passage and light — cancelling 94% of sound. Find out more about how researchers are working to create a quieter world.

Photo courtesy of Cydney Scott

Have you ever forgotten where you put your keys, phone or wallet? Well, researchers made a breakthrough discovery targeting the working memory — the part of the mind where consciousness lives, and the part that is active whenever we make decisions, reason, recall our grocery lists, and (hopefully) remember where we left our things. Researchers from the College of Arts & Sciences Psychological and Brain Sciences Department have identified a way to noninvasively stimulate brain areas that have lost their rhythm. By using electrical currents, they are able to drastically improve the performance of a 70-year-old’s working memory to that of a 20-year-old. Learn more about this brain boost.

Photo courtesy of NIAID

During the early stages of the highly contagious, fast-spreading, deadly disease Ebola, symptoms are often hard to distinguish from malaria, a mosquito-borne blood infection caused by a parasite. The danger of being unable to diagnose Ebola or malaria was one of the major deficiencies that contributed to the 2014–2016 West Africa Ebola crisis. Without an instantaneous way of screening a patient’s blood, people sick with malaria could be placed into quarantine and surrounded by other ill people who ultimately might be highly contagious with Ebola. In order to combat this, researchers at the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory have created a rapid, point-of-care Ebola test where the entire diagnosis process can be completed in a half-hour or less. Find out more about the scientific breakthrough and its impact.

Photo courtesy of Ramirez Lab

Science fiction is becoming science fact. Boston University neuroscientist Steve Ramirez made the discovery that a small structure in the brain could hold the keys to future therapeutic techniques for treating depression, anxiety, and PTSD. He discovered a way to manipulate memories in the brain — heightening positive memories and reducing the emotional power behind negative ones (in mice). Learn more about this transformative memory manipulation study from the College of Arts & Sciences Psychological and Brain Sciences Department here.

Photo courtesy of Jacob Jaskiel

When a group of Biology researchers went to Belize to see what types of seagrass parrotfish prefer to eat — they found something else instead. They saw microplastics — which are plastic pieces less than 5mm in size — in their seagrass samples, and uncovered the harsh reality that all seafood chains are contaminated with plastic. See more on how the plastic waste from humans flows through our plumbing systems, into the ocean and its food chains — and arrives back onto the dinner plates of seafood eaters.

Researchers from the School of Public Health conducted a first-of-its-kind study discovering that gender minority students whose gender identity differs from the sex assigned to them at birth are between two and four times more likely to experience mental health problems than the rest of their peers. The findings of this study — which is the largest and most comprehensive mental health survey of college students — calls for higher education leaders to raise awareness and take action on addressing gender minority students’ needs. Find out more about mental health problems on campuses and how you can help.

Video courtesy of Laura Lewis

Did you know our bodies clean toxins out of our brain while we sleep? Researchers from the College of Engineering and Center for Systems Neuroscience published the first-ever study revealing the link between brain wave activity and blood flow during sleep. During non-REM sleep, our brains wash out toxic, memory-impairing proteins through large, slow waves of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). Embracing quality sleep could help us combat neurological and psychological disorders including autism and Alzheimer’s disease. See more details about this neurological breakthrough.

Photo courtesy of the Goyal lab at Boston University

Blind spots no more. Researchers from the College of Engineering developed a new technology to see around corners. This affordable, agile digital camera-based system is bringing “non-line-of-sight imaging” to reality. This technology has a wide range of safety implications, from seeing that there’s a child on the other side of a parked car in dense urban areas, to taking surveillance from the battlefield, to search and rescue situations where you might not be able to enter an area because it’s dangerous to do so. Learn more about how this computer algorithm and digital camera system works.

Photo courtesy of Paul Campbell/iStock

Did you know as of 2017, only 13 states have universal background checks? Using completely different data sets, School of Public Health researcher Michael Siegel highlighted how two independent studies from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) conclude that state gun laws restricting has access to guns — not guns — significantly reduces rates of firearm-related homicides. Find out more on how to effectively mitigate gun violence.

Heading into 2020, have you decided on a New Year’s resolution? Here’s some food for thought: researchers from the School of Medicine found that optimism could boost people’s chances of living 85 years or more by over 50 percent. Never underestimate the power of positive thinking and start your new year with a glass half full. Learn more about how optimism leads to a longer lifespan.

Cutting-edge research and commentary out of Boston University, home to Nobel laureates, Pulitzer winners and Guggenheim Scholars. Find an expert: bu.edu/experts