Professors discover ways to improve lifestyles for the future

Oleg D. Lavrentovich has recently been working with a Kent State research group to uncover new information about types of liquid crystal.

Nicholas Sewell

From liquid crystals to psychological studies, Kent State faculty members have provided a large amount of ground breaking and influential research to the academic community.

Kent State researchers  have received more than $13 million in funding for their research, including over $8 million in federal funding.

Kent State’s name is most famously attached to liquid crystal technology found in LCD displays on television screens and computer monitors.

With an increase of about $470,000 in funding from 2013, professors at Kent State continue to study new ways to improve the way people live.

Technology intervention to help students with brain injuries

Phillip Rumrill, a professor and coordinator of the rehabilitation counseling program and director of the Center for Disability Studies at Kent State, has been working on research involving traumatic brain injury, or TBI, in college students.

Rumrill is currently working on a demonstration project to provide technology training and employment services to college students with TBI.  A $2.3 million Department of Education grant is supporting the research.

“Basically, what we are doing is we have a five-year project to develop and test an intervention to provide cognitive support technology training and career preparatory services to college students with traumatic brain injuries,” Rumrill said.

This project will include 150 students from three different sites throughout the United States: northeast Ohio; Morgantown, W. Va.; and Boston, Mass.

“We will give each of them an iPad, along with specific applications on the iPad that are aimed at cognitive enhancement,” Rumrill said. “So, if you have trouble with memory because of a brain injury, we’ll get you an app that will help to increase and improve your memory.”

Rumrill said these iPad apps would help students who are having trouble with what is called “executive functioning” of the brain, which is related to organizational thinking.

The students will also receive one-on-one counseling and mentoring and vocational rehabilitation services that have been developed by Rumrill and his team at Kent State’s Center for Disability Studies.

Half of the 150 students involved in the project will be military veterans who experienced some sort of brain injury during their time in the military during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“These blast injuries, new brain injuries, that they [military veterans] were sustaining were really causing a lot of problems for them as they attempted to reintegrate into society,” Rumrill said.

After these students receive this technology, Rumrill said the project would eventually help them in their efforts after graduation.

“We will run them through a sequence of vocational services to help prepare them for their careers after graduation,” Rumrill said.  “We will give them mentors in their chosen field, and we will have them do internships and work with them on developing their resumes and job interview skills, and things of that nature.”

Weight loss improves cognitive abilities in obese individuals

John Gunstad, an associate professor in the psychology department, is also studying the brain. His research concerns the effects of obesity on the brain.

“We have a long string of research showing that individuals who are overweight or obese are at a higher risk for memory decline as they get older, but also, even young adults that are obese show problems with memory and problem-solving compared to their normal weight peers,” Gunstad said.

The research is supported by a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Gunstad said the primary line of research in this area is bariatric surgery, which is sometimes referred to as “weight-loss surgery.”

“What we are finding is that as people start to lose weight, brain function seems to get better,” Gunstad said.  “As soon as 12 weeks after surgery, where bariatric surgery patients have lost some weight, but not a lot of it, they find that brain function is starting to improve.”

Brain function continues to improve in bariatric surgery patients up until three years after surgery, Gunstad said.  

There were improvements most notably in tests of memory and executive functioning.  Executive functioning is a set of mental processes that helps connect past experience with present action.

“This is the first evidence to show that by going through [bariatric] surgery, individuals might improve their memory,concentration, and problem solving,” Gunstad said.

After individuals become more obese, they are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, a stroke or other brain-based disorders as they become older, Gunstad said.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” Gunstad said.  “When an individual starts to gain weight, their memory gets worse, so it is important for them to lose that weight and continue to keep it off over time.”

Gunstad has also created a new wellness program for Kent State, called flashLITE.  This program is a residential program that will provide students with the knowledge and while dealing with the various demands of college life.

The program is set to begin this summer and will last for one month.

Liquid crystals have KSU mark

Oleg Lavrentovich, a trustees research professor in the department of chemical physics, is known internationally for his research on liquid crystals.

 His fascination with it is simple.

“Once you observe these things under a microscope, you’re addicted,” Lavrentovich said.  “It’s hard to leave the lab — I don’t want to miss all of these beautiful things.”

Liquid crystals represent a state of matter that combines some properties of solid crystals and normal fluids. The type of liquid crystal that is most widely known is the nematic — rod-like molecules aligned parallel to each other but have the freedom to glide past their neighbors — used in LCD , or liquid crystal display, screens on flat screen televisions and computer monitors.

“This peculiar orientational order and absence of positional order explain the unique properties of nematics,” Lavrentovich said.  “At the same time, they can easily flow and change orientation when acted upon by weak forces, for example, by low-voltage pulses,” he said, which control light passage in LCD displays.

For many years, the single axis of molecular orientation was considered as the only possible nematic structure made of non-chiral (symmetrical) molecules, Lavrentovich said.  However, theoretical models hypothesized that there might be nematics in which the director bends and twists in space.

“The unique feature of molecular structure that makes the twist-bend state possible is the dimeric (double) nature of molecules,” said Lavrentovich.  “Each molecule represents two rigid root-like elements connected by a flexible chain with an odd number of methylene (a carbon atom bound by two hydrogen atoms) groups.”

Lavrentovich is known for his research collaborations, assembling teams of researchers who have diverse expertise to study multi-faceted problems.  He recently headed a team of 26 researchers from 10 separate institutions.

Lavrentovich said that although the research of liquid crystals has been applied to modern everyday products, the physics behind these applications was discovered in the early 1920s.

“A person checking an email or browsing the Web or viewing the sent photo on virtually any screen nowadays might wish to know that what made all that display of information possible was a similar research performed many decades ago by scientists at many laboratories worldwide, including the Liquid Crystal Institute at Kent State,” Lavrentovich said.

Contact Nicholas Sewell at [email protected].