Past Issues

Mother rats show affection for their pups through licking. In Alison Fleming's lab, however, undergrads administer this comforting behaviour. Using tiny paint brushes, they simulate "licking" for pups separated from their mothers.

This "hands-on" student research is part of Fleming's 30-year investigation into why mothers want to mother.

A professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto at Mississauga (UTM) and fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Fleming focuses on how neurobiology mediates a mother's initial reaction to her young and her ability to offer long-term maternal care. She's shown how hormones influence mothering and how competent mothering depends on brain changes that occur in infancy. And more recently, she's used rat studies to look at how upbringing influences parenting habits.

"If you raise pups with little licking, they show much less licking of their own offspring. Conversely, the pups that receive more licking will lick their offspring more."

Fleming uses these animal studies to model questions about human mothers, such as - what makes some mothers more affectionate than others?

"We interviewed teenage mothers to find out who they lived with for the first 12 years of their lives - with mom, with mom and dad, with grandma, in foster care and so on. We found those who had more consistent care to be more affectionate with their babies."

Recent advancements in genetics have given Fleming a new frontier to explore. She's identified that the Cfos gene is activated and expresses the Fos gene when a mother is stimulating her young. Mothers raised without mothers, Fleming found, have fewer cells that express this gene in a part of the brain called the medial preoptic area.

She is also working with UTM zoologist Marla Sokolowski to study how genes interact with environments to produce a particular type of mother. "Genetics allows us to build upon what we've learned through hormonal or behavioural studies. It's a very exciting time to be studying mothering."

-Maria Saros Leung

You may not know it, but you rely on light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, hundreds of times a day. From cell phones to computer monitors and digital cameras to traffic lights, LEDs are everywhere.

The technology has its limitations, however. In a basic LED structure, positive and negative charged electrodes are sent into an emission zone where they combine and emit a light source. The problem is that transporting electrons requires very high voltages.

Z.H. Lu, of Materials Science and Engineering, has devised a way to make this most common form of digital display more efficient.

"To improve on LED technology, we looked to nature," he explains. "We are using Mother Nature's molecules, which more efficiently transport electrons than the charged electrodes used in LEDs."

By using a novel material and process technology, Lu's work with organic light-emitting diodes, or OLEDs, has resulted in a 50 to 100 per cent increase in power efficiency compared to current OLEDs. Moreover, several major industrial labs have confirmed longer working lifetimes for the patent-pending technology.

In December 2003, an exclusive rights agreement between U of T's Innovations Foundation and Norel Optronics was signed to advance Lu's work.

"We believe that OLEDs will replace LEDs in about 10 to 20 years as all kinds of companies are showing interest in this technology," says Lu. "There is potential in applications for large panel displays of 50 inches or more - such as televisions or computer monitors - where a huge market demand exists."

-Maria Saros Leung

"He was born with ink in his blood," says Canada Research Chair Yannick Portebois about the subject of her research, Victorian book publisher, engraver, and writer Henry Vizetelly, who was the son, grandson and great-grandson of printers. His fame rose with his publication of pioneering translations of French literature into English but rapidly fell when he was accused of spreading pornography.

"Vizetelly had a profound impact on the book trade between France and England. Seven years as a correspondent for the Illustrated London News in 1860s Paris sufficed to turn Vizetelly into a thorough bon-vivant and connoisseur of French literature," explains Portebois.

Upon his return to London, Vizetelly founded his own firm to publish translations of French authors. However, in Victorian England, the social (and sexual realism) in Émile Zola's novels proved to be an albatross for the avid entrepreneur. While popular with the public, moral purists took offence at what one London evening paper called "unrelieved and morbid filth." The publication of Zola's La Terre (The Soil) led to an enquiry in the House of Commons and to legal charges. The 70-year-old Vizetelly was convicted, fined £200 and imprisoned for three months. He died on Jan. 1, 1894, a few years after his release.

Portebois is director of U of T's Joseph Sablé Centre for Nineteenth-Century French Studies, which includes the significant Zola archive. She and archive curator Dorothy Speirs published Notes from Exile, Zola's photographs and diary entries from a period when he had fled to England to avoid a French libel suit.

Portebois is now editing a selection of letters from French publishers to Vizetelly. Her collaborative approach to research includes colleagues such as Marie Korey (chief librarian, Massey College), Richard Landon (director, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library) and Speirs. She also draws on the talent pool of bilingual undergraduates interested in French writers such as Zola, Flaubert and Maupassant. Many of these students enrol in the Book and Media Studies Program at St. Michael's College, an interdisciplinary investigation of the role of printing and books in cultures past and present.

-Helmut Reichenbächer

When was the last time you had to copy a complex series of sticks and circles and then remember it 40 minutes later?

It's a relevant question, says Konstantine Zakzanis, because you've probably never been asked to do such a thing - unless someone suspects you have a neurological disorder or disease.

In fact, the task above is one of the standard neuropsychological tests to determine if part of a patient's brain has stopped working. But its usefulness is limited because the task is not related to real life, says Zakzanis, a professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Toronto at Scarborough.

Tests which use virtual reality to mimic real life are proving more useful for early diagnosis of neuropsychological disease such as Alzheimer's, which may be slowed by drugs, says Zakzanis. The tests may also play a role in rehabilitation after a brain injury or stroke.

"When we meet patients, they don't tell us they have a hard time drawing a line from one to two to three. Their loved ones tell me they can't find their way to a familiar store," he said. "I thought it would be very helpful if we knew what was going on in the brain while people were doing real-life activities."

To find out, Zakzanis and his colleagues equip a patient with goggles - for the full stereoscopic virtual reality experience - and place him or her inside a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine. The fMRI tracks how blood moves through the brain as a task is performed.

One test requires the patient to navigate through a city. Another asks the patient to deliver a package with a partial address - the challenge is to figure out which of several businesses would have ordered a book on exotic plants.

"The kinds of tests people would employ traditionally to look at this are things like matching cards," says Zakzanis. "But how does that relate to questions such as 'Can this person do the work they were doing before this brain injury?'"

The next step is to use the tests for rehabilitation, says Zakzanis, starting with patients who have suffered brain injuries in car accidents.

-Janice Walls

University of Toronto Office of the Vice-President, Research and Associate Provost