Focus on Research
Penn State Intercom......March 21, 2002

Studies look at arthritis, mental
function and health in aging

By Barbara Hale
Public Information

Working with responses from adult African-Americans, a team of University researchers has shed new light on the role of genetics in determining why people seem to age differently with respect to arthritis, mental functioning and their sense of well-being. RESEARCH_Whitfield_Keith

Keith Whitfield, associate professor of biobehavioral health and leader of the three studies, said, "Our research team is working to understand why people seem to age differently on some things and not others. We hope to provide a better understanding of the role of genetics in health and mental health as well as looking at personality and cognitive functioning."

»Culture has varying degrees of environmental inThe research team included Tamara A. Baker, who earned her doctorate under Whitfield's direction, and Sebrina A. Wiggins and Dwayne T. Brandon, who are doctoral candidates. The team found that genetics, age and depression were significant predictors of arthritis.

The subjects in the study included 70 identical twins and 88 fraternal twins ranging in age from 45 to 88 years of age from the Carolina African-American Twin Study of Aging. The twins were asked to complete questionnaires and interviews in which they provided information on demographics, health, cognition and well-being.

Whitfield noted that African-Americans disproportionately experience arthritis and about 95 percent of the cases are osteo arthritis. He added, "While there is a significant body of evidence linking genetics to rheumatoid arthritis, there is less evidence for osteo arthritis. The findings of the current study, the first with African-American twins, supports the genetic theory of the origin of both types of arthritis."

The team found that the personality trait that best predicted effective mental functioning among aging adult African-Americans was openness. Baker said, "If a person indicated that they were open to new experiences and was flexible and adaptable, they also tended to maintain learning and memory, general intellectual ability and spatial ability. Attention and the ability to recall things on a short term basis didn't vary with openness."

The data for that study was drawn from the Baltimore Study of Black Aging which Whitfield has been conducting since 1997. The subjects include 281 African-American men and women from 47 to 90 years of age. Whitfield noted that these findings could be useful when trying to select a retirement community, for example. If a person has a less-open personality type, it might be best to select a retirement community that provides activities that foster openness in order to help maintain mental functioning.

Brandon, National Institutes on Aging pre-doctoral fellow, is first author of the well-being study. He and the team found a strong genetic influence on several measures of well-being including John Henryism or active coping, life satisfactionand depression. Perceived stress and locus or control or the extent that a person felt that things were under their own control were more affected by the environment. Data for the study came from the Carolina African-American Twin Study of Aging.

Whitfield added, "Culture has varying degrees of environmental influence. So, next we will compare these results with results from Swedish and Russian studies."

Barbara Hale can be reached at


Piazza awarded $375,000 CAREER grant
to develop musculoskeletal models

Stephen J. Piazza, assistant professor of kinesiology, mechanical engineering and orthopedics and rehabilitation, has received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant from the National Science Foundation.

The grant recognizes and supports the early career development activities of teacher/scholars. Piazza's award marks the first time that a faculty member in the College of Health and Human Development has received a CAREER award.

Piazza is a research scientist in the Center for Locomotion Studies. His five-year, $375,000 grant will be used to develop musculoskeletal computer models to analyze the function of healthy and diseased human feet and ankles. The project, which will be conducted at the center, also will introduce undergraduate students, particularly those from groups underrepresented in higher education, to research and career opportunities in biomechanics.

Piazza joined the University faculty in 1998 after receiving his doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from Northwestern University. He is a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the American Society of Biomechanics, the Orthopedic Research Society and the Gait and Clinical Movement Analysis Society.

Computer system beats
at guessing gender

By Barbara Hale
Public Information

A new computer classification system developed by University scientists can correctly identify a person's gender -- based only on eyes, nose, mouth and voice cues -- better than human beings can.

Rajeev Sharma, associate professor of computer science and engineering, says the new system is right nearly 100 percent of the time. Human beings consistently score in the low 90 percents.

The new system, which is the first computer system to combine both face and voice cues, has potential for use in security systems, market research and human/ computer interaction systems as well as other applications. For example, the system could be used to signal when unauthorized individuals tried to enter a restroom, fitting room or dormitory.

The new system also could be used to collect market research data automatically, for example, on how many women and how many men sat behind the wheel of a specific car at a car showroom or selected white versus red flowers at a garden center.

The new system is based on powerful pattern recognition software technique, called support vector machines (SVM) that can learn. SVMs previously have been used to scan cell samples for abnormalities or in other applications where patterns are very similar and difficult to separate.

Sharma and his research group adapted SVMs separately for face and voice recognition. The researchers trained the software dedicated to faces on 1,755 thumbnail images of human faces from a standard database. The thumbnails showed only the section of the face that includes eyes, nose and mouth -- no hair, ears or neck. Another SVM was trained on voice samples. The voice samples also came from a standard database and included just fractions of a second of voice data.

When the face software and voice software each had been trained separately to the level of human proficiency at classifying gender, Sharma and his group added a SVM "manager" to fuse the results, make the final gender classification and improve the system's accuracy.

Besides Sharma, the inventors also include his former student, Leena A. Walavalkar, and visiting researcher Mohammed Yeasin. The University has submitted a provisional application for a patent for the invention that has been licensed to Sharma's company, Advanced Interface Technologies.

Barbara Hale can be reached at