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Science in Mind

Researchers study aftermath of Marathon bombings

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, researchers from many fields have been trying to salvage something of value from that horrible day, closely following the recovery of people treated for hearing loss and testing how social media could be used as an early, emergency alert system for disasters.

In a paper published this month in the journal PLOS Currents: Disasters, a team of researchers from Harvard Medical School, Boston Children’s Hospital, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital studied posts on Twitter to examine how the speed and content of tweets compared with official alerts from public health officials. Ear specialists at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Institute will lead a study of 100 patients who experienced hearing loss as a result of the blast, to see what their recovery and symptoms over the next three years can reveal about how to treat ear injuries. Northeastern University researchers have been trying to understand the networks of communication that occurred in the hours after the bombing by analyzing who people texted and called.


Dr. Alicia Quesnel, an ear surgeon at Mass Eye and Ear who is leading the follow-up study of patients with hearing loss, said that doctors initially had a great deal of trepidation about approaching patients who had already been through so much with a request to participate in a research study.

“You do not want to burden them with anything else. Our biggest goal is to be sensitive to that,” Quesnel said. “One of the interesting things is people have been very willing to participate. They want to do something better . . . or have something good come out of it.”

Quesnel said what researchers learn about patients’ trajectories and how quickly they heal might help in understanding hearing injuries caused by violent blast traumas. Although hearing loss caused by a bomb explosion is relatively rare and mostly seen among veterans, similar injuries can result from more routine causes, and the insight from the Marathon bombing victims might help guide doctors to understand better the healing and recovery process, and the best treatments.


Others are looking at the digital traces of the bombing online, to try and understand how reports made through social media compare to more official communication channels.

In the paper on Twitter posts, the researchers examined tweets that were generated in a location within a 35-mile radius of Boston before and after the bombing. Public health authorities sent alerts about the bombing to emergency departments nine minutes after the explosion, while tweets mentioning words like “explosion,” “explode,” or “bomb” began to appear within three minutes. The Twitter uptick from the general public increased by the time that the official alert went out to emergency departments. Minutes later, more traditional media sources began reporting the bombings.

“We’re not introducing a really new research method, but rather saying this kind of data source is really useful,” said Rumi Chunara, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s. “The Boston Marathon is very famous, but local — it behooves people to take into account this data source.”

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.