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Health Highlights: Jan. 13, 2007

Adding Sound to Actions Increases Our Understanding, Study Says U.S. Government to Probe Surgical Procedure on Dog at Cleveland Clinic Lettuce May Have Caused E. Coli Outbreak at Taco John's Genetic Code Used to Personalize Warfarin Doses House Passes Medicare Drug Price Bill Multilingualism Delays Dementia

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Adding Sound to Actions Increases Our Understanding, Study Says

Electrical impulses in the brain called mirror neurons may cause a link between an action and a sound associated with that action, new research has found.

This cause-and-effect relationship can help scientists understand how a sound associated with an action increases a person's ability to better understand a particular task. The study is published in the Jan. 10 edition of The Journal of Neuroscience.

The study, conducted by scientists from the neurology department at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, added more support to the theory that a mirror neuron system exists in humans, according to a news release from the journal.

The study subjects, all with no musical training, were taught to play a short piece on a keyboard. Subsequent brain activity was more intense in the "human equivalent of the area in the brain where mirror neurons were found in monkeys... when subjects listened to music they knew how to play compared with equally familiar music they did not know how to play," the news release said.

"Mirror-neuron circuits appear to encode and reflect templates for specific actions," the authors conclude.


U.S. Government to Probe Surgical Procedure on Dog at Cleveland Clinic

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says it will investigate an incident at the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic that involved a neurosurgeon inducing a brain aneurism -- a bulge in a blood vessel -- in a dog so a new medical device could be demonstrated to salespeople.

The dog was killed after the procedure, according to the Associated Press.

The wire service reports that clinic officials notified the USDA of the incident. The clinic's report said that while the inducement of the aneurism had been authorized, the use of the medical device had not, the A.P. said. The identity of the surgeon was not made public.

Neither the USDA nor the Cleveland Clinic expressly forbids the use of animals for medical experiments, but the U.S. Animal Welfare Act sets guidelines for proper treatment, and that's what the USDA will look into in this case.

"We're just trying to determine what occurred here," the wire service quotes USDA spokesman Darby Holladay as saying.

The Cleveland Clinic often ranks at the top in surveys of medical institutions that specialize in cardiac-related treatment, especially surgery.


Lettuce May Have Caused E. Coli Outbreak at Taco John's

Contaminated lettuce from California may have caused the E. coli outbreak late last year that left about 80 people sick after they ate at two Taco John's restaurants in Minnesota and Iowa, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Friday.

Of the 81 people who became ill, 26 were hospitalized. No one died in the outbreak.

Government investigators said the strain of bacteria in the Taco John's outbreak matched that found in samples taken from dairy farms in California's Central Valley. The FDA said the dairy farms are located near lettuce fields, the Associated Press reported.

Investigators are still trying to determine whether manure from the dairy farms could have contaminated the neighboring lettuce fields, said the FDA, which added that it's possible that other sources of contamination caused the Taco John's outbreak.

This is the second time in recent months that California cattle or dairy farms have been investigated as sources of E. coli contamination in produce. In September, an outbreak that killed three and sickened nearly 200 people in 26 states and Canada was traced to contaminated spinach grown in California.


Genetic Code Used to Personalize Warfarin Doses

Starting this month, about 1,000 U.S. patients with a heart condition called atrial fibrillation will take part in a project to match their warfarin dose to their specific genetic code.

People with atrial fibrillation are at increased risk for deadly blood clots, and take warfarin to thin their blood and prevent clots. About two million Americans with atrial fibrillation take warfarin, the Associated Press reported.

Determining the appropriate warfarin dose is crucial. Taking too much can cause dangerous bleeding, and taking too little can lead to a stroke. Currently, trial and error is used to determine the correct dose of warfarin. Each year, warfarin-dosing errors result in tens of thousands of hospitalizations and deaths.

The DNA testing in this new project should help identify patients whose bodies break down warfarin slower or faster than normal. Their dosages can then be adjusted to prevent dangerous complications, the AP reported.

The project is a collaboration between the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and Medco Health Solutions of Franklin Lakes, N.J.

Using a person's genetic profile to determine the most appropriate medicine or dose is called targeted therapy or personalized medicine. In the United States, a number of studies looking at targeted therapy are under way or being planned, the AP reported.


House Passes Medicare Drug Price Bill

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Friday to require Medicare to negotiate bulk drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. The White House opposes the move and President Bush is prepared to veto it, Bloomberg news reported.

Supporters say the bill could lead to savings of $96 billion over 10 years. Opponents counter that government studies show the measure wouldn't produce any savings.

"It is clear that Medicare can do better, and we are insisting that they do so," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman.

He noted that prices for drugs purchased under the Medicare program are more than 80 percent higher than for other federal programs that negotiate with drug companies, Bloomberg reported.

Current law expressly forbids Medicare from directly negotiating prices with drug makers, Bloomberg said.


Multilingualism Delays Dementia

Fluency in more than one language is associated with a significant delay in the onset of symptoms of dementia, according to a Canadian study in the February issue of the journal Neuropsychologia.

Researchers studied 184 people. Among those who spoke two or more languages, dementia began to appear at an average age of 76.1 in men and 75.1 in women, compared to 70.8 years in men and 71.9 years in women who spoke just one language, the Globe and Mail reported.

The mental agility required to be fluent in multiple languages may help delay the onset of dementia, suggested principal investigator Ellen Bialystok, an associate scientist at the Rotman Research Institute of the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto.

"How you learn the language probably doesn't make much difference; how good your grammar is probably doesn't matter. What matters is that you have to manage two complete language systems at once," Bialystok told the Globe and Mail.


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