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Health Highlights: July 28, 2002

Pleasure of Cuddling Linked to 'Slow Nerve Network' Stem Cells Form New Blood Vessels in Eyes of Mice Enzyme Works as 'Tool Kit' to Repair Gene Damage: Study Boy Sickened by Lake Bacteria Improves Study Links Autism With Smoking in Early Pregnancy Meat Recall Delay Jeopardized Public: Lawmakers

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

Pleasure of Cuddling Linked to 'Slow Nerve Network'

Most people enjoy being cuddled, and now scientists think they know why.

According to research published in Nature Neuroscience, the secret may lie in a special network of nerves that stimulates pleasure in the brain.

The brain responds to normal touch through a network of fast-conducting nerves that carry signals at about 60 meters per second. But Swedish researchers suggest a secondary, slow conducting nerve network that carries signals at just one meter per second, and whose purpose has been somewhat of a mystery, may be used for unconscious aspects of touch.

They came up with theory after experimenting with a woman who had no sense of touch, and discovered that she experienced a "pleasant" sensation when her skin was stroked with a paintbrush, reports New Scientist.

MRI scans of the woman's brain confirmed that the stroking activated a region of the brain associated with emotional response.

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Stem Cells Form New Blood Vessels in Eyes of Mice

Researchers say they've been able to grow new blood vessels in the eyes of mice using stem cells taken from bone marrow, and the finding offers hope that some day the technique can be used for treating diseases that lead to blindness.

Stem cells are exciting to scientists for their ability to develop into a variety of different cells, depending on what's needed.

In this case, researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., used stem cells from the bone marrow of mice. After injecting the cells into the eyes of mice, the cells attached to cells in the retina and formed new blood vessels, reports the Associated Press.

Should the process work in humans, the scientists say, it could help treat such eye diseases as diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration, two leading causes of blindness.

The findings appear in the September issue of the journal Nature Medicine.

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Enzyme Works as 'Tool Kit' to Repair Gene Damage: Study

Mutated genes can be the culprits behind diseases ranging from cancer and cystic fibrosis to hemophilia, but British researchers say they've identified a natural enzyme that appears to correct such mutations.

Laboratory tests show that mice that lack the enzyme, called MBD4, are as much as three times more likely to have gene mutations, reports the BBC.

While environmental factors like smoking and exposure to sunlight can cause genetic mutations, as many as one in three disease-causing mutations occur naturally when the body tries to prevent genes from over-producing by shutting them down.

But in the study, published in the journal Science, the researchers say the MBD4 enzyme represents a "tool kit" the body uses to repair damage to genes, and without part of that tool kit, the risk of diseases such as cancer increases.

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Boy Sickened by Lake Bacteria Improves

A 15-year-old boy who was one of two youths to contract rare infections after swimming in separate Florida lakes was upgraded yesterday from critical to fair condition, reports the Associated Press.

The second boy, a 12-year-old, died two days ago from the brain-swelling condition meningeal encephalitis that resulted from an amoeba he picked up while swimming in the Conway chain of lakes near Orlando.

Doctors at Florida Hospital-Orlando, where both unidentified boys were treated, said the 15-year-old was fortunate that blood cultures identified the bacteria quickly and treatment could begin early.

The bacteria, called chromobacterium violaceum, apparently entered the youth's body through a cut in his leg while he was swimming in Lake Talmadge, also near Orlando.

In both cases, the infections are extremely rare and are attributed to the combination of Florida's hot, humid conditions and smaller bodies of water, where amoebas and bacteria can thrive.

Doctors say only 150 cases of the amoeba infection that killed the 12-year-old have ever been reported, and only 50 cases of the 15-year-old's particular bacterial infection have been recorded.

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Study Links Autism With Smoking in Early Pregnancy

A new report shows that women who smoke regularly during the early stages of pregnancy can increase the risk of their child developing autism by as much as 40 percent.

The findings, published in the journal Epidemiology, come from a Swedish study of more than 2,000 children.

The researchers, with the Karolinska Institutet, in Stockholm, note that previous research on animals has shown that exposure to nicotine while in the womb can cause physical and behavioral effects and that smoking in early pregnancy is known to influence fetal growth and a child's birthweight.

Still, the researchers say they were surprised to see smoking in early pregnancy as an independent risk factor for autism, which has not been seen before, reports the BBC.

Autism is a developmental condition that can cause learning disabilities and adversely affect how people communicate and interact with others.

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Meat Recall Delay Jeopardized Public, Lawmakers Charge

Thousands of consumers were exposed to potentially deadly bacteria because the Agriculture Department was slow to investigate evidence that tainted meat had entered the U.S. marketplace, which possibly contributed to some illnesses, members of Congress say.

Though federal law requires daily inspections, there was an almost-100 day lapse between the time ConAgra Beef meat was found to be contaminated with E. coli in mid-April and last week, when the department announced the second-largest meat recall in U.S. history, Democrats in the House and Senate said.

"The long delay between contamination and recall is striking," the Democrats, including Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman.

According to The New York Times, the lawmakers characterized the delay as a "red flag for our nation's food safety system."

The criticism was issued as the scope of the E. coli outbreak continued to expand. At least 28 people in seven states have fallen ill from the meat, nine more than initially reported when the 19-million-pound recall was announced, The Times reports. Seven people have been hospitalized.

Meanwhile, Colorado state officials confirmed that prison inmates had been fed ground beef that authorities knew had been recalled.

Department of Corrections officials say hundreds of inmates were fed the estimated 2,500 pounds of meat because they felt that by properly cooking and serving the meat, it could be safely consumed, reports the Associated Press.

There were no reports of any inmates becoming ill after eating the beef. The meat was reportedly served to prisoners and possibly some guards at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex, the Delta Correctional Center, and the Rifle Correctional Centers, all state prisons.

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