Health Highlights: Oct. 21, 2008

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

FDA Approves Magnetic Device to Treat Depression

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the first noninvasive brain stimulator to treat depression. It works by beaming magnetic pulses through the skull, triggering small electrical charges that prompt brain cells to fire, the Associated Press reported.

The device, called transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS, is intended for patients who got no relief from their first antidepressant, offering them a different option than trying an assortment of drugs. It also doesn't pose the risks of surgically implanted electrodes or the treatment of last resort, shock therapy, the news service said.

The FDA cleared the prescription-only NeuroStar based on research that found that patients did modestly better when treated with TMS than when they received a placebo treatment that mimicked the magnet. About 24 percent of patients who received TMS scored significantly better on standard depression measures after six weeks, compared with 12 percent of those who got the placebo, the AP said.

That's about as well as patients respond to a single antidepressant, said Dr. Philip Janicak of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, who helped lead the NeuroStar study.

TMS isn't cheap, however: It's expected to cost $6,000 to $10,000, depending on how many treatments a patient needs, Janicak said. While that's a lot more than antidepressant therapy, it's thousands of dollars less than invasive depression devices, the AP said.

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Bad Habits Linked to Lower Grades

Bad habits equal bad grades, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota's Boynton Health Service who studied more than 9,000 undergraduates from 14 Minnesota schools.

Low grades were more common among students who lacked sleep, didn't exercise, gambled, watched too much TV, and drank alcohol or smoked cigarettes. Students who suffered stress, asthma, injury or mental illness also had lower grades, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.

The findings should cause concern among students who suffer low grades due to avoidable behaviors, said lead author Dr. Ed Ehlinger, Boynton's director and chief health officer. "If you're investing a lot of time and money in your education, do you really want to waste your investment on behaviors that interfere with your academic success?"

The study, released Monday, doesn't prove cause and effect. For example, while watching too much TV may lead to lower grades, it's also possible that lower grades cause students to watch more TV. It may also be that TV offers an escape from anxiety or depression, which could be the real cause of lower grades, the newspaper reported.

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Mountain Climbers May Suffer Altitude-Related Brain Damage

The world's top mountain climbers may suffer minor brain damage every time they scale the Earth's highest peaks, say Italian researchers who compared MRI scans of nine male climbers before and after major climbs achieved without the use of extra oxygen.

While the climbers showed no outward signs of new neurological problems, the scans revealed changes in brain tissue density and volume that were most likely caused by lack of oxygen at high altitudes, BBC News reported.

"The climbers in our study did not suffer any significant neuropsychological changes after the expedition," said study leader Dr. Margherita Di Paola.

But she added that some abnormal results on both "before" and "after" tests of brain function and memory might be the result of small, progressive brain damage caused by repeated exposure to high altitudes, BBC News reported.

The study was published in the European Journal of Neurology.

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Melamine-Tainted Food Kills 1,500 Raccoon Dogs in China

Melamine-tainted food is being blamed for the deaths in China of about 1,500 dogs bred for their raccoon-like fur that's used to make trim on coats and other clothing. All the raccoon dog deaths occurred on farms in a single village, the Associated Press reported.

An examination of about a dozen of the dead dogs revealed they died of kidney failure, said Zhang Wenkui, a veterinary professor at Shenyang Agriculture University.

"First, we found melamine in the dogs' feed, and second, I found that 25 percent of the stones in the dogs' kidneys were made up of melamine," Zhang told the AP.

It's not clear how melamine got into the dog feed, but the deaths increase concerns about the extent of the chemical's presence in China's food chain. Melamine, used to make plastics, has been found in a large number of Chinese-made dairy products and foods with milk ingredients.

In related news, Australian officials recalled a milk drink and cake brand found to be contaminated with melamine. That brings to six the number of Chinese-made melamine-tainted products recalled in Australia, the AP reported.

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Many Parents Misjudge Children's Weight: Study

Many parents overlook their children's weight problems because they think their kids' weight is healthy, says an Australian study that looked at 2,100 children and their parents.

The University of Melbourne researchers found that 43 percent of parents with overweight or underweight children believed their children had an average weight. Among overweight children, that percentage was nearly half, BBC News reported.

"Parents are more likely to take the necessary preventative actions if the perception of their child's weight -- whether underweight or overweight -- is correct," noted study leader Dr. Pene Schmidt.

The results aren't surprising, said Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum in Australia.

"There was recent research in this country which showed that a similar proportion of health professionals were unable to make the distinction," Fry told BBC New. "We live in a society were being big is becoming far more common, and is seen as normal."

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