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Health Highlights: July 18, 2004

Depression Tied to Increase in Nerve Cells Study Says Corn Syrup Gets Bad Rap Drug-Coated Heart Stents Recalled Big Rise Seen in Cigarette-Related Fires Could Niacin Prevent Alzheimer's?

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

Depression Tied to Increase in Nerve Cells

A new study finds that a higher number of nerve cells in a part of the brain called the thalamus may be responsible for major depression.

The study, appearing in the current issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, is the first to link a psychiatric disorder to the number of neurons a person has in a certain region of the brain.

The findings revealed that patients diagnosed with major depression had about 30 percent more nerve cells in regions of the thalamus involved with emotional regulation. Also, the regions seemed to be larger in patients with major depression, according to researchers at Central Texas Veterans Health Care System, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and the Texas A&M University System Health Science Center.

"The finding of excess numbers of neurons in the thalamus in major depression is surprising," Keith A. Young, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Texas A&M, said in a statement. "Most previous work has shown that psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are associated with decreases, not increases, in neuron populations."

The researchers also said that a history of antidepressant use during the patient's lifetime did not appear to play a part in the neuron levels of depressed or bipolar subjects.

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Study Says Corn Syrup Gets Bad Rap

Virginia Tech University researchers say there's no good reason to single out high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as a "unique" contributor to obesity.

"There is simply no credible scientific evidence that HFCS is the cause of rising overweight/obesity rates," Maureen Storey, director of the university's Center for Food and Nutrition Policy, said in a statement. "Overweight/obesity is a serious worldwide health problem, and better research is needed to effectively prevent unhealthy weight gain."

Corn syrup, because it is cheaper to produce, has increasingly come to replace sugar and other sweeteners in products like soda. Researchers have blamed this for the lower prices of sweet snacks and drinks -- and thus more sales -- as a major reason for the rise in rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Consumption of corn syrup has increased dramatically in the last two decades.

But the Virginia Tech researchers say corn syrup shouldn't be the fall guy. "The composition of HFCS, sucrose, honey, and invert sugar is very similar," said David Lineback, director of the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "In addition, there is no reason to believe that humans absorb or metabolize HFCS any differently than sucrose."

The researchers add that the increasing use of corn syrup is a uniquely American phenomenon, but that the rise in obesity and diabetes rates is worldwide.

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Drug-Coated Heart Stents Recalled

Boston Scientific Corp. announced that it is recalling 85,000 of its revolutionary drug-coated heart stents in the wake of reports that the devices have been linked to deaths and serious injuries.

The Boston Globe reports that the recall, the company's second in a month, has prompted several hospitals to halt using the stents.

The company said it has received reports linking the drug-coated Taxus stents to one death and 18 serious injuries, according to the Globe account. Boston Scientific also said that it is aware of two deaths and 25 serious injuries associated with an earlier stent system, called Express2, and that is recalling 11,000 of the 600,000 it has shipped.

The devices are seen as a huge advance in cardiovascular surgery. They are implanted in heart patients during angioplasty, as scaffolding to keep a vessel open. The drug coating the stent prevents inflammation and scarring that can lead to the re-clogging of an artery, which is common among those who undergo angioplasty.

Two Boston hospitals, deciding that it's better to be safe than sorry, suspended using the devices. ''We took the stents off the shelf out of old Yankee conservatism," Campbell Rogers, director of the cardiac catheterization laboratory at Brigham and Women's Hospital, told the Globe.

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Big Rise Seen in Cigarette-Related Fires

Fires started by lighted tobacco products -- in almost all cases, cigarettes -- have risen by 19 percent even though only one state has mandated "fire-safe" cigarettes.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) saw the steep increase in 1999, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Cigarettes are the leading cause of fire deaths, according to the group.

In 1999, smoking-material fires rose 19 percent over the previous year to 167,700, resulting in 807 civilian deaths, 2,193 civilian injuries, and $559.1 million in direct property damage. Deaths and injuries both decreased by 11 percent from 1998 to 1999, but property damage costs, adjusted for inflation, increased by 33 percent, the NFPA report said. The statistics count only burning tobacco, not from matches or lighters.

Contrary to popular belief, most victims did not fall asleep while smoking, and many weren't even smokers. Instead, many of the fires started when the smoking materials weren't disposed of properly.

"Cigarette fires are a major cause of death that we know how to address,'' NFPA president James M. Shannon said in a statement. "A cigarette touching something combustible can take significant time to produce a fire. Cut down the burning time of cigarettes and you can prevent fires."

Only one state, New York, now mandates cigarettes that extinguish themselves when not being actively smoked.

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Could Niacin Prevent Alzheimer's?

A new study says that a vitamin found in many different types of foods may have a protective effect against Alzheimer's disease.

People consuming large amounts of vitamin B3, better known as niacin, saw their chances of developing mental decline "substantially reduced," the BBC reports.

Researchers at the Chicago Institute for Healthy Aging report that cognitive decline was 44 percent lower among those with the highest niacin intake compared to those with the lowest intake, according to the BBC.

Niacin is found naturally in eggs, lean meats, poultry, dairy products, and fish.

The researchers examined the diets of almost 4,000 people aged 65 and over between 1993 and 2002. None had any signs of mental decline at the time. They found the niacin link after accounting for other factors.

The discovery "could have substantial public health implications for disease prevention if confirmed by further research," the researchers write in the Journal of Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

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