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Health Highlights: June 20, 2005

Folic Acid Might Fortify Memory Embryonic Stem Cell Research Offers New Possibilities Women's Fear Center Shuts Down During Orgasm: Study Steroid May Reduce Miscarriage Risk Schizophrenia Drug May Thwart, Treat SARS Cooling Cap for Newborns Closer to Market

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

Folic Acid Might Fortify Memory

Dutch scientists said Monday that large quantities of folic acid sharpened the memories of seniors, the Associated Press reported.

The researchers announced their findings at an Alzheimer's Association meeting in Washington, D.C. The latest news adds to evidence that has suggested a diet high in folate -- which is found in dark-hued fruits and vegetables -- may fight a variety of diseases. The B vitamin has been shown to prevent birth defects of the brain and spinal cord, and to ward off heart disease and strokes.

The Dutch researchers divided 818 people, aged 50 to 75, and had them take either 800 micrograms of folic acid or a placebo for three years. That amount of folic acid is twice the recommended daily U.S. dose of the vitamin. On memory tests, those taking the supplements had scores that were comparable to people 5.5 years younger. On cognitive speed tests, they performed as well as those 1.9 years younger.

Scientists have suspected that folic acid may play some part in dementia, although whether it can actually stave off the symptoms of Alzheimer's is unknown since this latest research involved only healthy seniors.

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Embryonic Stem Cell Research Offers New Possibilities

Stem cells extracted from human embryos and grown in the laboratory can develop into early forms of cells that become sperms or eggs, says a British study.

This finding suggests it may eventually be possible to grow sperm and eggs in a laboratory dish for use in infertility treatment. The technique may also be used to create a supply of eggs for cloning, the Associated Press reported.

The British scientists also said this method may provide more information about why some women and men are unable to create their own eggs or sperm and whether toxic chemical pollutants may be a factor in such problems.

"It may allow us to investigate the very earliest processes of how a human (ovary and testis) develops," Harry Moore, a professor of reproductive and developmental medicine at Sheffield University, told the AP.

The findings were to be presented Monday in Copenhagen, Denmark, at the annual conference of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology.

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Women's Fear Center Shuts Down During Orgasm: Study

The part of a woman's brain that processes fear, anxiety and other stress-related emotions effectively shuts down during orgasm to produce a trance-like state, Dutch researchers say.

This deep-relaxation state -- identified using brain imaging technology -- appears key to female arousal, according to scientists at the University of Groningen. In contrast to male orgasm, direct sensory input from the genitals appears to play a less critical role in women, the Times of London reported Monday.

The male brain was more difficult to study during orgasm, the researchers said, because of its shorter duration in men. But the physical aspects of sex appear to play a more important role than in women.

While women may be able to fake orgasm and fool their partners, a true orgasm sent clear, distinguishing signals that were identified in the brain scans. Parts of the brain that identify conscious movement were activated during fake orgasms, but not during real ones, the Times reported. Also, the fear and anxiety center of the brain doesn't shut down during a fake orgasm, the researchers said.

In an odd footnote, the scientists said both men and women found it easier to have an orgasm when they kept their socks on. In the study, 50 percent of the 24 men and women analyzed were able to achieve orgasm without their socks, while the number rose to 80 percent among participants with their socks on. Those who took their socks off in a drafty room literally complained of "cold feet," the researchers told a meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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Steroid May Reduce Miscarriage Risk

Taking the steroid pill prednisolone while they're trying to get pregnant could reduce the risk of miscarriage in some women, says a University of Liverpool study.

It's believed the steroid blocks natural killer (NK) immune cells that, in certain women, become overly active in the womb and prevent embryos from implanting, BBC News reported.

A study of 29 women with recurrent miscarriage found that the steroid reduced the percentage of NK cells in the lining of the womb. Before treatment, the women had an average of 14 percent of NK cells in the womb lining. That dropped to an average of nine percent after they took the steroid for 21 days.

The findings were presented at the annual conference of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The University of Liverpool researchers are now recruiting 700 women for a study to determine if using the steroid to lower NK cell count will actually reduce the risk of miscarriage, BBC News reported.

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Schizophrenia Drug May Thwart, Treat SARS

Chinese and European scientists reported Sunday that a drug used to treat schizophrenia may pull double duty as a treatment for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

The Associated Press reported that Cinanserin inhibits the activity of the corona virus, the bug behind the deadly disease that first surfaced in China in late 2002. The finding was announced at a meeting of the Sino-European Project on SARS Diagnostics and Antivirals in Hangzhou, China.

Cinanserin was one of 15 drugs that showed promise against the respiratory illness, but the others haven't been tested sufficiently, experts said at the conference. SARS killed 349 people in mainland China and sickened thousands worldwide before dissipating in July 2003.

"Cinanserin could be directly prescribed to prevent the SARS disease or treat SARS patients if the fatal epidemic makes a comeback," Peter Kristensen, an expert from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, told the AP.

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Cooling Cap for Newborns Closer to Market

A cap that chills the brains of oxygen-deprived newborns was given a preliminary blessing by a group of scientific advisors for the FDA, when the group ruled that the device might help prevent brain damage in these infants.

The Associated Press reported that the ruling moves the "Cool-Cap" closer to market, although the advisors noted the device would have to be sold under strict conditions to guarantee the technology doesn't cause harm.

The FDA does not have to follow the recommendations of its advisors, but it usually does, according to the AP. Mild hypothermia, where the body is cooled by only a few degrees, has improved the chances of complete recovery in adult heart attack patients. The procedure reduces the brain's need for oxygen, and stalls a cascade of events that can lead to further damage once blood flow returns to the brain.

Cold water runs through the cap for 72 hours, causing the baby's temperature to drop to 94 degrees. Afterwards, the newborn's body temperature is restored to normal. In research on 218 newborns, 45 percent of those treated with the cap survived without brain damage, compared to 34 percent of the babies who received standard treatment.

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