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Health Highlights: Nov. 11, 2003

Nicotine May Help Memory Problems New Anti-Stroke Drug Shows Promise Survey: Americans Too Optimistic About Heart Risks FDA Endorses New Mammography Device Approved Stem Cells May Not Be Usable Antibiotic May Help People 'Unlearn' Phobias

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

Nicotine May Help Memory Problems

While cigarettes are deadly, nicotine itself may offer some neurological benefits, say researchers at the University of Houston College of Pharmacy.

They found that nicotine may be able to repair memory impairment caused by stress on the brain. Stress is known to trigger various biological responses in the body.

The study findings on the effect that nicotine has on stress-induced memory problems, as well as how nicotine may improve some of the learning and memory problems associated with hypothyroidism, were presented Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans.

The research may help scientists develop new ways to treat Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, hypothyroidism, or to boost memory. The first step would be to find safe ways to mimic the beneficial effect of nicotine on stress, the researchers say.

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New Anti-Stroke Drug Shows Promise

A large, new study supports the potential of the drug Exanta to prevent stroke in patients with atrial fibrillation, CBS.MarketWatch.com reports.

In the latest round of patient testing, the drug achieved comparable effectiveness to the standard therapy, warfarin. AstraZeneca, the drug's maker, says it will apply before the end of the year for U.S. and European regulatory approval to market Exanta for prevention of stroke in people with atrial fibrillation.

But there are concerns about side effects caused by Exanta. In this and previous studies, the drug was linked with elevated liver enzymes in about six percent of patients. Elevated enzymes can signal that the liver is being damaged, CBS.MarketWatch.com says.

AstraZeneca says these elevated enzyme levels were reversed as treatment continued and weren't associated with specific clinical symptoms.

Atrial fibrillation is a common irregular heartbeat that occurs when the two upper chambers of the heart beat rapidly and unpredictably, which sometimes allows blood to pool and clot.

The study findings were presented Tuesday during a late-breaking session at the American Heart Association's annual conference in Orlando, Fla.

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Survey: Americans Too Optimistic About Heart Risks

Americans are overly optimistic about their risks for heart disease, a nationwide Harris Interactive survey finds.

The poll of more than 2,000 adults, conducted for the Pfizer Journal, a publication from the pharmaceutical giant, found that most respondents were aware of the dangers of lack of exercise and unhealthy diets. Still, 57 percent thought they were at no risk or little risk of a heart attack over the next five years, and 62 percent thought they were at a similar risk of stroke.

Just 59 percent of those surveyed knew that cardiovascular disease was the number one killer in the United States. And 54 percent of respondents incorrectly responded that cancer -- not heart disease -- was the number one killer among smokers.

These and other results indicate that people think they are healthier than they actually are, the survey's authors conclude. Perhaps most worrisome is the finding that even among people with all three risk factors for heart disease -- high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and a family history -- about a quarter said they made no attempts to avoid fatty foods and maintain a healthy weight.

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FDA Endorses New Mammography Device

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given qualified approval to a new breast-cancer detection device made by the Eastman Kodak Co.

Clinical trials of the computer-aided mammography found that 39 percent of missed breast cancers might have been identified nearly 15 months earlier using the new technology, the Associated Press reports.

The Kodak device utilizes algorithms to highlight suspicious areas on digitalized images. Radiologists then inspect these suspicious areas more closely for possible cancer.

The FDA issued an "approvable letter" for the new device. That's a precursor to final approval. Kodak's manufacturing practices must now pass an FDA review, the AP reports.

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Approved Stem Cells May Not Be Usable

The stem cell lines approved by the Bush Administration for federally funded research probably aren't usable since they were derived from mouse cells, medical ethicists tell the Associated Press.

If the cells were used in people, their source could expose the human subjects to animal viruses that their immune systems couldn't fight, the experts gathered by Johns Hopkins University said. The panel -- comprised of scientists, philosophers, ethicists, and lawyers from the United States and Europe -- said safer stem cell lines exist, but experiments using them would not be eligible for federal funding, the AP reports.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told the wire service that no one was available to comment on the panel's findings.

Scientists think that stem cells, which have the ability to transform into all kinds of tissue and organ cells, could be used to treat a host of diseases ranging from Parkinson's to Alzheimer's. But their use is controversial because they are derived from human embryos. In August 2001, President Bush announced that federally funded research would be limited to stem cell lines already created by that date.

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Antibiotic May Help People 'Unlearn' Phobias

An antibiotic used to combat tuberculosis may also help people overcome their worst fears, researchers at Emory University in Atlanta say.

The drug, D-cycloserine, appears to aid transmission of a protein that's crucial to overcoming phobias, says Michael Davis, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory's School of Medicine. His research found that the drug helped people with a strong fear of heights get over their phobia in an average of two therapy sessions, vs. the usual seven or eight, the Associated Press reports.

Rather than eliminating the fears from the get-go, the drug seems to help users unlearn the fears faster, the researchers say.

In the study, the 50-milligram dose of D-cycloserine administered to the participants was about one-tenth the dose commonly prescribed for TB patients, the AP reports.

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