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DISCOVERIES

Hormones explain bonding problems for adopted kids

HORMONES

Using a new method of measuring hormones in urine, researchers have found that 4-year-olds who spent their infancies neglected in foreign orphanages have lower levels of two hormones involved in social bonding, even after years in a loving adoptive home. The University of Wisconsin scientists, led by psychologist Seth Pollak, emphasize that their findings do not translate into gloomy outlooks for the many foreign-born, adopted children. Rather, they say, the work illuminates a possible biological mechanism for the bonding problems that some of the adoptees face. The researchers compared 21 non-adopted children with 18 children who had been adopted from Russian and Romanian orphanages about three years earlier. They found that after the children spent about a half-hour playing a computer game that involved a lot of pleasant tickling and touching with their mothers, the non-adopted children showed a rise in the hormone oxytocin, while the adopted children did not. The baseline level of another hormone, vasopressin, was also lowered in the adopted children.

BOTTOM LINE: Hormonal changes appear to be the mechanism that makes bonding difficult for some children who spent their early months in neglectful foreign orphanages.

CAUTIONS: The method of measuring hormones in the urine is new and needs further confirmation from other scientists. The study was small. And, even if bonding is hampered by basic hormonal changes from infancy, it is possible that positive experiences later in life will compensate for those changes.

WHAT'S NEXT: More detailed work to determine exactly which factors in infancy most influence hormone levels and bonding problems, and why hormone levels vary a great deal from child to child. Also, work on hormones may yield new ideas about how best to help children who were neglected early in life.

WHERE TO FIND IT: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nov. 22, 2005, or www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0504767102

CAREY GOLDBERG

GENETICS

Scientists stop herpes infection with new technique

A team of Massachusetts scientists has designed an ointment that protects against genital herpes -- at least in mice. The innovative approach uses silencing RNA, a way of blocking specific genes from functioning, to stop the virus from replicating after it enters cells, according to Judy Lieberman, a senior investigator at the CBR Institute for Biomedical Research in Boston. The ointment delivers the silencing RNA deep into the tissue, forming a barrier that lasted for more than a week. The research, Lieberman said, could be the beginning of a new class of pharmaceuticals -- creams based on RNA interference -- and the team hopes to extend the work to attack HIV and the human papilloma virus, which can lead to cervical cancer.

BOTTOM LINE: Scientists have devised a new way of using genes to stop the genital herpes infection.

CAUTIONS: The work was done in mice and is not yet completely effective. There are many hurdles before it could be used in humans.

WHAT NEXT: The team hopes to improve the ointment, and use the same approach to attack other viruses.

WHERE TO FIND IT: Published on-line by Nature: www.nature.com/nature/index.html

GARETH COOK

DEPRESSION

Swimming with dolphins helps -- at least the people

It may sound like a tropical tourist trap, but swimming with dolphins may help people with mild to moderate depression. For years, evidence has mounted that therapy with animals may help improve psychological disorders, but a new study carried out on an island off Honduras suggests that dolphin interaction may be able to replace drugs for some depressed people. Study organizers recruited 30 people with diagnosed mild or moderate depression, got them off anti-depressant drugs, and then split them into two groups. The first group was placed in a pool with bottlenose dolphins an hour a day to snorkel and play. The second group swam in a coral reef for an hour a day without dolphins. After two weeks, both groups reported improvement in depressive symptoms, but the group that played with the dolphins reported more improvement. Some participants of both groups reported lasting improvement of their symptoms after three months.

BOTTOM LINE: Human health and sense of well-being may be influenced by our interaction with the natural world.

CAUTIONS: The study only included a small number of participants. No follow-up study was conducted. Some environmental groups say prolonged human interaction with dolphins can make the animals sick and more aggressive toward people.

WHAT'S NEXT: More research is needed to better understand the relationship among people, nature and animals.

WHERE TO FIND IT: British Medical Journal, Nov. 26, 2005

BETH DALEY

PAIN

Mostly, it's back pain hurting soldiers in Iraq

The injuries suffered by soldiers in Iraq may not be so different from typical injuries incurred by civilian workers, according to a study conducted at two pain management centers that treat American military personnel. The researchers evaluated 162 soldiers with pain who served in Iraq between March 2003 and July 2004 and were evacuated for medical reasons. The majority of injuries were due to common conditions that affect civilian workers in the same age range, such as slipped discs, arthritis, and muscle injuries. Only 17 percent of the soldiers studied were injured during battle; the rest were injured in motor vehicle accidents, while doing heavy lifting, during training exercises, or as a result of other non-battle related activities. The authors also note that aggressive treatment of common injuries on-site could reduce the number of medical evacuees, keeping more troops on the battlefield.

BOTTOM LINE: Most injuries suffered by American soldiers serving in Iraq are due to common conditions like slipped discs and are not related to direct combat.

CAUTIONS: This study only included soldiers who were referred to outpatient pain management centers, so it's possible the researchers missed some soldiers with the most severe battle-related injuries.

WHAT'S NEXT: More work is needed to determine whether improved on-site treatment of common injuries can reduce the number of medical evacuees.

WHERE TO FIND IT: Anesthesia and Analgesia, October 2005

MICHAEL E. HOCHMAN

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