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Vol. LX, No. 10
May 16, 2008
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Digest

Hints to Why Social Status Affects Health
NIMH researchers have found that different brain areas are activated when a person moves up or down in a pecking order, or if they simply view perceived social superiors or inferiors.
NIMH researchers have found that different brain areas are activated when a person moves up or down in a pecking order, or if they simply view perceived social superiors or inferiors.

NIMH human imaging studies have for the first time identified brain circuitry associated with social status. Researchers found that different brain areas are activated when a person moves up or down in a pecking order, or if they simply view perceived social superiors or inferiors. Previous studies have shown that social status strongly predicts health, but little is known about how the human brain translates social factors into a health risk. The new study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study participants’ brains while they played an interactive computer game, part of an artificial social hierarchy the researchers created. Among other findings, they learned that the area of the brain that signals an event’s importance responded to the rise or fall in rank as much as it did to a monetary award—confirming the high value the brain puts on social status, and that processing hierarchical information seems to be “hard-wired.” The findings were published in the Apr. 24 issue of Neuron.

Computers and Drug Abuse

According to a new study funded by NIDA, patients receiving treatment that combined use of a computer learning program with traditional counseling showed a longer period of abstinence than patients who received counseling alone. The study, whose results were published May 1 in the American Journal of Psychiatry, was the first randomized controlled trial of its kind. The findings mean drug abuse treatment could integrate the use of computers more often, which would be helpful in tailoring treatment to the specific needs of an individual and in getting treatment into community-based care settings where resources can be limited. The research team plans to conduct further studies to determine if the computer program could be used alone for treatment, instead of serving as an addition to traditional therapy.

Mapping Large-Scale Variation Across the Genome

A team of researchers funded in part by NHGRI has produced the first sequence-based map of large-scale variation across the human genome—a work that provides a starting point for examining how such DNA variation contributes to human health and disease. Unlike other recently created works, like the HapMap, that catalogued the patterns of small-scale variations in the genome, the new map, published Apr. 30 in Nature, focuses on larger scale differences that account for a great deal of the common genetic variation among individuals and between populations. Researchers said it’s valuable to gain an understanding of how changes in the human genome, both small and large, contribute to individual differences in susceptibility to diseases. The map uncovered 525 new regions of large-scale structural variation in the human genome and provides a more detailed look at the locations of nearly 1,700 previously identified structural variations.

Improving Epilepsy Treatment

Approximately 30 percent of patients with epilepsy do not respond to antiepileptic medications and now we may know why. A new NIEHS study, published in the May issue of Molecular Pharmacology, used a rodent model of epilepsy and found that one of the body’s neurotransmitters released during seizure, glutamate, turns on a signaling pathway that increases production of a protein that could reduce medication entry into the brain. Researchers said that because the findings provide insight into a mechanism that underlies drug resistance in epilepsy, the work could point to ways to create more effective treatments for it and other central nervous system disorders.

New Route to Fighting HIV

A research group supported by NHGRI and NIAID has revealed a new route for attacking the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that could offer a way to circumvent problems with drug resistance. In their findings, published online Apr. 29 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers said they have blocked HIV infection in a test tube by inactivating a human protein expressed in key immune cells. Most drugs used to fight HIV target the virus’s own proteins, but because HIV has a high rate of mutation the viral targets change quickly and can lead to the emergence of drug-resistant viral strains. In the new study, researchers instead targeted a protein of human cells, which are far less prone to mutations. They said the finding is an exciting model for deriving potential new therapies for HIV.—

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