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Vol. LXI, No. 2
January 23, 2009

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  A compact fiber-optic probe developed for the space program has now proven valuable for patients in the clinic as the first non-invasive early detection device for cataracts.  
  A compact fiber-optic probe developed for the space program has now proven valuable for patients in the clinic as the first non-invasive early detection device for cataracts.  

From Outer Space to the Eye Clinic: Technique
Developed to Detect Cataracts Early

A compact fiber-optic probe developed for the space program has now proven valuable for patients in the clinic as the first non-invasive early detection device for cataracts, the leading cause of vision loss worldwide. Researchers from NEI and NASA collaborated to develop a simple, safe eye test for measuring a protein related to cataract formation. If subtle protein changes can be detected before a cataract develops, people may be able to reduce their cataract risk by making simple lifestyle changes such as decreasing sun exposure, quitting smoking, stopping certain medications and controlling diabetes. “By the time the eye’s lens appears cloudy from a cataract, it is too late to reverse or medically treat this process,” said Dr. Manuel Datiles III, NEI medical officer and lead author of the clinical study. “This technology can detect the earliest damage to lens proteins, triggering an early warning for cataract formation and blindness.” The new device is based on a laser light technique called dynamic light scattering that was initially developed to analyze the growth of protein crystals in a zero-gravity space environment. The clinical trial was reported in the December 2008 Archives of Ophthalmology.

Researchers Levitate Object at Nano Scale

Magicians have long created the illusion of levitating objects in the air. Now researchers at NIH and Harvard University have actually levitated an object, suspending it without the need for external support. Working at the molecular level, researchers relied on the tendency of certain combinations of molecules to repel each other at close contact, effectively suspending one surface above another by a microscopic distance. The new technique may prove useful to the emerging field of nanomechanics—the development of microscopic machinery. Named for the nanometer (one billionth of a meter), nanomachinery would operate on the molecular level. By altering and combining molecules, tiny machines and even robots could be devised to perform surgery, manufacture food and fuel and boost computing speed. The study appeared in the Jan. 8 issue of Nature.

Ginkgo Study Fails to Show Benefit in Dementia Prevention

The dietary supplement Ginkgo biloba was found to be ineffective in reducing the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in older people, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The trial known as the Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory (GEM) study was conducted at four clinical sites over the course of 8 years. GEM is the largest clinical trial ever to evaluate ginkgo’s effect on the occurrence of dementia. The research was co-funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, NIA, NHLBI, NINDS and the Office of Dietary Supplements. GEM enrolled 3,069 participants age 75 or older with normal cognition or mild cognitive impairment. Those with dementia were excluded from participation. The study was conducted primarily to determine if ginkgo would decrease the incidence of all types of dementia and, more specifically, Alzheimer’s disease. Secondarily, the study evaluated ginkgo for its effects on overall cognitive decline, functional disability, incidence of cardiovascular disease and stroke and total mortality.

New Program Teaches Preschoolers Reading, Social Skills

A study funded by NIH and other federal agencies shows it’s possible to teach preschoolers the pre-reading skills they need for later school success, while at the same time fostering the social skills necessary for making friends and avoiding conflicts with their peers. The findings address long-standing concerns on whether preschool education programs should emphasize academic achievement or social and emotional development. The study, funded largely by NICHD, appeared in the November/December 2008 issue of Child Development. In recent years, education officials and researchers who study early childhood education have struggled with whether to emphasize academics in preschool programs or to instead try to advance preschoolers’ social skills. The current study marks the first attempt to develop a curriculum that addresses both concerns equally. In the study, researchers compared the progress of students who received a traditional Head Start curriculum to those who received a curriculum with enhancements in the areas of social and emotional learning and pre-reading skills. The new program is known as the REDI (Research-Based, Developmentally Informed) Head Start program. The researchers developed REDI by combining a program that fosters social and emotional development with curriculum components that promote language development and pre-reading skills.—compiled by Carla Garnett

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