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Vol. LXIII, No. 24
November 25, 2011

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Brain Growth Problems Linked to Autism

Children with autism have more brain cells and heavier brains compared to typically developing children, according to researchers partly funded by NIH.
Children with autism have more brain cells and heavier brains compared to typically developing children, according to researchers partly funded by NIH.

Children with autism have more brain cells and heavier brains compared to typically developing children, according to researchers partly funded by NIH. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Nov. 9, the small, preliminary study provides direct evidence for possible prenatal causes of autism.

“Earlier studies of head circumference and early brain overgrowth have pointed us in this direction, but there have been few quantitative neuroanatomical studies due to the lack of post-mortem tissue from children with autism,” said NIMH director Dr. Thomas Insel. “These new results, along with an earlier study reporting altered wiring of the prefrontal cortex, focus our attention on this critical area of the brain in autism.”

The prefrontal cortex is involved in various higher order functions such as language and communication, socialdav behavior, mood and attention. Children who have autism tend to show deficits in such functions. The researchers found that children with autism had 67 percent more neurons in the prefrontal cortex and heavier brains for their age compared to typically developing children.

Painkiller Abuse Treated by Drug Combination

People addicted to prescription painkillers reduce their opioid abuse when given sustained treatment with the medication buprenorphine plus naloxone (Suboxone), according to research published in the Nov. 7 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry and conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The study, which was the first randomized large-scale clinical trial using a medication for the treatment of prescription opioid abuse, also showed that the addition of intensive opioid dependence counseling provided no added benefit.

“The study suggests that patients addicted to prescription opioid painkillers can be effectively treated in primary care settings using Suboxone,” said NIDA director Dr. Nora Volkow. “However, once the medication was discontinued, patients had a high rate of relapse—so, more research is needed to determine how to sustain recovery among patients addicted to opioid medications.”

Pain medications are beneficial when used as prescribed, but they have significant abuse liability, especially when taken for non-medical reasons. An estimated 1.9 million people in the United States meet abuse or dependence criteria for prescription pain relievers. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that annually, more people die from prescription painkiller overdoses than from heroin and cocaine combined.

Stroke Risk Factors May Lead to Cognitive Problems

High blood pressure and other known risk factors for stroke also increase the risk of developing cognitive problems, even among people who have never had a stroke, a study funded by NIH has found.

“Our results emphasize the importance of early intervention to treat high blood pressure and preserve cognitive health prior to a stroke or other cerebral event,” said first author Dr. Frederick Unverzagt, a professor of psychiatry at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. The study appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of Neurology.

The new findings come from the REasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study, an effort to track stroke risk and cognitive health in an ethnically and demographically diverse sample of the U.S. population 45 and older. Since 2003, the study has followed more than 30,000 people. The study is funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

“A strength of this study is that it looked at people who were cognitively healthy at the start and reassessed their cognitive function periodically to see who developed problems over time,” said NINDS deputy director Dr. Walter Koroshetz. “This allowed the investigators to explore whether certain risk factors were predictive of, rather than just correlated with, cognitive impairment.”

Light Therapy Destroys Cancer Cells in Mice

Researchers have designed a light-based therapy that allows the selective destruction of tumor cells in mice without harming surrounding normal tissue. This method of cancer therapy could theoretically work against tumors in humans, such as those of the breast, lung, prostate, as well as cancer cells in the blood such as leukemias, say scientists from the National Cancer Institute. The study appeared online Nov. 6 in Nature Medicine.

Current photodynamic therapy is not specific for cancer cells, resulting in damage to surrounding normal tissue. Researchers in this study set out to develop a light therapy that could more accurately target cancer cells while sparing a greater number of normal cells. The new treatment, called photoimmunotherapy, or PIT, uses light to rapidly and selectively kill cancer cells.

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