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Woman's fertility cycle affects brain, scans show

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A woman's hormones affect specific parts of the brain called the reward pathway, researchers said on Monday in a finding that could offer insight into treating drug abuse and mood disorders.

A study of women playing an imaginary slot machine game showed their brain responses changed in anticipation of a payout depending on the phases of their menstrual cycles.

This might help explain other studies that show women get a bigger kick from cocaine and amphetamines during one phase of the fertility cycle -- and perhaps why women are less vulnerable to schizophrenia than men are, the researchers said.

"This demonstrates for the first time that female ... hormones affect the reward system in very specific ways during particular parts of the cycle," said Dr. Karen Berman of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, who worked on the study published in the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences.

"It is interesting to speculate that this may have evolutionary advantages and may affect behaviors that have been shown in other studies to also be affected by cycles."

For instance, not only are women more susceptible to drug abuse at certain points, but they may also find testosterone-type facial traits in men more appealing at certain times in their cycles, Berman said.

What this does not mean is that women are somehow more emotional or vulnerable to hormones than men are, she stressed.

"I think it is important to keep in mind that this isn't the only thing that is going on in women's brains," she said in a telephone interview.

"We have very important regulatory areas and homeostatic mechanisms that keep us in line, keep us functioning, keep us focused, keep us productive," she added.

"I would really hate for this work to be interpreted in a way to make us seem that we are at the call of our hormones because I don't think that is the case."

Berman, working with Dr. Jean-Claude Dreher of France's national scientific research center CNRS and colleagues, used functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI to get real-time images of the brain activity of 15 women.

The women played a hypothetical slot machine game, with payouts of $10 or $20.

Different areas of the brain lit up in anticipation of a payout -- a reward -- depending on the menstrual cycle phase. For instance, during the midfollicular phase, which comes four to eight days after menstrual bleeding starts, the orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala of the brain were more active.

At this phase, estrogen is produced but progesterone levels are low.

Berman said it is too soon to connect any of the findings with specific behaviors.

Berman noted that estrogen has been found to protect brain cells, and the findings could also shed light on other studies of why women develop schizophrenia later in life than men and at lower rates.

She would like to study women past menopause, who produce much lower levels of hormones.

Hormones also affect the brains of men, but in different ways, Berman said. Her team did not study men for this report.

Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor


Health Tip: Is Your Baby Ready for Solid Food?

If your baby is about 4 months old, you may be considering feeding her some solid food. But how do you know if your baby is ready?

The Nemours Foundation offers this checklist:

* Has she lost her tongue-thrusting reflex? This reflex -- which prevents her from choking on formula -- could cause her to push solid food from her mouth with her tongue.
* Can your baby hold her head up on her own? Before eating solid food, she needs to be able to support her own head and neck.
* Is she interested in food other than a bottle? If she is watching and reaching for your food, she's probably ready to try a few bites of her own.


France moves to stub out smoking

PARIS (AFP) - Part one of a French ban on smoking in public places comes into force on Thursday, covering workplaces, schools and hospitals and setting the clock ticking for smoke-filled cafes and bars which have until next January to kick the habit.

Smokers will now have to stub out on the doorstep of shops, sports clubs and entertainment venues that still allowed smoking, while "smokers' corners" in school staff rooms and hospitals will vanish entirely.

Panicked owners of restaurants, bars, nightclubs and casinos -- anticipating a loss of custom in a country where almost one in three adults is a smoker -- have been given a year to prepare for the minor earthquake.

"From February 1, no one should be forced to breathe other people's smoke," Health Minister Xavier Bertrand said last week. "I am sure that in future our children will find it inconceivable that we used to smoke in offices or schools."

Unruly smokers will face fines of 68 euros (88 dollars) for lighting up in the wrong place, while business owners will be fined 135 euros.

Companies can choose to provide hermetically-sealed smoking rooms, with powerful extractor fans, but few are expected to install the costly systems, preferring to let staff puff away on the pavement and offer them advice on how to quit.

The rare exceptions to the new rules are places considered as "substitutes for the home" -- such as hotels or retirement homes.

The government has also said it will be lenient towards hospital patients with mental illnesses, who would not understand a sudden ban, or those already struggling to give up alcohol or drug addiction.

The February 1 ban is largely seen as a test run ahead of next year's complete ban on smoking in restaurants and bars -- a cultural earthquake in a country of coffee- and cigarette-lovers.

But some restaurants have already taken the bull by the horns, as in the southern city of Marseille where a growing number are going completely smoke-free well ahead of the legal deadline.

"We felt the time was right," said Stephane Pandeli, who runs a seafood restaurant, Toinou, in the city centre. He said he had not lost any custom, and even gained some as non-smokers flocked back.

"Eventually, people won't have a choice anyway. They haven't stopped catching the train or plane since they banned smoking," he said.

Around the corner, the Shambala oriental cafe has always been smoke-free. Its owner, Eric Martin, said he has a loyal customer base of "young women who come here when they're pregnant, then with the children", to enjoy the fragrance of tea and incense without the smell of smoke.

The Cafe des Epices, a restaurant perched in Marseille's historic Panier neighbourhood, is booked up a week in advance despite its smoking ban.

"We do a lot of work with spices. Cigarettes affect the taste buds -- people wouldn't get as much out of the chef's work" if people were smoking, said owner Eddy Reignoux.

But he admits the mild climate in Marseille -- as in Italy where a ban on smoking in restaurants has been an overall success -- is a help: smokers can comfortably nip outside with a glass of wine for an open-air cigarette.

Overall, recent figures show the number of French smokers to be rising, especially among the young. Smokers now account for 32 percent of 15- to 75-year-olds, and almost one in two in the 18 to 25 age bracket.

Smoking is thought to kill 66,000 people in France each year, while passive smoking claims some 6,000 lives -- 1,000 of them non-smokers, the rest smokers who also breathe the cigarette smoke of others.

The anti-smoking decree, adopted by the government last November, goes one step further than a 1991 law that banned cigarettes in many places including train stations and airports, but still allowed designated smoking areas.


Another bird flu case suspected in Japan

TOKYO (AFP) - Another outbreak of bird flu is suspected in Japan in what would be the fourth case this month, the farm ministry has said.

A total of 23 birds were found dead at a poultry farm in the town of Shintomicho in southwestern Miyazaki prefecture, the ministry said in a statement Tuesday.

"Seven samples out of 13 were positive in an initial examination checking whether there is a contamination by the bird flu virus," an official of the Miyazaki prefectural government told AFP.

They will cultivate the virus and send it to an animal laboratory to determine whether it is the toxic type of avian influenza.

The poultry farm in the suspected case owns some 93,000 chickens providing eggs for human consumption.

If confirmed, it would be the fourth outbreak of bird flu across Japan this month, amid fears that avian influenza could spread further.

Two cases of the virulent H5N1 strain were detected earlier this month in Miyazaki prefecture, while a third case of bird flu whose strain has yet to be verified was confirmed Monday in western Okayama prefecture.

H5N1 has killed around 160 people across the world since late 2003 and can be transmitted through contact with infected birds' waste.

Health officials have warned that if the disease mutated into a form easily transmissible by humans, it could cause a pandemic with the potential to kill millions of people.

Japan confirmed an outbreak of the H5N1 strain of bird flu in January 2004. Since then, the nation has seen several further outbreaks of the H5N1 strain as well as the less serious H5N2 virus.


Revlimid May Help Against Chronic Leukemia

Summary: The drug Revlimid (lenalidomide) may be effective for some people with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) that has not responded to other treatments or comes back after treatment, according to a small Phase 2 study. If the results hold true in larger clinical trials, Revlimid may prove to be another option for patients who otherwise have few treatments left to try.

Why it's important: CLL is considered an incurable form of cancer. Although many people live for many years with this disease, it does eventually come back after treatment. There are not many treatments that work in this situation, especially if people have already been treated with the chemotherapy drug fludarabine. Patients need more effective ways to tackle CLL after their initial treatments.

What's already known: Revlimid was approved in 2005 to treat a type of bone marrow disorder called myelodysplastic syndrome. It has also shown promise against multiple myeloma, another type of bone marrow cancer. In lab studies, the drug appears to decrease the production of substances that help CLL cells survive, and to encourage the leukemia cells to die through a natural process called apoptosis. Those studies prompted the researchers, from the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, to try Revlimid in patients with CLL. They published their findings in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

How this study was done: The study included 45 people who had not responded to their CLL treatment or who had had a relapse after successful treatment. Most had been diagnosed with stage III or IV leukemia and were therefore considered high-risk patients. Participants took a Revlimid pill once a day. Treatment continued until the patients showed a response or had unacceptable side effects. Patients whose cancer progressed during treatment were given the drug Rituxan (rituximab) in addition to Revlimid.

What was found: Of the patients in whom a response could be measured, four (9%) had a complete response (no evidence of remaining disease) and 17 (38%) had a partial response to the Revlimid treatment. One patient died, and 3 saw their disease progress.

The Revlimid caused some side effects, including fatigue, low platelet counts, and low white cell counts. Two patients developed serious blood clots in the lungs. More than half of the participants in the study also experienced a flare reaction, which is a sudden swelling of the lymph nodes or spleen accompanied by fever and rash. This side effect was treated with ibuprofen. Patients who enrolled in the study later were given prednisone to make the flare reaction less severe if it did develop.

The bottom line: Although the researchers are concerned by the high percentage of side effects with the dose used in this study, they say Revlimid warrants further study in people with CLL. Future studies should explore different doses of Revlimid, and try combining Revlimid with other drugs that are effective against CLL (like Rituxan and the chemotherapy drug fludarabine), they say.


US donates protective gear to help Indonesia fight bird flu

JAKARTA (AFP) - US ambassador B. Lynn Pascoe handed over 100,000 sets of protective equipment to help Indonesia in its fight against bird flu, which has killed six people this month.

The gear is part of a 24-million-dollar programme to help Indonesia combat the spread of the deadly virus, which has claimed 63 lives here since the start of 2005, the world's highest death toll.

"The most recent cases serve to remind us that we have not yet contained bird flu here in Indonesia, and must remain vigilant in both our continued efforts to detect and contain the virus and to educate the citizens of this nation," Pascoe said in a statement issued by the US embassy.

The protective suits, respirators, goggles and gloves will be distributed to people who come in direct contact with poultry or people infected with the H5N1 strain of bird flu.

The embassy said the United States would donate a total of 200,000 sets of protective gear and 2,000 decontamination kits for use at infected farms, hospitals, clinics and homes.

Health workers have begun slaughtering thousands of birds in the capital Jakarta ahead of a February 1 ban on backyard poultry, while poultry markets and slaughter houses are to be moved away from residential areas.

The ban is to be gradually extended to cover the whole country.


Health Tip: Understanding Raynaud's Disease

Raynaud's disease is a rare disorder in which the blood vessels occasionally narrow and reduce blood supply to areas like the fingers, toes and lips.

If the condition occurs without any known cause, it is known as Raynaud's disease. If it occurs as a result of a known cause, it's known as Raynaud's phenomenon.

In both types of Raynaud's, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute says, narrowed vessels can be triggered by events like exposure to cold temperatures, stress and other emotions. The areas to which the blood supply is reduced -- most commonly fingers and toes -- may turn white or develop a bluish tinge. Less often, the condition affects the nose, ears, nipples and lips.

Once blood flow has returned to normal, the skin on the affected area may turn red, throb or feel numb or tingly.

For most people, Raynaud's is more of a bother than a dangerous condition, the institute says. But people with severe cases can suffer tissue damage, it adds.


Athletes' heart condition linked to exercise-induced damage: study

CHICAGO (AFP) - Most athletes pay a physical price for their love of the sport, but the ones who engage in endurance sports may be pushing their bodies to the brink of heart failure, according to a new study.

That's because the physical wear and tear of years of heavy-duty workouts appear to weaken the heart muscle predisposing an athlete to a rare, but potentially deadly, condition called ventricular arrhythmia in which the heart beats erratically.

"There may be a limit to how much exercise the heart can tolerate," said Professor Hein Heidbuchel, a cardiologist at University Hospital Gasthuisberg at the University of Leuven in Belgium, and the author of the paper.

Researchers have known for some time that high-level athletes, like the cyclists who compete in the Tour de France, are susceptible to ventricular arrhythmia. What they didn't know was whether the irregular heartbeats were a result of a genetic flaw, or the product of over-training.

In this study, Heidbuchel and his team examined the heart function of a group of 22 athletes with ventricular arrhythmia, and compared it to the heart function of 15 healthy endurance athletes and a control group of 10 non-athletes. Most of the athletes were cyclists, with a handful of runners, kayakers, and footballers thrown in. All were Dutch and Belgian men aged 18 to 55.

The tests showed that in 18 of the 22 sportsmen with the heart problem, the irregular heartbeat originated in the right chamber or ventricle of the heart. Moreover, the structural weakness resulted in their hearts pumping less blood out of the right chamber than was the case in the healthier athletes.

Heidbuchel said further research is needed to rule out genetics as a factor, but the findings bolster the theory that the physical stress of high-level endurance exercise can damage the right chamber of the heart disrupting normal heart rate and rhythm.

"Lifelong endurance training may lead to heart disturbances, particularly in young male athletes," he said.

Heidbuchel said that while the condition is rare, athletes should watch out for the warning signs, such as a sudden shortness of breath during exercise, or brief blackouts, and seek out the proper testing, he said.

And he cautioned that this kind of heart damage is probably irreversible, and a positive diagnosis is essentially a career-ending proposition.

"It's uncommon, but if you find that there is right ventricular damage, the conclusion should be that your competitive career should stop," he said.

All of the sportsmen in the study who were shown to have malfunctioning right ventricles gave up competing, with some of them switching careers to become trainers.

Some of the athletes were internationally known cyclists who had competed in the Tour de France, according to Heidbuchel.

The study appears in the European Heart Journal.


China's anti-doping show hits the road ahead of Olympics

BEIJING (AFP) - An anti-doping exhibition in China has hit the road in a bid to root out a problem that could jeopardize the success of the 2008 Olympic Games in the country.

Chinese and international sports officials say that China has made great strides in recent years in improving its own checkered record on doping but has yet to tackle the problem at its source.

"Our goal is to take this exhibition around the country this year so that everyone will have a chance to see and understand what the problem is," said Lin Wenyi, the head of the Beijing Olympic organising committee's science and technology panel, who opened the roadshow here last week.

The exhibition, titled "Olympics -- 40 years of anti-doping" showcases vials of performance-enhancing drugs and poster-size photos and wallcharts showing the history of doping in sport, including one shot of a hypodermic syringe thrust into an athlete's arm.

But there are no specific displays concerning China's own history of battling performance-enhancing drugs.

China was a latecomer to the anti-drug bandwagon and its reputation was battered by several major drug busts in the 1990s. More than 40 positive tests since 1990 made China the league leader in the field.

But China's embarrassed sports leaders have maintained a strong crackdown in recent years.

In 2004 China enacted laws specifically cracking down on coaches who administer the drugs, providing for life bans for offenders.

"They took very restrictive measures," said International Olympic Committee chief Jacques Rogge after the 2004 Olympics. "There are no longer any compromises."

However, in the run up to the 2008 Games, cynics suggest that Chinese coaches will try to ensure that China tops the medal table by fair means or foul after coming second to the United States in 2004 in Athens.

Following the 2005 drug bust of Sun Yingjie, China's top female distance runner and an Olympic bronze medallist over 10,000m, one sports insider said it was routine for coaches to administer "medicine".

"Athletes are given this medicine in a regular way like a medical supplement is given at a hospital," the coach told state media on condition of anonymity. "The effect of the 'medicine' on the results are obvious."

Evidence that doping remains a major problem at provincial level and below emerged last August at a sports school in the northeastern province of Liaoning.

Authorities found about 450 bottles of performance enhancing drugs, some being used by athletes as young as 15 years of age.

In a comprehensive survey of young athletes in 2005 by the Beijing University of Sports Culture, five percent of student athletes said they had taken drugs and more than 11 percent said they were considering doing so.

"The problem is not what is happening at the top. It is out in the country which is more difficult to control," said Dick Pound, the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, during a recent visit to China.

Driven by the short-cut to glory and massive financial rewards in China, there will always be coaches and athletes ready to use drugs, according to Yang Shumin, the former head of China's Olympic doping control centre and an expert on anabolic steroids.

"China has a no-tolerance doping policy," he said. "But in any country there are athletes who want to take drugs. There is not much that can be done about it except through education and very harsh sanctions."


News confirms suspicions of breast cancer survivor

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Diane Balma felt vindicated when she heard the news -- Canadian researchers had discovered that women with dense breasts, making their mammograms difficult to read, had a far higher risk of cancer.

They found that women with the densest breasts had four to six times the risk of breast cancer compared with women with the fattiest, and easiest-to-image, breasts.

Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Norman Boyd of the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto and colleagues said breast density itself could be a risk factor for breast cancer.

The other risk factors include having a close relative with breast cancer, carrying one of the known BRCA breast cancer genes and never having borne a child.

Balma had none of the other risk factors, but was worried when she felt a lump in her breast 11 years ago at age 30.

"I wasn't doing self-exams at the time," said Balma, who is now director of public policy at the non-profit Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. "I just happened to come upon it. It was quite large and pretty deep."

She went immediately for a mammogram -- not a routine recommendation for women under 40, but Balma was worried.

"It did not show on the mammogram," said Balma in a telephone interview. She had dense breasts, which show up on an X-ray like a white mass of tissue. Tumors in fatty breasts usually show up more clearly.

Her radiologist, a doctor who specializes in reading X-rays such as mammograms and other scans, was not especially worried but ordered an ultrasound.

"I was relatively small-breasted. Even so, he was barely able to find it on the ultrasound," Balma said. "When he did see it, his words to me were, 'You know, you are too young. I wouldn't worry about this. I am sure it is not cancer."'

But it was.


"I decided to have it removed and it was a decision that saved my life," Balma said. Her surgeon discovered a very large tumor that turned out to be an aggressive type of cancer.

Balma eventually had both breasts removed and endured six rounds of chemotherapy. She has been cancer-free for 11 years.

"I have always known that dense breast tissue makes breast cancer harder to detect. But I also wondered if it brought a greater risk of breast cancer," Balma said.

The Canadian study, published on Thursday, appeared to confirm that.

Breast cancer will be found in 180,510 men and women in 2007 in the United States alone and will kill 40,900, according to the
American Cancer Society. Globally, it affects 1.2 million people a year.

The deaths are almost exclusively in people whose cancer is found too late, and young women under 40 make up about 5 percent of that number. Most cases are in women past menopause.

Mammograms are only recommended for women who know they are at high risk, and for women over the age of 40. How would a younger women such as Balma even know she had dense breasts and thus perhaps have a higher risk?

"That is a question that has not been answered yet," said Dr. Cheryl Perkins, senior clinical adviser at the Foundation.

"We need more study of breast cancer in young women. We comprise far fewer breast cancers but our tumors tend to be more aggressive and more deadly," said Balma.

Perkins agreed. Younger women have fewer treatment options, she said. "Those types of breast cancer tend to metastasize (spread) early. They tend to metastasize to the brain," Perkins said.

Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

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How your baby goes from ‘Da-Da’ to Daddy

SEATTLE - It is one of the great wonders of humanity: A baby hears parents and others talking and learns to speak. Now, with parents volunteering their infants, researchers at the University of Washington are learning just what happens in the babies' brain to make that miracle unfold.

A cap with electrodes on the baby's head painlessly records signals from the brain's nerve cells. It all happens in a sound-proof room, on mom's lap, with one of the researchers working to keep the child happy.

The scientists play sounds like "Ba" and "Da" — key components of language.

As the child recognizes them, the machines record the brain pattern

"This is a technological tour de force," says Dr. Patricia Kuhl, who heads the project. "If you take a newborn — a six-monther and a 12-monther — dramatic changes are happening in the brain."

First, trillions of new nerve connections form in the part of the brain called Wernicke's Area, which is responsible for speech recognition. A few months later, neurons come alive in Broca's Area, the part responsible for speech.

"It's as though Broca's Area is saying, 'Oh, I recognize that. It's something that my mouth, and tongue, and lips can produce,'" says Kuhl.

The research has revealed that there can be enormous variation in how quickly the young brains respond. Researchers hope that by discovering how babies normally acquire language, they'll learn how to intervene if something is wrong and the process is not going properly

This could lead to better interventions to prevent autism, dyslexia and other problems.

But already it has reinforced what every parent knows — that the more you talk and read to your child — the faster the brain develops language.

Robert Bazell


Inspiration or static? TV, iPods affect workouts

Audio, video keep some exercisers pumped but distract others, experts say Jennifer Unruh can run a mile in two songs. “I’ve got it figured out,” said Unruh, who moves to the beat of Van Halen and The Fray on her iPod. “Usually, every song lasts about four minutes.

I run a mile in a little over eight. So if I can get through two songs, I know I’m a mile though my run.”

Gyms are jammed with people like Unruh — the guy on the treadmill watching ESPN, the aerobic class bouncing to “Hollaback Girl,” the spinner reading Self magazine. Words, images and especially songs can provide inspiration for exercisers, as well as a distraction from tedium and discomfort.

Unruh, director of wellness support at the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta, uses her songs-per-mile mind games as a way to keep engaged.

But are those distractions good or bad for exercisers? Researchers say it cuts both ways. Yes, a dose of video or audio can inspire better workouts. But distractions also can hurt performance. In a way, music can add static to the mind-body connection.

Since the dawn of the Walkman, headphones have been as important as sneakers to many exercisers. Jacqueline Wojtusik, an Albany, N.Y.-area fashion designer who wears headphones for her regular workouts, listens to disco, ’80s dance, electronic — anything as long as it has a fast beat.

“If it has a higher beat per minute,” she said, “then I tend to stay with that beat.”

Science is on her side.

In a 2005 study, British researchers put 18 undergraduates on stationary bicycles to pedal either to silence or to “popular electronic dance music” on headphones. Participants worked about 13 percent harder to the up-tempo music compared with silence. One of the researchers, Sam Carr, suggested in an e-mail interview that music competes with an exercisers’ awareness of how hard they’re breathing, or how much their legs ache.

Psychologists sometimes use the phrase “dissociation effect” to describe distractions like music and TV, and they have found it can have other benefits.

Dr. James Annesi, a health psychologist who works at the same Atlanta YMCA as Unruh, found that novice exercisers given a choice of TV or music were more apt to stick with an exercise program than those told to focus only on their exertions or people limited to one type of media. If the gyms look like media centers, that’s fine by Annesi, as long as it encourages people to exercise.

“The more dissociation the better, the more we can distance the people from their discomfort,” he said.

Still, athletes digging deep for peak performance would do well to ditch the headphones and focus on their bodies. Studies have shown that the more distracted the athlete, the slower the times, said Ohio University psychology professor Benjamin Ogles.

“If you want to maintain a high level of intensity, you pretty much have to focus on your body,” he said.

This is related to the belief that noisy gadgets interfere with the intensely focused mental state many athletes refer to as “flow.” For instance, visitors to the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Mass., are encouraged to leave the headphones behind. Jennifer Young, director of healthy living programs, said she wants to keep visitors’ mind-body connections strong.

Hikers at Kripalu are coached to “scan” their bodies by concentrating sequentially on their ankles, hips, shoulders and so on. Even during weightlifting — an activity linked more to Metallica then meditation — people are asked to visualize what their muscles are doing, or to focus on their breathing.

“Don’t turn out and turn off,” Young said, “because then there’s that underlying signal, ‘Oh, working out is something I don’t want to do. I’m escaping it by doing this.’ ”

Even Anna Fyodorova, a triathlete from New York City who calls the iPod one of the “greatest creations made” for training, sees its limits. When other runners wore their ear buds during a recent 60-kilometer race, she decided against it.

“When you’re racing, you have to concentrate,” she said. “You have to be totally in the moment.”


Cartoons with faces to help autistic children

LONDON (AFP) - British autism experts launched an innovative new way of helping children with the condition to recognize emotions, using youngster-friendly animated videos.

A DVD entitled 'The Transporters' features the adventures of toy vehicles which have real moving human faces digitally pasted on, with each of 15 episodes focused on a particular emotion, such as happiness, fear and surprise.

"Autistic children are drawn to and fascinated by vehicles because of their predictable and repetitive motion," said Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, which co-produced the DVD.

"We decided to combine toy vehicles and human faces to create an entertaining way of helping them learn about emotions and facial expressions," he told AFP.

Autistic children dislike the unpredictability of human behaviour, typically shying away from contact with others, and have a limited capacity to understand other people's emotions.

A study of 20 autistic children showed that, after a month of watching the series, their ability to recognise emotions had markedly improved, enough to catch up with typically-developing children in their age-group.

One parent, whose five-year-old son Tom participated in the initial research, said it also improved his relations with his siblings.

"Tom and his sister Sophia would often fight because they didn't understand each other," explained Carole, without giving her full name. "As well as helping Tom, the DVD helped her to empathise with her brother's problems and find ways to help and communicate better with him."

She praised the decision to distribute the DVD -- narrated by British actor Stephen Fry -- for free.

"Other materials designed to help autistic children are usually extremely expensive, less stimulating and require constant active engagement from the parents," she said.

Professor Baron-Cohen hopes that families receiving one of the 30,000 DVDs will volunteer to help the team conduct a more in-depth investigation of the effects of the project.

The next step, he told AFP, is to carry out research with autistic children as young as two to see if the findings can help them. He also hopes to probe the changes taking place in the brains of children using the series.

The DVD includes material to accompany the animation series, such as interactive quizzes, to help children and parents reap the full benefits of the content.

'The Transporters' was produced by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, in conjunction with the Autism Research Centre and animation production company Catalyst Pictures.

Nina Sologubenko


Black men in focus in U.S. HIV drug trial

ATLANTA - AIDS research in the United States has often focused on gay white men because the virus was identified early in that group and they developed an effective lobbying voice. But a clinical trial by the AIDS Research Consortium of Atlanta is focusing on gay black men, who are not as well organized but who have a higher incidence of the disease.

The trial aims to determine whether an AIDS drug is safe for people who are negative for
HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. It has stirred debate among participants and researchers about gay sexuality within the black community and its attitude to safe sex.

"The black gay community has become complacent about HIV and STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) as a whole," said Duncan Teague, recruitment coordinator for the project.

"A lot of people in the black gay community are looking for love so they have sex because they think that means that that person loves them," Teague said.

Blacks make up around 12.8 percent of the U.S. population but comprised 50 percent of new diagnoses of HIV in 2003, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S.
Census Bureau.

In Georgia, 78 percent of people diagnosed with AIDS and 81 percent of people diagnosed with HIV in 2005 were black, as were almost all of the women who were newly diagnosed, said Melanie Thompson, the trial's lead investigator.

"African-American men are disproportionately affected by HIV and underrepresented in clinical trials. We are testing in order to know whether a drug is safe for the people who will ultimately use the drug," she said.

"While the study is open to men of any race, we are working hard to enroll as many men of color as possible," she said.

The trial involves giving daily doses of the drug tenofovir, an anti-retroviral drug made by Gilead Sciences Inc. and marketed as Viread, to men.

Participants, who could also be given a placebo, complete a computerized questionnaire about their sex lives and get risk-reduction counseling and condoms at every visit.


As a control, half the group don't receive the drug for the first nine months to see if taking a pill that might potentially make them less likely to contract HIV might encourage men to take more risks with sexual health.

It's part of a long-term project that includes similar studies in Botswana and Thailand and elsewhere to determine if a drug that suppresses the AIDS virus could one day be used as a prophylactic to prevent people from contracting it.

Researchers said one reason for the reluctance of blacks to participate in the study is the legacy of the notorious 40-year-long Tuskegee experiment, which was exposed in 1972 and led to an apology by President
Bill Clinton on behalf of the government to the victims.

In that experiment, the U.S. Public Health Service starting in 1932 told 400 blacks with syphilis in Alabama they had "bad blood," leaving the syphilis untreated to study its long-term effects on the body.

Some 43 percent of men enrolled in the AIDS drug study are black but many others were reluctant to take part because of misunderstandings about what the study entails and fear within the black community about clinical trials, Thompson said.

"My first question was 'Wait, are you going to inject me with the HIV virus?,"' said Dorrington Poitier, who is now taking part.

Atlanta is considered by some the gay capital of black America and gays organize an annual gay black pride festival on the Labor Day weekend.

Despite the large numbers of at-risk men, researchers said lack of organization within the gay black community had made it harder to promote awareness and mobilize against AIDS, which in addition had killed some community leaders.

"AIDS has sucked so much energy out of the community. The leaders started dropping dead, started getting sick. And we have been trying to replace them but against the odds," Teague said.

Another underlying reason for the prevalence of HIV infection was the stigma still attached to homosexuality within some parts of the black community, which left some gay men vulnerable to a degree of social isolation that made poor choices on safe sex easier.

"People within the black community say: 'It's fine to be gay but ... don't wear it on your sleeve. They see black as something you can't really hide but they don't want you to be gay in public," said Anthony McWilliams, a project organizer.

Matthew Bigg


Indonesia establishes health crisis centres in disaster zones

JAKARTA (AFP) - Indonesia has established health crisis centres to ensure a quick response to the many disasters which afflict the country."Quick response to disasters is a priority. We set up crisis centres in nine regions so we don't have to go through Jakarta to quickly respond to disasters," Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari told reporters Wednesday.

The disaster-prone areas covered include Medan, covering northern Sumatra and Aceh, Riau, Jambi, Java, Kalimantan and Sulawesi.

The centres are able to respond quickly with money, food and medicine in the event of a disaster.

They have already been put through their paces.

In recent weeks the crisis centres have helped out following a deadly earthquake and landslides in northern Sumatra, massive floods in Aceh province, Riau and West Kalimantan and two ferry sinkings.

According to government estimates, Indonesia suffers an average of 2.75 natural disasters a day, whether quakes, landslides, floods or other crises.

The Indonesian archipelago sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire where continental plates meet, causing frequent seismic and volcanic activity.

Supari also presented her department's achievements over the past two years, pointing to a "significant drop in the infant mortality rate from 35 per 1,000 births in 2004 to 30.8 per 1,000 births in 2006."

The maternal mortality rate dropped from 307 in 2004 to 262 per 100,000 births by the end of 2006.

By comparison, the corresponding reported figures for the United States are six and eight, respectively.


Ready to lose weight in '07? 4 steps to success

So you want to shed pounds — now what? How to get moving already

Like so many people, you have made a resolution to lose weight in the new year. Now what? Are you like the reader who sent this plea? “I can’t lose weight. I just don’t know where to start.”

So much conflicting advice is out there that it is no surprise if you are confused. Here are the basic steps to get started.

Are you ready?
Long-term weight management requires new eating and activity habits. Change takes effort. Failure is demoralizing. Before you start, first ask yourself why you want to lose weight. Your reasons need to be specific, for example, to improve your health, to increase your energy level, to look better. Are your reasons important to you? Important enough to sustain you when choosing between a cheeseburger with fries and a grilled chicken sandwich with a salad? Will your resolve keep you going against the reality of your everyday life? Ask yourself:

* Do you have a lot of stress in your life? If, for example, you are in the middle of a job change or a move, these may undermine your weight loss.
* Do you have the time to learn new eating habits and to fit physical activity into your day?
* Do you have the support of those around you?

If your motivation is high, and the support and timing are right, let’s get started. If you are not ready now, you can still strive to make some healthy changes.

What kind of loser are you?
Should you do it on your own? Many people who have successfully lost weight use books or the Internet. There are hundreds of choices, so you should be able to find advice that fits your needs.

If you don't think you can do it on your own, consider joining a commercial weight-loss program such as Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers or TOPS (Take off Pounds Sensibly). These are all balanced programs that will provide guidance and praise for your achievements.

Before you begin, talk to your doctor. This is important to ensure that you are healthy enough to change your diet and increase your activity. Most medical practices can give you advice about diet and exercise, and should be able to tell you if a book or a commercial program is sound. Keep in touch with your doctor as you lose weight. You are likely to see health improvements, and these may require changes in the medications you take for weight-related disorders such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

Barbara Rolls, Ph.D.