Lab Report: Health, Science and Medicine

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MENTAL ILLNESS

Big City, Big Risks

Living in a fast-paced city comes with inherent rewards--and risks. The same intensity that makes an urban lifestyle so appealing may also make it difficult and even dangerous, especially from a mental-health perspective. Studies have found higher rates of psychoses like schizophrenia in city dwellers than in rural residents, but researchers haven't quite figured out why that's so. Is it something in the nature of the city itself that contributes to mental instability? Or is it a characteristic of the people who gravitate to urban living in the first place?

A team of scientists studying Swedish citizens born in the 1970s suggest it's the city. After analyzing the effects of individual characteristics and the impact of schooling and other community-based factors, they found that while genetics and personal circumstances are primarily responsible for the development of psychoses, the social fragmentation and disconnected nature of city life help explain why the rates of these disorders are higher in urbanites. Strengthening community ties, they say, may help lower the risk of mental illness among city dwellers.

AUTISM

Diagnosing Babies by Video

The causes of autism may not be clear, but evidence is building that early intervention can mitigate or perhaps even prevent the developmental disorder altogether. So researchers were excited by the news that something as simple as a video may help detect the condition in infants as young as 14 months.

Scientists presented autistic and developmentally normal toddlers ages 14 to 42 months with side-by-side videos, one depicting rapidly changing patterns of geometric shapes and another showing children participating in a yoga class. By tracking the viewers' attention--autistic children spent more time watching the shapes--researchers were able to correctly diagnose 40% of the toddlers with the disorder within a minute. The test is based on previous studies showing that children with autism tend to prefer inanimate objects and toys over human faces and voices.

The findings still need to be confirmed, but the study's authors hope the test will eventually be used to assist doctors in identifying autism at its earliest and most treatable stages. "If you can get in [early] and train a child to bring his social behavior and language more in line with normal development, then it may counteract autism," says Dr. Geraldine Dawson, chief scientific officer of the research and advocacy group Autism Speaks.

FROM THE LABS

A New Target For Alzheimer's?

One key to addressing Alzheimer's disease is preventing the buildup of protein in the brain. Working with human and mouse cells, scientists have found an enzyme that does just that: it clears away misfolded proteins and blocks their pathological accumulation, a hallmark of the neurodegenerative disease. The hope is that the enzyme could become a new target for drug development.

Why Obesity Causes Infertility

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