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Health Highlights: April 13, 2009

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:

Pleasure Fibers in Skin Help Humans Bond: Researchers

Nerve fibers in the skin that transmit pleasure messages to the brain have been identified by U.S. and Swedish scientists, who said their finding may improve understanding of how touch sustains human relationships.

Along with identifying these "C-tactile" nerve fibers, the researchers also found that a person's skin must be stroked at a certain rate -- four to five centimeters per second -- to activate the pleasure sensation, BBC News reported.

If the stroke rate was faster or slower, the nerve fibers weren't activated, and the touch wasn't pleasurable, according to the study of 20 people. It also found that C-tactile fibers are only present on hairy skin and are not found on the hand. The findings were published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

The preferred stroke rate is the same as that used by a mother to comfort a baby or by couples when they're showing affection, BBC News reported. These nerve fibers are part of the evolutionary mechanism that helps humans bond, said study author Professor Francis McGlone.

"Our primary impulse as humans is procreation, but there are some mechanisms in place that are associated with behavior and reward which are there to ensure relationships continue," McGlone said.

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Poor Diabetes Control Affects Brain: Study

Type 2 diabetes patients who fail to prevent dangerously-low blood sugar levels can suffer memory problems and reduced brain power over the long-term, according to a U.K. study that included 1,066 patients, ages 60 to 75.

The volunteers completed a number of tests designed to assess mental abilities such as concentration, memory and logic. The 113 participants who'd previously experienced severe hypoglycemic episodes (hypos) had the lowest scores, BBC News reported.

"Either hypos lead to cognitive decline, or cognitive decline makes it more difficult for people to manage their diabetes, which in turn causes more hypos," said lead researcher Dr. Jackie Price of the University of Edinburgh. "A third explanation could be that a third unidentified factor is causing both the hypos and the cognitive decline."

The study was presented at the Diabetes UK conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

"This study reinforces previous evidence which suggests that poorly controlled diabetes affects the functioning of the brain," Dr. Iain Frame, director of research at Diabetes UK, told BBC News. "We already know that type 2 diabetes increases the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, which is a type of dementia, and this research adds another piece to a very complex jigsaw puzzle."

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Ethanol Raises Cost of Food Aid for Needy: Report

A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report says that increased use of the corn-based fuel additive ethanol may cost the government up to $900 million for food stamps and child nutrition programs, the Associated Press reports.

Higher use of ethanol accounted for about 10 percent to 15 percent of the rise in food prices between April 2007 and April 2008, according to the report. Economists estimated that increased costs for food programs overall will be about $5.3 billion in the current budget year, the AP said. Demand for ethanol was one factor that boosted corn prices, which led to higher animal feed and ingredient costs for farmers, ranchers and food manufacturers that is eventually passed on to consumers, the report said.

Groups opposed to a higher cap for the amounts of ethanol blended in gasoline production released a statement opposing tax breaks for the fuel. These groups included the Grocery Manufacturers Association, American Meat Institute, National Turkey Federation and National Council of Chain Restaurants.

"As startling as these figures are, they do not even tell the story of the toll higher food prices have taken on working families, nor the impact higher feed prices have had on farmers in animal agriculture who have seen staggering losses and job cuts and liquidation of livestock herds," the statement said.

But Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy, an ethanol industry group, told AP, "The impact of ethanol production on food prices is minimal," citing energy costs in general as responsible for the rise in food prices. Ethanol producers last month asked the Environmental Protection Agency to raise the amount of ethanol that can be blended with gasoline from the current maximum of 10 percent to 15 percent, saying it could create thousands of new jobs, according to the AP.

The EPA has yet to decide on raising the ethanol cap, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said the administration could move quickly to raise it to 12 percent or 13 percent, the AP reported.

Posted: April 2009


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