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Mixed Signals

Early births, an on/off switch for pain and navigating a rat’s memory.

Fall 2006
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DOCTORS DON’T NEED MORE TESTS to identify patients at risk for heart conditions, according to an Archives of Internal Medicine study. Researchers studied levels of 19 different chemicals in the blood of 16,000 people, and none—not even such markers as C-reactive protein (a detector for heightened inflammation)—had the predictive power of major risk factors (age, high blood pressure, cigarette smoking, elevated total cholesterol and diabetes).

CAN RATS RECALL EXPERIENCES as humans do? It seems so, say psychologists at the University of Georgia, whose experiments indicate that rats can synthesize the three elements that form the memory of an experience: what, when and where. After the researchers placed flavored and unflavored foods at different times and in different parts of a maze, the rats remembered where and when to find each type of morsel. The animal could become a model for testing drugs for Alzheimer’s and other human memory disorders.

ONE IN EIGHT AMERICAN INFANTS is born at least three weeks early, according to an Institute of Medicine report. The statistic is dire, considering that infants born before the thirty-seventh week of gestation are at higher risk for incomplete development, asthma, infection and such long-term complications as learning disabilities. The rising incidence—27% since 1981—may be caused, in part, by the increase of births among both adolescents and older women, and the increase of multiple births as a result of in vitro fertilization.

A MOLECULAR SWITCH, an enzyme called protein kinase G (PKG), turns chronic pain on and off, according to Columbia University researchers. Rat experiments show that when PKG is on, it causes nerve cells to send intense pain signals long after an injury has healed, and that pain stops when PKG turns off, although it’s not yet clear how it becomes deactivated. The discovery may lead to a new class of drugs without the side effects of current painkillers.

MEDICAL RESIDENTS GOING OFF SHIFT don’t relay information about their patients as well as they should. An Archives of Internal Medicine survey reports that, of the 202 internal medicine residency programs studied, 55% had inconsistent oral and written sign-out (patient transfer) practices, 60% did not provide training on transfer practices, and 59% had no system for informing nurses that transfers had occurred. Compounding the problem: Residents are now limited to working 80 hours per week, increasing doctor turnover by 11%.

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