Archive for February, 2012

Howard LeWine, M.D.

FDA changes safety information on statin drugs

A new ruling from the FDA offers good news and some warnings for people who take a cholesterol-lowering statin. The good news—no more periodic blood tests for liver function. The warnings—taking a statin may increase the odds of developing type 2 diabetes or suffering reversible memory loss or problems thinking. The FDA warned that one statin, lovastatin, shouldn’t be taken with some antibiotics, anti-fungal agents, or medications used to treat AIDS.

Jeff Szymanski

Can an infection suddenly cause OCD?

Beginning in 1998, infectious disease and mental health experts have identified children who develop symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or tic disorders such as Tourette’s syndrome after an infection. First thought to be linked only to the group A streptococcus bacteria that cause strep throat or scarlet fever, it has been seen with other kinds of infections. Experts propose calling this frightening disorder pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome (PANS). It probably happens when the infectious agent gets into the brain and inflames the basal ganglia. Rapid treatment with antibiotics can reverse the symptoms.

Patrick J. Skerrett

Virtual reality, exergames may improve mental and physical health

Games are meant to be fun and exciting. Some involve the body, some the mind. Others do both. Researchers are tapping into this engagement to use games to heal an ailing mind or body. Researchers are testing virtual reality to help people with mental and physical problems ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder and stroke rehabilitation to smoking cessation and stuttering. Exergames may also help people become more physically active. Although they won’t help you lose weight or train for a marathon, many meet the American Heart Association’s criteria for “moderate-intensity daily activity,” meaning they could stand in for taking a walk.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Quick injection helps stop epileptic seizures

An epileptic seizure is a frightening thing to experience, and almost as frightening to watch. Fortunately, most seizures stop on their own after a couple minutes. Any that last longer than five to 10 minutes (doctors call a long-lasting seizure status epilepticus) are a medical emergency and must be halted with medication. A new study shows that delivering anti-seizure medication with a hand-held auto-injector—much like the epi pens used by people with life-threatening allergies—is better than delivering them intravenously. This study could pave the way for home treatment of epileptic seizures.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Pregnancy-related high blood pressure, diabetes linked to later heart disease

Most of the changes that come with pregnancy—growing a belly “bump,” being tired, mood swings, cravings for particular foods, and the like—are normal, temporary, and harmless. Two other changes, pregnancy-related high blood pressure and diabetes, may have long-lasting implications for heart health. The development of high blood pressure during pregnancy is known as preeclampsia; pregnancy-related diabetes is called gestational diabetes. They are different from “regular” high blood pressure and diabetes because both are “cured” by delivery. A new study published this week in the journal Circulation suggests that these complications boost a woman’s risk of cardiovascular disease during middle age.

Nancy Ferrari

Is there a link between diet soda and heart disease?

I’m a big fan of diet soda. I like the taste, and I love that it doesn’t have any calories. I can drink two or three diet sodas a day and not worry about gaining weight. But a new study has me wondering if enjoying the sweetness of soda without the sugar and calories is such a good thing after all. University of Miami and Columbia University researchers found that daily diet soda drinkers were more likely to have had a stroke or heart attack over the course of a 10-year study, or to have died from vascular disease, as folks who didn’t imbibe diet soda. My husband gently (but persistently) tells me there is nothing good about drinking diet soda, not even the taste I claim to enjoy so much. The evidence seems to be backing him up.

Nancy Ferrari

How drug shortages happen

Worrisome shortages of important medications—from drugs to manage the symptoms of ADHD to standard cancer drugs—have been in the headlines lately. A shortage can be frightening to the people who need a hard-to-get medication, and frustrating for the clinicians who prescribe it. Manufacturing and quality control issues are among the primary reasons for drug shortages. The FDA can sometimes help ease a drug shortage. What can you do if you are affected? Ask your doctor if another medication might work for you. Be especially wary of Internet or faxed advertisements for alternatives (often highly priced and sometimes counterfeit).

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Addiction: It retrains the brain, is tougher on women

It’s hard for someone who has never battled an addiction to understand how or why a person can’t break free of one. An exchange on the radio about pop star Whitney Houston’s addictions underscores the misconceptions many people have about addiction. Addictions retrain the brain in a way that couples liking something with wanting it. There are important gender differences in addiction. Although men are more likely than women to become addicted to drugs or harmful behaviors, women who have an addiction face tougher challenges.

Harvey B. Simon, M.D.

Sleep helps learning, memory

Sleep may be time off for the body, but it’s part of a day’s work for the brain. During sleep, the brain is hard at work processing the events of the day, sorting and filing, making connections, and even solving problems. New research suggests that dreaming can improve memory, boost performance, and even improve creativity. Naps have been shown to improve recall. Napping won’t make you smart or assure success, but it can help improve your memory and solve problems. Sleeping well at night, and long enough, is associated with good health. The combination is a two-step approach that should give everyone something to sleep on.

Patrick J. Skerrett

The science behind “broken heart syndrome”

Media reports describing “broken heart syndrome” often lump together two completely different conditions. One is stress cardiomyopathy, sometimes known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy. The other is myocardial infarction, better known as a heart attack. A huge sudden stress—like news that a loved one has died, experiencing an earthquake, or learning that your accountant has stolen all of your retirement savings—unleashes a torrent of stress hormones that can trigger one of those conditions. Stress cardiomyopathy is a weakening of the left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber. Over the course of a week or longer, the left ventricle tends to recover its pumping power. Heart attacks occur when something—usually a blood clot—blocks blood flow to part of the heart muscle.