Why Does Bad News Stress Women Out More than Men?

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October 16th, 2012

By Alexandra Sifferlin
It’s hard to avoid the news, thanks to Twitter feeds, Facebook updates and the ubiquity of newsfeeds eager to flood your screen with both calamity and celebration. But how are all these current events affecting our psyche?

To figure out whether our increasing exposure to 24-hour news coverage — especially negative news — has an impact on our stress levels, researchers from University of Montreal recruited 60 men and women to read news stories and submit to certain stressful situations. Turns out, women are more sensitive to negative news stories than men are, and they remember the details of such events better.

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For the study, the researchers divided the participants, aged 18 to 35, into four groups to read news stories. One group of men and one group of women read “neutral” news stories, about park openings or movie premieres, for example, while the other groups read negative news stories — about murders and accidents. To determine the participants’ stress levels after reading these stories, the research team took saliva samples and analyzed each for the stress hormone cortisol. The higher the level of hormone, the more stressed the participants likely were.

The study participants then completed stress-inducing tasks involving memory and intellect, and then provided a second round of saliva samples. The following day, the participants discussed the news stories they read the day before with researchers over the phone. The scientists found that although women’s stress levels didn’t rise after reading the negative news stories, the stories did make them more reactive to the stressful situations they endured afterward: women’s cortisol levels were higher after the memory and intellect tasks if they had first read negative news stories than if they read the neutral ones. Researchers didn’t see the same effect in men. What’s more, women who read stories about accidents and murders remembered more about them than did women who read “neutral” news. Again, the same phenomenon wasn’t seen among the male participants.

“When our brain perceives a threatening situation, our bodies begin to produce stress hormones that enter the brain and may modulate memories of stressful or negative events,” Sonia Lupien, director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress, explained in a statement. “This led us to believe that reading a negative news story should provoke the reader’s stress reaction.”

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What might explain the gender difference? The researchers speculate that evolutionary factors could play a role. Women’s invested interest in the survival of their offspring may make them more sensitive to potentially threatening situations or events. “Women tend to be more empathic than men,” says lead author Marie-France Marin. “It could be that they carry the [emotional] load longer than men, which could also influence their memory.”

The authors argue that understanding and appreciating individual reactions to bad news is increasingly important in our plugged-in society. “We are consuming news more and more. With smartphones, you can always see what’s going on. Our brain is constantly detecting stressors, and more and more stress hormones get back to the brain, which can affect attention, mood and cognition,” says Marin.

For women, perhaps recognizing that they may be particularly vulnerable to news-related stress could help them lessen the burden by simply being mindful of the potential effect of mass media, or by engaging in coping mechanisms like meditation and exercise.

The study was published in the journal PLoS One.

How Exercise-Friendly Is Your Body? A Genetic Test Claims to Tell You

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October 15th, 2012

By Alexandra Sifferlin

Is that daily jog really doing your body any good? A new test purports to tell you whether you’re genetically wired to benefit from exercise — or not so much.

As the New York Times reports, the genetic test is developed by British company XRGenomics, and is based on the findings of a 2010 study that identified about 30 gene variations that predicted how fit an individual may become through aerobic endurance activity.

The study’s authors, including researchers from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana, discovered the gene variations by genotyping muscle tissue of study participants who completed 6 to 20 weeks of endurance training. People’s aerobic fitness levels were gauges by looking at increases in their VO12 max — the body’s ability to circulate oxygen to muscles during exercise.

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Not surprisingly, the results led to an onslaught of requests for a genetic test, so the study’s lead researcher, James Timmons, a professor of systems biology at Loughborough University in England, and his colleagues filed a patent for the gene variants and developed the test. It’s not the first such test on the market: there are others (none of which are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration) that say they can predict whether young, aspiring athletes are better suited to sprinting or long-distance running, for example. But these test focus only on single genes, while XRGenomics’ product, with its analysis of 30 gene variants, is more reliable and scientifically validated, say its developers.

Curious gym-goers can send the company a cheek swab, and within six weeks they will receive results identifying them as low- or high-responders based on their DNA profile. It’ll cost you, though: the basic test and report run about $318; the price goes up to $478 for a more detailed analysis and personalized exercise recommendations from the company’s experts.

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But whatever your genetic profile, the test can’t predict all the ways in which you may benefit from exercise. The test won’t tell you, for example, whether or not you will lose weight through physical activity, or how it will influence other health factors like blood pressure and insulin levels, though there are plans to include such measures in the future.

The makers of the test still say it allows people to tailor their exercise and diet habits to meet realistic health goals. “The test can be used to guide and inform adult fitness and be used to explain why an aerobic training regime might not be as effective as your personal trainer or exercise specialist told you it would be,” they write on their website.

Hope for Infertility Treatments: Scientists Make New Eggs from Mouse Stem Cells

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October 10th, 2012

Japanese researchers have produced mouse eggs from stem cells that bred healthy offspring, a breakthrough that may one day help treat human infertility.

Researcher Mitinori Saitou and his team from Kyoto University in Japan used two different types of stem cells during their research: embryonic stem cells — a controversial technique since scientists must destroy embryos to cultivate them — and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are adult cells, such as skin cells, that are reprogrammed to an embryonic-like state. Producing healthy eggs from iPS cells is potentially even more exciting than using embryonic stem cells, since iPS cells sidestep the ethical issues that plague those derived from embryos and because the resulting eggs would contain the same DNA as their donors.

Stem cell experts greeted the work with praise. “They’ve gotten to what was our Holy Grail, which is making eggs,” George Daley, a leading stem-cell scientist at Harvard, told NPR. “It’s like cellular alchemy. I mean, they can turn lead into gold here. They can turn skin cells or blood cells into eggs.”

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In previous efforts, scientists — including the current group — have been able to create sperm and egg cells in the lab, but they weren’t able to produce healthy offspring from those cells. In the current study, published in the journal Science, the researchers first added growth factors and proteins to the stem cells to turn them into primordial germ cells. These cells were then combined with somatic cells from mouse ovaries to make “reconstituted ovaries,” which they transplanted into the mice. Four weeks later, the scientists removed them again, isolated immature egg cells from the ovaries and allowed them to mature in a dish. The mature eggs were fertilized with mouse sperm in a test tube and the resulting embryos were transferred into female mice, leading to the birth of healthy, fertile pups that went on to reproduce themselves.

It’s not at all clear whether the procedure would work similarly in humans, but the researchers if it does, it could revolutionize treatment for infertile couples and for older women who want children. “Now is the time for society to think about this,” Amander Clark, a stem cell scientist at UCLA, told the Los Angeles Times. “If we want to use stem cells to treat women who are older, we have to decide what the parameters are. Should this be available for women who are 40 to 50 years old? How about 50 and above? These shouldn’t be questions for scientists to decide alone.”

Indeed, such an advance would lead to a thicket of ethical questions: would you allow the use of tissues from a dead person to create new life, for example?

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The researchers said the lab-created egg cells led to healthy pups less frequently than did natural mouse eggs, which were also fertilized and transferred to female mice in a control group. Mice impregnated with embryos created via in-vitro fertilization with natural eggs produced healthy offspring 13% of the time, compared with 3.9% for eggs created from embryonic stem cells and 1.8% for eggs made using iPS cells.

Nevertheless, the advance sheds light on how precursor cells eventually develop into sperm or egg cells, a scientific understanding that could in itself aid infertility treatments. That’s encouraging for the many women who struggle with fertility: according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10% of America women have problems getting pregnant or staying pregnant.

Ketamine for Depression: The Most Important Advance in Field in 50 Years?

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October 9th, 2012

In a new review in Science, the authors call the identification of the anesthetic and “club drug” ketamine as a rapid treatment for depression “arguably the most important discovery in half a century” of research on the condition
By Maia Szalavitz

In any given year, 7% of adults suffer from major depression, and at least 1 in 10 youth will reckon with the disorder at some point during their teenage years. But about 20% of these cases will not respond to current treatments; for those that do, relief may take weeks to months to come.

There is one treatment, however, that works much faster: the anesthetic and “club drug” ketamine. It takes effect within hours. A single dose of ketamine produces relief of depression that has been shown in studies to last for up to 10 days; it also appears to reduce symptoms of bipolar disorder and suicidal thoughts. Now, a new research review published in Science calls the discovery of these effects of ketamine, “”arguably the most important discovery in half a century” of depression research.

Ketamine doesn’t work the way traditional antidepressants do. Many such drugs affect levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, and while the idea that depression is caused by low levels of serotonin or an “imbalance” of other key neurotransmitters has been firmly fixed in the popular imagination, scientists have known for decades that it can’t be that simple. For one, antidepressant drugs change the brain’s neurotransmitter levels immediately, yet depression doesn’t lift for several weeks, a delay that could be potentially deadly.

Another theory is that depression is caused not by neurotransmitter problems per se, but by damage to brain cells themselves in key regions critical to controlling mood. This idea fits nicely with evidence that stress can cause depression, since high levels of stress hormones can cause an overrelease of a neurotransmitter called glutamate, which damages cells and affects exactly the same suspected areas. More support for this theory comes from the fact that all known antidepressants increase cell growth in these areas too, providing an alternate explanation for their therapeutic results.

At first, ketamine seemed to throw a monkey wrench into that neat idea, however. It didn’t seem likely that a drug could repair cells within hours, but new research explored in a review paper in the journal Science suggests just that. Ketamine rapidly spurs the growth of new synapses, the connections between brain cells, and is associated with “reversal of the atrophy caused by chronic stress,” the authors write.

Unfortunately, the hallucinogenic and often outright unpleasant effects of ketamine mean that it can’t be used in the same way typical antidepressants are, and fears about its potential for misuse also hamper its development. Researchers are frantically trying to develop compounds that have the same effects as ketamine without producing a “high.”

In the meanwhile, however, ketamine is already FDA approved, so there’s nothing stopping psychiatrists from trying it and patients from asking for access to it in emergency situations when all else has failed. However, it must be given by infusion and carefully monitored (nasal sprays are being developed and there is an oral form that has some effects, but is not optimally absorbed), and the drug impairs patients for hours. Still, it relieves depression for at least several days: if there’s a choice between being entirely dysfunctional seven days a week or only out of commission for one or two, many people would accept that trade-off.

But while research on ketamine is ongoing, clinical use of the drug in the community remains rare. Fears about abuse continue to run high, though ketamine has never caught on as a major street drug. If the Science paper’s authors are right that ketamine’s effect on depression is a key advance — and if the drug really holds similar promise for bipolar disorder — patients might want to consider pushing for greater access. Ketamine is off patent, so no drug maker is likely to do so.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

Study: Free Birth Control Slashes Abortion Rates

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October 8th, 2012

By Olivia B. Waxman
What would happen if women at risk for unintended pregnancies received the birth control of their choice — especially the more effective kinds — at no cost?

The national abortion rate would plummet, according to a study conducted by researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology on Thursday.

The researchers enrolled 9,256 women from the St. Louis region into the Contraceptive Choice Project between August 2007 and September 2011. The women were aged 14 to 45, with an average age of 25, and many were poor and uninsured with low education. Nearly two-thirds had had an unintended pregnancy previously. Participants were either not using a reversible contraception method or willing to switch to a new one.

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Researchers provided free, FDA-approved birth control to the women for three years. The women were given their choice of contraception, including oral birth control pills and long-acting reversible contraceptive (LARC) methods like implants and IUDs. The researchers specially briefed the participants on the “superior effectiveness” of LARC methods — the T-shaped IUD, or intrauterine device, has close to 100% effectiveness and can last five to 10 years, for instance — and 75% of women chose those devices over the pill, patch or ring.

Over the course of the study, which lasted from 2008 to 2010, women experienced far fewer unintended pregnancies than expected: there were 4.4 to 7.5 abortions per 1,000 women in the study, after adjusting for age and race — much fewer than the national rate of 19.6 abortions per 1,000 women and lower also than the rate in the St. Louis area of 13.4 to 17 abortions per 1,000 women.

The effect of free contraception on the teen birth rate was remarkable: there were 6.3 births per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19 in the study, compared with the national rate of 34.3 births per 1,000 teen girls.

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The findings come amidst contention over President Obama’s health-care law, which offers women FDA-approved birth control without a copay. As of August 1, contraception is covered for women signing up for new health insurance plans or renewing their existing plans.

“[C]hanges in contraceptive policy simulating the Contraceptive Choice Project would prevent as many as 41% to 71% of abortions performed annually in the United States,” the study’s authors wrote.

Nearly half of the more than 6 million pregnancies that occur each year are unintended, and about 43% of them end in abortion. Further, about 1 million births are unintended, costing U.S. taxpayers about $11 billion a year in associated expenses. Low-income women with less education are far more likely to have an unintended pregnancy than their wealthier, educated peers.

About half of unplanned pregnancies occur in women who are using no contraception; in other cases, women may be using short-acting contraception, like condoms or pills, which can fail if not used properly. In contrast, methods like IUDs, which are fitted into the uterus, or hormonal implants, which are surgically placed under the skin of the upper arm, can be placed and then forgotten about — no need to remember to refill a prescription or take a pill at the same time each day.

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Women who choose long-acting contraception are more likely to stick with it as well: in the study, 85% were still using it a year later, compared with 35% of those choosing pills or other short-acting forms of birth control. “Because LARC methods have been shown to have higher continuation rates than other reversible methods, the number of adolescents and women using no contraception would decline, further decreasing the unintended pregnancy rate,” the authors conclude.

Yet American women use LARC methods at far lower rates than in other countries. In large part, that’s because of cost: upfront costs to implant an IUD, which requires a doctor visit, can total $500 to $1,000, for example. Over a decade, however, birth control pills can cost just as much. American doctors also tend not to recommend long-acting birth control to women as often as they do the pill or patch, though IUDs and implants may be up to 20 times more effective.

That’s why the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is now urging doctors to recommend IUDs and implants as “first-line” contraceptive choices to their teen patients.