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Mental Illness Linked to Genetics

January 12, 1998

New York researchers have found strong evidence that some mental disorders may be genetic in origin. Dr. Michael Swift and his colleagues at New York Medical College studied families with a history of Wolfram syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by diabetes, optic nerve deterioration, depression, violent behavior, panic attacks and hallucinations. It is caused by a recently discovered gene called WS. Children must inherit a mutated form of the gene from each parent to develop the syndrome. People with only one defective copy of the gene are carriers.

The team examined family members who were hospitalized for mental disorders. They report in the January issue of Molecular Psychiatry that 89% of those patients were carriers of the mutated WS gene. Such carriers, they calculate, are 26 times more likely than non-carriers to be hospitalized for depression or suicide attempts. About 1% of the population carries the gene, they said, while 25% of patients hospitalized for depression or suicide attempts may carry it.

Possible Protection Against Ovarian Cancer

Acetaminophen may help protect women against ovarian cancer, according to researchers from the Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston. They studied 563 women with ovarian cancer from eastern Massachusetts and New Hampshire and compared their usage of over-the-counter analgesics with that of healthy women from the same area.

They report in the Jan. 10 Lancet that the use of acetaminophen--commonly sold as Tylenol, Aspirin-Free Anacin and Aspirin-Free Excedrin--significantly reduced the risk of ovarian cancer. Aspirin and ibuprofen provided no protection, however. The researchers cautioned that the results need to be replicated and that acetaminophen can cause kidney damage, especially when used with alcohol.

Seniors May Add Years by Walking

For folks in their 60s, 70s and 80s, walking is powerful medicine, actcording to a study in the Jan. 8 New England Journal of Medicine. Over a 12-year period, the study found that covering just two miles a day cut the risk of death for nonsmokers almost in half. The research focused on the Honolulu Heart Program, which has followed the health of 8,006 men of Japanese ancestry living on Oahu since 1965.

Some researchers have questioned whether leisurely paced exercise does much good at all. But Amy A. Hakim and her colleagues at the University of Virginia calculated that every extra mile that older people walk per day lowers their death rate by 19%. The walkers' risk of death was especially lower from cancer. Those who walked infrequently were about 2 1/2 times more likely to die of cancer than were the two-mile-a-day men.

Diabetes Researchers Find Another Piece of the Puzzle

Boston scientists believe they may have found another clue to why people develop diabetes, the fourth leading cause of death in most developed countries. Researchers at Brigham & Women's Hospital and Harvard University have shown that the progression of the disease is linked to a deficiency of a substance called interleukin 4 (IL-4), which sends signals to the immune system. Diabetes, which causes kidney failure, strokes, heart attacks, blindness and nerve damage, affects 135 million people throughout the world and kills 2.8 million every year.

The findings, published in the Jan. 8 Nature, could have important therapeutic implications and may be one of the final obstacles to conquering the disease. Previous experiments on animals have shown that IL-4 could prevent diabetes. The team's study of identical twins and triplets is the first to show that the hypothesis holds up in humans.

--Compiled by THOMAS H. MAUGH II

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