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UCDavis.edu – Women who reported not taking a daily prenatal vitamin immediately before and during the first month of pregnancy were nearly twice as likely to have a child with an autistic spectrum disorder as women who did take the supplements – and the associated risk rose to seven times as great when combined with a high-risk genetic make-up, a study by researchers at the UC Davis MIND Institute has found.

“Mothers of children with autism were significantly less likely than those of typically developing children to report having taken prenatal vitamins during the three months before and the first month of pregnancy,” said Rebecca J. Schmidt, assistant professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences in the UC Davis School of Medicine and the study’s lead author.

The finding was “strong and robust,” the study authors said, and is the first to suggest a concrete step women can take that may reduce the risk of having a child with autism. The NIH-funded study, “Prenatal vitamins, functional one-carbon metabolism gene variants, and risk for autism in the CHARGE Study,” is published online early on the website of the journal Epidemiology. It is scheduled to appear in print in July 2011.

Consuming prenatal vitamins may be especially effective for genetically susceptible mothers and their children. For women with a particular high-risk genetic make up who reported not taking prenatal vitamins, the estimated risk of having a child with autism was as much as seven times greater than in women who did report taking prenatal vitamins and who had more favorable gene variants, the study found.

The authors postulate that folic acid, the synthetic form of folate or vitamin B9, and the other B vitamins in prenatal supplements, likely protect against deficits in early fetal brain development. Folate is known to be critical to neurodevelopment and studies have found that supplemental folic acid has the potential to prevent up to 70 percent of neural tube defects, the authors said.

“This finding appears to be the first example of gene-environment interaction in autism,” said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, professor and chief of the division of environmental and occupational health in the Department of Public Health Sciences in the UC Davis School of Medicine.

“It is widely accepted that autism spectrum disorders are the result of multiple factors, that it would be extremely rare to find someone who had a single cause for this behavioral syndrome. Nevertheless, previous work on genes has generally ignored the possibility that genes may act in concert with environmental exposures,” said Hertz-Picciotto, the study’s senior author and a researcher affiliated with the UC Davis MIND Institute.

To conduct the study, researchers collected data from approximately 700 Northern California families with 2- to 5-year-old children who had autism or typical development and were participants in the Childhood Autism Risk from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) study between from January 2003 to December 2009. All children were born in California and came from families that spoke either English or Spanish. The autism diagnoses were confirmed through testing at the UC Davis MIND Institute.

Women who participated in the CHARGE study were asked via telephone whether they took prenatal vitamins, multivitamins or other supplements at any time during the three months prior to and during their pregnancies and during breastfeeding. If the respondent said she had taken vitamins, she was further asked what type she took, at what dosage and frequency and during which months of pregnancy she consumed them.

“Because the mothers were asked about their vitamin use years after their pregnancies and after their child’s developmental status was known, some error is expected in their reporting. Moreover, in comparison with mothers who have an affected child, mothers whose children are healthy and show typical developmental milestones may be less likely to remember accurately, simply because they have less reason to reflect on and be concerned about their behaviors years earlier,” Schmidt said. This could have biased the results, she pointed out. Further research will be needed to rule out reporting bias.

The researchers accounted for maternal education and the year the child was born; results were the same when also accounting for the mother’s age. However, after the first month of pregnancy, there was no difference between mothers who did and did not take prenatal vitamins. This indicates that, by the time most women are aware that they are pregnant, taking prenatal supplements may not benefit the child in terms of risk for autism.

Significant interaction effects were observed for two maternal genes, including a well-studied variant on the methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) gene associated with less efficient folate metabolism and increased levels of homocysteine, an amino acid.

Mothers of children with autism were 4.5 times more likely both to have the less efficient MTHFR 677 TT genotype and to report not taking prenatal vitamins during the period around conception than were mothers of typically developing children.

The other maternal gene variant with a significant interaction leads to decreased cystathionine-beta-synthase (CBS) activity and elevated plasma homocysteine. Increased risk for autism was also associated with other maternal gene variants associated with less efficient one-carbon metabolism, but only if the mother reported not taking the prenatal vitamins in those early months before and right after conception.

In addition, being homozygous for a common, functional variant in the child’s catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) gene was associated with more than seven times the estimated risk for autism in mothers who reported not taking the supplements around the time of conception, compared to children with other genotypes whose mothers did report periconceptional prenatal vitamin intake.

This gene reduces COMT enzyme activity three- to four-fold. The COMT enzyme, well known for its role in dopamine degradation, is activated during early neurodevelopment. Structural and functional brain differences have been described across COMT genotypes, particularly in the hippocampal and prefrontal cortex, regions affected by autism.

The finding, if replicated, provides a potential means of reducing the risk of having a child with autism, the authors said.

“The good news is that if this finding is replicated, it will provide an inexpensive, relatively simple evidence-based action that women can take to reduce risks for their child, which is to take prenatal vitamins as early as possible in a pregnancy and even when planning for pregnancy,” Hertz-Picciotto said.

Caffeine reduces muscle activity in the Fallopian tubes that carry eggs from a woman’s ovaries to her womb. “Our experiments were conducted in mice, but this finding goes a long way towards explaining why drinking caffeinated drinks can reduce a woman’s chance of becoming pregnant,” says Professor Sean Ward from the University of Nevada School of Medicine, Reno, USA. Ward’s study is published in the British Journal of Pharmacology.

Human eggs are microscopically small, but need to travel to a woman’s womb if she is going to have a successful pregnancy. Although the process is essential for a successful pregnancy, scientists know little about how eggs move through the muscular Fallopian tubes. It was generally assumed that tiny hair-like projections, called cilia, in the lining of the tubes, waft eggs along assisted by muscle contractions in the tube walls.

By studying tubes from mice, Professor Ward and his team discovered that caffeine stops the actions of specialized pacemaker cells in the wall of the tubes. These cells coordinate tube contractions so that when they are inhibited, eggs can’t move down the tubes. In fact these muscle contractions play a bigger role than the beating cilia in moving the egg towards the womb. “This provides an intriguing explanation as to why women with high caffeine consumption often take longer to conceive than women who do not consume caffeine,” says Professor Ward.

Discovering the link between caffeine consumption and reduced fertility has benefits. “As well as potentially helping women who are finding it difficult to get pregnant, a better understanding of the way Fallopian tubes work will help doctors treat pelvic inflammation and sexually-transmitted disease more successfully,” says Professor Ward. It could also increase our understanding of what causes ectopic pregnancy, an extremely painful and potentially life-threatening situation in which embryos get stuck and start developing inside a woman’s Fallopian tube (Courtesy of EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS).

OregonState.edu – EGCG – a beneficial compound found in green tea – has a powerful ability to increase the number of “regulatory T cells” that play a key role in immune function and suppression of autoimmune disease, according to new research in the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University.

This may be one of the underlying mechanisms for the health benefits of green tea, which has attracted wide interest for its ability to help control inflammation, improve immune function and prevent cancer.

Pharmaceutical drugs are available that perform similar roles and have been the subject of much research, scientists say, but they have problems with toxicity. A natural food product might provide a long-term, sustainable way to accomplish this same goal without toxicity, researchers said.

“This appears to be a natural, plant-derived compound that can affect the number of regulatory T cells, and in the process improve immune function,” said Emily Ho, an LPI principal investigator and associate professor in the OSU Department of Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.

“When fully understood, this could provide an easy and safe way to help control autoimmune problems and address various diseases,” Ho said.

The findings have been published in Immunology Letters, a professional journal.

There are many types of cells that have different roles in the immune system, which is a delicate balancing act of attacking unwanted invaders without damaging normal cells. In autoimmune diseases, which can range from simple allergies to juvenile diabetes or even terminal conditions such as Lou Gehrig’s disease, this process goes awry and the body mistakenly attacks itself.

Some cells exist primarily to help control that problem and dampen or “turn off” the immune system, including regulatory T cells. The number and proper function of those regulatory T cells, in turn, is regulated by other biological processes such as transcription factors and DNA methylation.

In this study, OSU scientists did experiments with a compound in green tea, a polyphenol called EGCG, which is believed to be responsible for much of its health benefits and has both anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer characteristics. They found it could cause a higher production of regulatory T cells. Its effects were not as potent as some of those produced by prescription drugs, but it also had few concerns about long-term use or toxicity.

“EGCG may have health benefits through an epigenetic mechanism, meaning we aren’t changing the underlying DNA codes, but just influencing what gets expressed, what cells get turned on,” Ho said. “And we may be able to do this with a simple, whole-food approach.”

Laboratory studies done with mice, Ho said, showed that treatment with EGCG significantly increased the numbers and frequencies of regulatory T cells found in spleen and lymph notes, and in the process helped to control the immune response.

“Epigenetic regulation can be potentially exploited in generating suppressive regulatory T cells for therapeutic purposes, and is of significant clinical importance for the suppression of autoimmune diseases,” the researchers said in their study.

Older veterans with a history of stroke who participated in a yoga study experienced “exciting” results in Indiana University research project that explored whether this popular mind-body practice can help stroke victims cope with their increased risk for painful and even deadly falls.

The pilot study involved 19 men and one woman, average age of 66. For eight weeks, they participated in a twice weekly hour-long group yoga class taught by a yoga therapist who dramatically modified the poses to meet the veterans’ needs.

A range of balance items measured by the Berg Balance Scale and Fullerton Advance Balance Scale improved by 17 percent and 34 percent respectively by the end of the program. But equally exciting to lead researcher Arlene A. Schmid, rehabilitation research scientist at the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis, was the measurable gain in confidence the study participants had in their balance.

“It also was interesting to see how much the men liked it,” said Schmid, assistant professor of occupational therapy in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Many of the veterans wanted the study to continue or asked for a take-home exercise plan so they could continue the practice. “They enjoyed it so much partly because they weren’t getting any other treatment. They had already completed their rehabilitation but felt there still was room for improvement.”

Schmid will discuss her findings during the American College of Sports Medicine meeting in Denver. Her poster presentation, “Preliminary Evidence of Yoga on Balance and Endurance Outcomes for Veterans with Stroke” was scheduled for the session for Fitness and Performance Testing for Posture, Stability and Balance.

Statistics concerning strokes and falls are grim, with studies showing that strokes can quadruple the risk of falling and greatly increase the risk of breaking a hip after a fall. An estimated 80 percent of people who have strokes will also have some degree of impaired balance.

The study participants performed poses initially while seated in chairs and then progressed to seated and standing poses. Eventually, they all performed poses on the floor, something Schmid considers significant because of a reluctance many older adults have to working on the floor.

“Everything was modified because we wanted them to be successful on day one,” Schmid said. “Everyone could be successful at some level.”

A score of less than 46 on the Berg Balance Scale indicates a fall risk. Schmid said the study participants on average began the study with a score of 40 and then improved to 47, moving them past the fall risk threshold. The study participants also showed significant improvements in endurance based on a seated two-minute step test and a six-minute walk test.

Schmid said research into therapeutic uses for yoga is “really taking off,” particularly in mental health fields. Clinically, she has been watching a small trend of occupational therapists and physical therapists also becoming yoga therapists. The yoga performed in the study was modified to the extent that Schmid said it would be very difficult to find a comparable class offered publicly. Such a class should be taught by a yoga therapist who has had additional training in anatomy and physiology and how to work with people with disabilities. Schmid hopes to expand the study so she and her colleagues can explore whether such classes are effective on a larger scale (Courtesy of EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS).

Missouri.edu – According to the American Cancer Society, more than 11.4 million Americans are currently living with cancer. While cancer treatments are plentiful, many have negative side effects. Previous studies have indicated that a significant number of patients who receive chemotherapy also experience cognitive declines, including decreases in verbal fluency and memory. Now, one University of Missouri health psychologist has found evidence that indicates Tai Chi, a Chinese martial art, might help overcome some of those cognitive side effects (sometimes referred to as “chemobrain”).

“Scientists have known for years that Tai Chi positively impacts physical and emotional health, but this small study also uncovered evidence that it might help cognitive functioning as well,” said Stephanie Reid-Arndt, assistant professor and chair of the Department of Health Psychology in the School of Health Professions. “We know this activity can help people with their quality of life in general, and with this new study, we are encouraged about how Tai Chi could also help those who have received chemotherapy. I also hope this encourages more people to think about Tai Chi positively on a broader scale in their lives.” The study was published recently in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice.

Tai Chi is more than simply exercise – it involves practicing slow motion routines and is based on several principles, including mindfulness, breathing awareness, active relaxation and slow movements. The emphasis on slow movement makes Tai Chi particularly suited to a wide range of fitness levels, which makes it very relevant for those who have had chemotherapy and might be experiencing physical limitations as a result, Reid-Arndt said.

The MU pilot study followed a group of women with a history of chemotherapy. The women participated in a 60-minute Tai Chi class two times a week for 10 weeks. The women were tested on memory, language, attention, stress, mood and fatigue before and after the 10-week sessions. According to Reid-Arndt, the results of the tests indicated that the women had made significant improvements in their psychological health and cognitive function.

“Tai Chi really helps individuals focus their attention, and this study also demonstrates how good Tai Chi could be for anyone, whether or not they have undergone treatment for cancer,” Reid-Arndt said. “Due to the small size of this study, we really need to test a larger group of individuals to gain a better understanding of the specific benefits of this activity for patients who have been treated with chemotherapy and how significant these improvements might be.”

WakeHealth.edu – A natural nutritional supplement – ArginMax for Women (TM) – marketed for the last decade as a sexual aid, has been shown to significantly improve overall quality of life for female cancer survivors, according to researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

The findings were presented at the 2011 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting in Chicago (abstract #9016).

Interested in quality of life issues for female cancer survivors, Kathryn M. Greven, M.D., a radiation oncologist at Wake Forest Baptist, first learned of the supplement, called ArginMax for WomenTM, from a small study conducted at Stanford University that found that it improved sexual function. Sexual dysfunction is prevalent in female cancer survivors, so Greven set out to see if the supplement could produce the same benefit in this population. She found that, while taking the supplement did not result in any improvement in sexual function for female cancer survivors, the supplement did improve their overall quality of life.

With funding from the National Cancer Institute, researchers at the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Wake Forest Baptist, the Derrick L. Davis Forsyth Regional Cancer Center, and multiple other cancer centers across the country recruited 186 female cancer survivors to participate in the study.

To be considered, adult female volunteers had to be at least six months beyond their last active treatment for any kind of cancer, with no current evidence of cancer. Adhering to standard double-blind, placebo-controlled protocol, neither the participants nor the investigators knew who was receiving the supplement and who was receiving a placebo.

The Daily Wellness Company, based in Honolulu, Hawaii, provided materials for the study, including ArginMaxTM and placebo pills. Participants received three capsules of either ArginMaxTM or placebo twice a day for 12 weeks and were asked to complete two standardized questionnaires that accurately measure sexual function and quality of life. The questionnaires were completed at the start of the study, at four weeks, eight weeks and 12 weeks.

The Female Sexual Function Index is a questionnaire that measures different aspects of sexual function, such as desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction and pain.

The FACT-G questionnaire measures overall quality of life and has been used in research of all cancer types. It evaluates physical, emotional, social and functional well-being.

ArginMaxTM was originally designed as a sexual enhancement aid, so researchers were primarily looking for improvements in sexual function in this new population. They found no benefit in this area.

However, the study findings did reveal an across-the-board boost in measures of overall quality of life for the patients who were randomized to take ArginMaxTM. The FACT-G questionnaires showed improvements in both physical and functional well being among the participants taking the supplement.

“The group taking the supplements experienced significant improvement in overall quality of life, particularly physical well-being,” said Greven, the lead investigator on the study. “Bothersome symptoms such as lack of energy, pain, nausea, and sleeplessness were all improved, as were measures of functional well-being, for example the ability to perform normal activities at home or work. Simply, they reported a greater enjoyment of life, without any additional side effects from the supplement.”

Edward G. Shaw, M.D., M.A., an oncologist as well as counselor, is principal investigator for Wake Forest Baptist’s Community Clinical Oncology Program Research Base and a co-researcher on the study. He explained that cancer survivors can suffer from persistent inflammation, also known as chronic oxidative stress, that can continue for years following treatment of cancer causing fatigue that affects quality of life. He hypothesized that the ingredients in ArginMax for WomenTM may be helping to counteract this process.

ArginMaxTM is made from a patented formula containing a proprietary blend of L-arginine, ginseng, ginkgo, and 14 vitamins and minerals noted for boosting energy and circulation and optimizing hormonal balance. A separate Men’s formula also is available.

“Beyond managing individual symptoms as they appear, the medical community has not been able to offer cancer patients more global symptom relief,” he said. “This research is empowering for the community of cancer survivors. There’s been some thought that dietary supplements could offer a potential benefit, but previous studies on other drugs and supplements have had disappointing outcomes. We’d like to see the results replicated in other studies, as they give us renewed hope in this area.”

Greven said the findings have sparked interest among researchers about whether the supplement could improve quality of life and energy levels for other populations, as well. Future studies are being planned.

“It is very exciting that we’ve found something that has the potential to affect and improve quality of life for female cancer survivors,” Greven said. “We still need to do further work to find an approach that will improve female sexual dysfunction.”