In Brief


Immunizations cut measles deaths


A worldwide immunization drive cut measles deaths by almost 50 percent between 1999 and 2004, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children's Fund announced today.

Global deaths attributed to measles fell from 871,000 to 454,000 over the five-year period. The largest reduction, 60 percent, occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the highest incidence of the disease.




Next sunspot cycle to be stronger

Scientists say the next sunspot cycle - the season of solar storms that can disrupt satellites and global positioning systems - will begin late next year and will be up to 50 percent stronger than the last one.

Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research also say the next 11-year cycle will be a year late and reach its peak about 2012. Researchers used a newly designed computer model and observations from NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, which tracks sound waves in the sun's interior.

Solar storms are caused by eruptions of magnetic energy near the surface of the sun that snap and release tremendous amounts of radiation that can reach the Earth in minutes. They can occur at any time, but generally follow 11-year cycles of peak storm activity and quiet periods. The most recent cycle was relatively weak and has been waning since it peaked in 2001.

The Earth's magnetic field shields us from most of the radiation. But it can cause surges on electrical power grids, throw satellites out of orbit and threaten satellite-controlled radio communications, global positioning systems and navigational instruments. The storms also increase radiation hazards to astronauts and those in commercial airliners flying polar routes.

Dennis O'Brien



Extra coffee ups heart attack risk

An extra cup of coffee increased the risk of a first heart attack in people with a common defect in the gene responsible for breaking down caffeine, researchers reported this week. But people with a normal gene face no added risk.

The study compared 2,000 Costa Ricans who had suffered a first heart attack with an equal number of healthy people. Participants were asked about coffee consumption and tested for a mutation in the CYP1A2 gene, which processes caffeine. Up to half the population in urban areas has the defect, researchers said.

People with the genetic defect take up to four times as long to process caffeine, scientists at the University of Toronto said. Caffeine constricts the blood vessels, which can trigger higher blood pressure.

A single cup of coffee daily did not increase the heart attack risk in people with the genetic defect. But those who drank two to three cups of coffee daily faced a 36 percent increased risk of a first heart attack. Those consuming four or more cups of coffee had a 64 percent higher risk


The report in the Journal of the American Medical Association helped explain why earlier studies on the health effects of coffee produced conflicting results, researchers said. None of the other studies looked at genetic differences among coffee drinkers.



Cockroaches can be conditioned

Japanese scientists have confirmed conditioned reflexes in cockroaches, just like Pavlov's drooling dogs, according to a report in the British Journal of Experimental Biology. This is the first confirmation of the conditioned reflex in a creature other than a mammal.

When researchers at Tohoku University in Sendai sprayed peppermint odor on 3-centimeter-long American cockroaches, the nerve cells that control salivation were not activated in response. But after they conditioned the cockroaches by spraying the odor five times just before feeding the insects a sugar solution, the peppermint did trigger the insects' nervous system. This effect persisted a day later, they said.


The conditioned reflex was confirmed by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov a century ago in an experiment on dogs. When dogs come across food, they begin drooling. The experiment showed that after the dogs had been conditioned to hear a bell just before they were fed, they drooled when they heard a bell, even if no food was present.



Furry lobster found in South Pacific

A team of American-led divers has discovered a new crustacean in the South Pacific that resembles a lobster and is covered with what looks like silky, blond fur, French researchers said this week.

The animal, which they named Kiwa hirsuta, was so distinct from other species that they created a new family and genus for it. The divers found the animal in waters 7,540 feet deep at a site 900 miles south of Easter Island last year, according to Michel Segonzac of the French Institute for Sea Exploration.


The new crustacean is described in the Journal of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

The animal is white and just shy of 6 inches long. In what Segonzac described as a "surprising characteristic," the animal's pincers are covered with sinuous, hair-like strands. The creature is also blind, with only "the vestige of a membrane" in place of eyes, Segonzac said.



Mercuric car parts to be collected

Under pressure to reduce mercury emissions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced this week a national agreement with the steel and auto industries to encourage collection of the switches containing the toxic metal before cars are shredded or crushed.


Although each switch contains only a few drops of mercury, state and federal regulators say it becomes a major environmental problem when cars are scrapped and melted.

Mercury can cause learning disabilities in children and neurological problems in adults. The chief source of exposure is eating fish contaminated by air pollution that falls into oceans, lakes and streams. But nationwide, there are 35 million mercury switches in vehicles on the road, according to industry estimates. Manufacturers now use nontoxic alternatives, but switches in older cars account for as much as 11 tons of mercury waste each year, according to U.S. EPA estimates.



Drug fails to help cancer patients

Thalidomide, a drug that caused severe birth defects a generation ago but was resurrected in recent years as a promising cancer treatment, failed in a study to prolong the lives of patients with multiple myeloma.


Other studies have found thalidomide helped myeloma patients both early on and after they relapsed or didn't respond to standard treatments.

But a large study at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences reported in yesterday's New England Journal of Medicine found that in patients given thalidomide on top of an already-grueling chemotherapy regimen, the thalidomide eventually stopped working, and those patients rapidly declined and died. About 65 percent were still alive after five years - no better than the rate in those who got the other treatments only. The thalidomide also had punishing side effects.