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May 7th, 2010
03:53 PM ET

In gambling, brain explains attraction of near-misses

By Elizabeth Landau
CNN.com Health Writer/Producer

You pull the lever on the slot machine and get two cherries and a lemon. Or you throw down dice and get a six, then an eight, when you were aiming for a seven. So close! Play again!

We get a rush from playing games that we feel like we've almost won, but have lost by a small margin. For people who gamble, the allure of the "near miss" can keep the dice rolling, the slots turning, and the money slipping away.

A new study in the Journal of Neuroscience looks deeper into the mind of the gambler. Psychology researchers Henry Chase and Luke Clark looked at 20 regular gamblers. Participants varied from recreational gamblers to "pathological gamblers," meaning their habits may interfere with everyday life.

Researchers scanned the brains of these gamblers while they performed a simplified slot machine task. Although the sample size is small, studies that make use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tend to have fewer participants than survey-based experiments, and can still have important implications.

The study found that near-miss outcomes during gambling involve the brain's reward system; in particular, areas called the ventral striatum and the anterior insula.

A previous study on healthy volunteers also found that near misses are linked with heightened activity in these same brain regions associated with monetary wins.

Scientists have long known that a small cluster of brain cells that release a chemical called dopamine have been associated with addiction, but there has never been a clear explanation for it.

"This study provides an important advance in our understanding of how the brain's reward circuits underlie one form of addictive behavior, pathological gambling," said Steven Quartz, director of the California Institute of Technology’s Brain, Mind, and Society Ph.D. program, who was not involved in the study. "Many modern games of chance, especially slot machines, compel some people to play repeatedly even when they are not winning," he said in an e-mail.

Chase and Clark also showed that the more severe a person's gambling is, the more these near misses trigger the reward circuit. But the brain region in question is also involved in learning. That means the gambler's brain may be "tricked" into thinking that it is learning new information about the environment through near misses, Quartz said.

"Ultimately, a better understanding of the rewarding effects of near misses may have implications for both treating problem gambling and for regulatory practices of the gambling industry," he said.

The authors noted that they did not take into account such conditions as nicotine dependence and personality disorders, which may have impacted the brains and behaviors of participants. Also,the group of regular gamblers in this study was almost all male.

Further research is necessary to determine more conclusively how the minds of gamblers work.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation


May 7th, 2010
02:50 PM ET

Three questions for Prudence Mahbena

Prudence Mahbena, 21, was born in Zimbabwe with a crippling joint condition called arthrogryposis. By the time she was 8, it forced the amputation of both legs and most of her right arm. In a society that looks on disabled children as cursed or worse, her childhood was marked largely by cruelty and indifference. She found salvation at a charity school in Bulawayo, where she discovered her talent for music and joined with a group of similarly talented but disabled youths. Their story is told in the film “Music By Prudence,” which won this year’s Academy Award in the documentary short category. It will be shown March 12 on HBO. Mahbena spoke with Dr. Sanjay Gupta on a visit to New York.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: I've visited lots of places around the world. I've been to Zimbabwe. I've been to many countries in Africa. What is the perception? How are people sort of thought of, that have some sort of disability? Are they thought of as people that people want to help, or in some cultures, are they thought of as a burden?

Prudence Mahbena:In Zimbabwe, whenever a child is born, it’s like it is all over the world. When a child is born, they celebrate, they do A, B, C. They bring presents and all that. But whenever a disabled child is born, that's when people start talking, saying bad things. You know, “Maybe you were bewitched. She was bewitched. Maybe it's a curse from God,” and all that. That's when you don't get to talk to your families, your families turn their back to you.

Gupta:How did you even think to start singing? It’s so happy in some ways. The music – when did that begin?

Mahbena: The way I started singing is very funny. I used to sing with my grandmum, when I was young, but when I went to school, I used to sing in the corridors, just moving around. And one day, I got to meet a teacher who later became my music teacher. She heard me singing. She said, "Who was singing?" I kept quiet, actually. "Who was singing?" And I said, "Um, it's me," and I thought maybe I was in trouble. (LAUGHS) Maybe I had made some noise, you know? Then she said, "Oh, OK." Then she left me. And the same day, in the afternoon, she called me for a choir practice. It was a senior’s choir, and I was the only junior. Later on, I led the whole choir.

Gupta: Your range is incredible. At what point did you realize, “You know, I could be famous?”

Mahbena: I realized that I was going to be a star one day when the director and the producer of the movie came, and they said they wanted to make a movie about us. At first I wasn't sure of them … but they kept on telling me that, "One day, you'll be a star. One day, you'll be a star." And when we did one of the shows, in the biggest theater in Bulawayo [a city in Zimbabwe], people were screaming. People were clapping. It's in the movie. That's when I recognized – wow, okay, I am a singer. I am a musician. And one day I'll be a big star for sure.

Please tune in to “Sanjay Gupta M.D.” on Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 am ET to watch the entire interview with Prudence Mahbena.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation


May 7th, 2010
10:13 AM ET

What you should know about E. coli

By Elizabeth Landau
CNN.com Health Writer/Producer

In the latest food poisoning scare, Freshaway Foods says it's voluntarily recalling certain romaine lettuce products because they may be contaminated with E. coli, bacteria that can be lethal. Read about it on CNN's This Just In.

Most E. coli strains are harmless, but there are strains that cause severe illness. Diarrhea, urinary tract infections, pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses are just some of the consequences of ingesting certain kinds of the bacteria.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that cases of E. coli 0157, which can lead to sickness, decreased in 2009, CNN reported. But the strain in the latest outbreak is E. coli 0145, a different strain. There are about 76 million cases of food-borne disease in the United States each year, according to the CDC.

During the last year there have been E. coli outbreaks in foods such as ground beef and Nestle Toll House cookie dough.

Contaminated food, unpasteurized milk, water that hasn't been disinfected, cattle, and human feces can all pass E. coli onto you. It's actually small, usually invisible amounts of human or animal feces that spread the infections.

How do you know if you have E. coli? Symptoms include bloody diarrhea, severe stomach cramps, and vomiting. In some cases, there can be life-threatening complications. Web developer Dan Kruse spoke with CNN in 2008 about how he almost died of E. coli as a teenager - read the story.

To prevent the spread of food-borne illness, it's crucial to wash your hands, separate your raw meats and produce from each other, cook to proper temperatures and refrigerate leftovers. Here are more tips from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation


May 7th, 2010
09:30 AM ET

How Gwyneth Paltrow got into Iron Man shape

By Breeana Hare
Special to CNN.com

How’s this for a no bull response: When asked how she got in shape to play Pepper Potts in “Iron Man 2,” Paltrow said in her GOOP newsletter, “Well, I am not going to lie, the process was an arduous one.”

She’s not kidding. If you want to, as Paltrow put it, “do ridiculous things like be a 37-year-old mother of two and wear shorts,” be prepared for some serious dieting and cardio.

Paltrow’s regimen includes a daily hour and a half of dance cardio and strength moves created by her trainer and business partner, Tracy Anderson. But before her sweat session, Paltrow has either a “Think Thin” bar or a “Clean Shake” made from almond milk, blueberries and a scoop each of Dr. Alejandro Junger’s “Move” and “Daily Nourish” drink mixes.

Post-workout, Paltrow would knock back a nice tall glass of kale juice – which, once blended with lemon juice and natural sweetener agave nectar, Paltrow considers being akin to “grassy lemonade.” (Sounds delicious, we know)

Lunch is light with one of three wrap options prescribed by Anderson, all using a Mountain Valley wrap as a base. There’s an almond butter and chopped dates version and a veggie version, which can be had with or without no salt turkey. Perhaps to keep herself from going insane if she looked at one more wrap, Paltrow created her own lemony grilled chicken recipe to be eaten with steamed veggies or a vegetable salad.

Snack time equals more kale juice, a handful of almonds or raw organic kambucha, and dinner contains more kale, in the form of turkey kale soup. Although Paltrow said it’s important to switch up what you eat for each meal for variety, the only other dinner option besides the soup is a chopped veggie salad.

The actress stuck with this routine for five days to drop “extra winter weight,” and she said she returns to it anytime she has a specific event coming up. If you want to check out the recipes and see a preview of her workout, head over to Goop.com.

Read review of Iron Man 2

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation


Filed under: Fitness

May 7th, 2010
12:00 AM ET

Five best and worst places to be a mom

An Afghan mother with her two sons.

by Madison Park
CNNhealth.com writer/producer

What are the best and worst countries for moms? Just in time for Mother’s Day, Save the Children has ranked the countries with the best and worst maternal health.

Norway topped the non-profit advocacy group’s list, with its low infant mortality rates and high contraceptive prevalence followed by other Western countries.  Meanwhile sub-Saharan African countries and Afghanistan ranked last.

The health rankings were based on lifetime risk of maternal death, percentage of women using modern contraception, the presence of a skilled attendant at birth, and female life expectancy, derived from United Nations and World Health Organization statistics.  The Mothers’ Index compared the well-being of mothers and children in 160 countries.

For the full report: 2010 State of the World's Mothers (PDF)

The United States ranked number 28.  Why so low?

Save the Children explains: “One of the key indicators used to calculate well-being for mothers is lifetime risk of maternal death. The United States’ rate for maternal mortality is 1 in 4,800 – one of the highest in the developed world.”

It also stated that “a woman in the Unites States is more than five times as likely as a woman in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece or Italy to die from pregnancy-related causes in her lifetime and her risk of maternal death is nearly 10-fold that of a woman in Ireland.”

Around the world, there are startling statistics: 50 million women in the developing world give birth without professional help and 8.8 million children and newborns die from easily preventable or treatable causes.

The risk of a woman dying from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes in Niger is 1 in 7.  The risk is 1 in 8 in Afghanistan and Sierra Leone.  Compared to Ireland (which ranked 11), that risk was 1 in 47,600.

Top 5 places for mothers:

1. Norway
2. Australia
3. Iceland
4. Sweden
5. Denmark

Worst 5 places for mothers:

1. Afghanistan
2. Niger
3. Chad
4. Guinea-Bissau
5. Yemen

See the full list (PDF)

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.

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