Body & Brain

A good massage can help, plus bed nets for babies, sugar counteracts fish and more in this week's news

Massage better for relieving back pain

A hands-on approach to back pain may yield better results than popping pills. A new study that compares two types of massage with standard treatment for chronic lower-back pain found that massage relieved pain and improved daily function more than the usual treatments, including pain killers, muscle relaxants and other drugs. The improvements with one-hour massages once a week for 10 weeks lasted at least six months, researchers from Washington and Oregon report in the July 5 Annals of Internal Medicine. The results were the same for both structural massage — which relieves tension in specific tissues and joints — and relaxation massage, also called Swedish massage, which aims for overall relaxation. —Tina Hesman Saey

Saving babies one bed net at a time

In sub-Saharan Africa — where malaria accounts for 16 percent of deaths in children under age five — insecticide-treated bed nets saved the lives of roughly 240,000 preschool-age children between 2002 and 2008. Researchers in England and Switzerland analyzed the impacts of 151 million bed nets issued by aid groups to families in 34 sub-Saharan countries. Comparisons to rates before the malaria controls were implemented showed that 31 malaria deaths in children under five were prevented for every $1 million spent on bed nets and residual indoor insecticide spraying. The findings appear in the June 30 PLoS ONE. —Janet Raloff

Sugar’s hidden diet-busting role

Diets rich in table sugar can sabotage fish oil’s health benefits, a study in mice finds. Researchers in Denmark and Norway fed the mice high-fat diets for two months. Some rodents got corn oil as their fat, others fish oil. Compared with animals dining on low-calorie chow, those on high-fat diets developed pre-diabetic changes. Those on the fish oil diet gained less weight and developed less inflammatory fat (a risk factor associated with certain chronic diseases) — except when the diet derived much of the rest of its calories from sugar instead of protein. The findings appear June 28 in PLoS ONE. —Janet Raloff

Caffeine’s hot spot

Researchers have found caffeine’s “wake up!” spot in the brain. Previous studies had shown which molecule senses the drug, but scientists didn’t know which of the many cells that carry the molecule were important. Nerve cells in the outer shell of the nucleus accumbens, a brain region involved in movement and goal-oriented behavior, turned out to be the key. In mice and rats that lacked the caffeine-sensing molecule in that specific brain region, caffeine no longer affected sleep or wakefulness, an international team of researchers reports in the July 6 Journal of Neuroscience. —Laura Sanders

The brain on cocaine

People who use cocaine chronically have profoundly different brain structures than people who don’t. University of Cambridge scientists in England scanned the brains of 60 people who were addicted to cocaine. Many regions of cocaine users’ brains had less gray matter — where nerve cells reside — than the brains of 60 people who didn’t use cocaine. Some of these shrunken areas are in the frontal lobe, a place important for decision making and impulse control. The magnitude of brain changes correlated with how impulsive the person was, as rated by tests and questionnaires, researchers report in an upcoming Brain. —Laura Sanders

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