Health Highlights: Feb. 2, 2012

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  • Researchers Discover How Alzheimer's Spreads in the Brain
  • Tobacco Companies Argue Against Graphic Images on Cigarette Packs
  • Closing Arguments in Plan B Lawsuit
  • Colorado Considers Strict School Trans-Fat Ban
  • Ground Beef-Related Salmonella Outbreak Over: CDC

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Researchers Discover How Alzheimer's Spreads in the Brain

Studies in mice have revealed that Alzheimer's disease appears to spread like an infection from brain cell to brain cell.

But it isn't bacteria or viruses that are being spread, it's a distorted protein called tau, according to the authors of the two independently conducted studies, The New York Times reported.

The discovery has immediate implications for developing treatments for Alzheimer's disease, the scientists said. They also suspect that Parkinson's and other degenerative brain diseases may spread in the same way.

One study was conducted by a Columbia University team and published Wednesday in the journal PLoS One. The other study was conducted by Harvard University researchers and is to be published in the journal Neuron.

It's long been known that Alzheimer's begins when dying, tau-filled cells first appear in a small area of the brain where memories are created and stored. The damage gradually spreads to larger areas involved in remembering and reasoning, The Times reported.

But it hasn't been known whether the disease is transmitted from brain cell to brain cell or whether some brain areas are more resilient and able to resist the disease longer.

These studies provide an answer and suggest it may be possible to stop Alzheimer's at an early stage by preventing cell-to-cell transmission. This might be achieved by using an antibody that blocks tau, The Times reported.

While the two studies used mice, the scientists believe the same type of cell-to-cell transmission of tau occurs in humans. They noted that the mice had a human tau gene and the pattern of brain cell death was the same as that seen in people with Alzheimer's disease.

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Tobacco Companies Argue Against Graphic Images on Cigarette Packs

A federal judge shows no signs of changing his position in favor of the U.S. government's push to require cigarette packs carry large graphic photos of dead and diseased smokers.

Previously, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon ruled that tobacco companies are likely to succeed in their lawsuit to stop the requirement and he blocked it from taking effect until after the lawsuit is resolved, the Associated Press reported.

At a hearing Wednesday, Leon heard from cigarette makers that they shouldn't have to place "massive, shocking, gruesome warnings" on products they legally sell. Federal government lawyers said the photos are "factually uncontroverted."

After the hearing, Leon said the government appears "headed to a place where you have to watch a 10-minute video before you can even buy a pack of cigarettes."

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Closing Arguments in Plan B Lawsuit

Closing arguments were heard Wednesday in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Washington state's requirement that pharmacies stock and sell emergency contraceptives even if druggists have religious objections because they believe the contraceptives destroy human life.

The lawsuit was launched by Ralph's Thriftway in Olympia, Wash. and two licensed Washington pharmacists in 2007. They say that dispensing Plan B and other emergency contraceptives would infringe on their religious beliefs, the Associated Press reported.

State rules compel pharmacies to dispense any medication for which there is a community need and to stock a representative assortment of medicines required by their patients. The rules are legal because they apply neutrally to all medicines and pharmacies, the state says.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton blocked the state dispensing rule in 2007, but a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel said he applied the wrong legal standard and overruled him. The case was sent back to Leighton and he was told to apply the correct legal standard, the AP reported.