NEITHER THINKING NOR DRINKING BEATS THE BLUES

When women get the blues, they tend to ruminate, or dwell on their distress in a way that doesn't help. Men are more likely to turn to alcohol.

"Women think, and men drink," as University of Michigan psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema puts it. Neither approach is effective against depression, she adds.

Nolen-Hoeksema's findings, based on interviews with more than 1,300 men and women, were presented this month at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in Boston.

Participants in the study, chosen randomly from telephone listings in the San Francisco Bay area, ranged in age from 25 to 75. They were asked about what they tended to do when they felt depressed or "blue," including their experiences with alcohol use. Each was interviewed twice, with a year's interval between the sessions.

Participants were also given a test to measure their tendency to "ruminate"--which the study defines as "passively and repetitively focusing on your symptoms of distress and the possible causes and consequences of those symptoms."

Women in the study were more likely than men to have experienced depression, and more likely to ruminate about it.

Nolen-Hoeksema called the sex difference in how men and women cope with depression "quite pronounced." At the same time, some depressed men ruminate, of course, and some depressed women turn to alcohol. Laboratory studies in both men and women have shown that rumination tends to reinforce negative thinking and reduce the ability to solve interpersonal problems.

Nolen-Hoeksema speculated that "alcohol does not do as effective a job at dampening rumination among women as it does among men," for cultural, social and personal reasons. The excessive drinking that helps men cope, she said, may simply give women one more thing to worry about, she said.

--Don Colburn

RATS MAY BE CARRIERS OF HEPATITIS E VIRUS

Rats may be the animal hosts harboring a virus responsible for tens of thousands of cases of infectious hepatitis in Asia and the Middle East as well as sporadic cases in this country, a new study suggests.

The hepatitis E virus (HEV) is the most important cause of acute hepatitis (inflammation of the liver) in southeast and central Asia and a major cause of the disease in north Africa and Saudia Arabia, said Robert H. Purcell, chief of the hepatitis viruses section at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. It's an uncommon cause of hepatitis in the United States, but as many as 3 percent of American blood donors test positive for antibodies to hepatitis E, indicating past infection.

Infection with hepatitis E can cause jaundice, fatigue and a swollen liver, similar to the illness produced by the more familiar hepatitis A virus sometimes carried by shellfish. It doesn't lead to chronic liver disease, cirrhosis or liver cancer. The virus is found in feces of infected persons, and outbreaks in Asia and the Middle East are usually associated with contaminated water and poor sanitation.

Wondering whether animals might serve as a reservoir for the hepatitis E virus, Purcell and a team of researchers tested 239 rats from inner city Baltimore, Hawaii and Louisiana for HEV antibodies. More than 80 percent of the rats had such antibodies, indicating prior infection, including 77 percent of the Baltimore rats, 90 percent of the Hawaiian rats and 40 percent of the Louisiana rats. Adult rats were more likely to test positive than immature ones.

Purcell said evidence of high rates of infection in the urban rats correlates with antibody rates of up to 20 percent in U.S. inner city dwellers. Scientists in his laboratory are conducting further studies to determine whether the virus in rats is the same as the one that infects humans, but other research in pigs has established that cross-species infections can occur. "Until we establish that the virus that infects rats also infects primates and possibly people, it's only speculation that rats are the source" of human infection, Purcell said.

The research, led by Yamina Kabrane-Lazizi of Purcell's lab, was published in the August issue of the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

--Susan Okie

FATTY OR NOT, CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM KEEPS ITS TASTE

Want to switch to low-fat ice cream, but afraid of sacrificing flavor? Then consider low-fat chocolate ice cream. New research by University of Missouri scientists shows that low-fat chocolate ice cream scores as high on taste tests as the higher-fat varieties.

In a study of 100 people at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Ingolf Gruen, professor of food science, taste-tested chocolate, strawberry and vanilla ice creams with varying degrees of milk fat.

The results, which were presented last week at the American Chemical Society's annual meeting in New Orleans, found that participants could detect differences in nonfat, low-fat, reduced-fat and standard vanilla and strawberry ice creams. But the study, which was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, found that participants liked equally all varieties of chocolate ice cream, regardless of their fat content.

"Chocolate flavoring is very forgiving," said Gruen. "It's a very complex flavor that can mask other flavors," and help overcome the lack of fat in foods. By contrast, low-fat vanilla ice cream, which has just one main flavor ingredient, vanillin, usually scores poorly on taste tests.

Study participants rated the taste of the low-fat chocolate ice cream as high as the high-fat chocolate ice cream. "The average consumer cannot tell the difference," Gruen said.

--Sally Squires