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Study identifies possible cause of scoliosis

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Scoliosis has been in the news this month after Princess Eugenie opted for a backless wedding dress that showed off the scar from her surgery at the age of 12.

The condition, in which the spine twists and curves to the side, can affect people of any age but most often starts in children aged 10 to 15. The cause of ‘adolescent idiopathic scoliosis’ is not known, but a new study points to a possible link with manganese, an essential dietary mineral required for growing bones and cartilage.

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that children with severe scoliosis are twice as likely as children without the disease to carry a gene variant that makes it hard for their cells to take in and use manganese.

“Our study links a common disease — scoliosis — to something that’s potentially modifiable in the diet,” commented senior author Christina Gurnett, a professor of neurology, orthopaedic surgery and paediatrics. “But we don’t want people to go out right now and start manganese supplements, because we already know that too much manganese can be harmful.”

High doses of manganese can lead to a neurological condition known as manganism, as well as psychiatric symptoms. It has also been linked to Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia and high blood pressure.

Manganese deficiency is rarely seen in humans because the body needs only trace amounts that are easily obtained from food. However, animal studies show that lack of manganese can result in problems metabolising fat and sugar, impaired growth, difficulty walking and curvature of the spine.

“The genetic variant does not stop the gene from working entirely, it’s just not working optimally,” explained first author Gabriel Haller, a postdoctoral researcher. “So maybe most people need a certain level of manganese in their blood, but if you have a bad gene variant like this one, you need more.”

Any manganese supplementation would have to be carefully measured to avoid increasing the risk for other serious diseases, the researchers cautioned.

Their findings have been published in the journal Nature Communications.