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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Mystery of the ‘Land of Twins’: Something in the Water? Mengele?

By ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO

CÂNDIDO GODÓI, Brazil — High atop a hill behind his family’s home, Derli Grimm knelt and took a sip from a thin black tube leading from a natural spring.


André Vieira for The New York Times

Darlene and Darles Volkweis. Most of the twins are fraternal.

André Vieira for The New York Times

Tatiane, left, and Fabiane Grimm, of the São Pedro area.

André Vieira for The New York Times

Tânia Moelmann holding Kiara, left, and Yasmin.

The New York Times

Cândido Godói is a farm town.

Like so many in this farming town, populated almost entirely by German-speaking immigrants, Mr. Grimm, 19, believes that something in the water — a mysterious mineral, perhaps — is responsible for the town’s unusual concentration of twins.

“It can’t all be explained by genetics,” said Mr. Grimm, himself a twin.

Geneticists would like to disagree with him, but even they have no solid explanation for the 38 pairs of twins among about 80 families living in a one-and-a-half-square-mile area.

The mystery has persisted for decades, attracting international attention and inspiring books and investigations by geneticists. It is one reason locals are in no hurry to try to prove their water theory. They are too busy posing for journalists and marketing their town to tourists as the “twins capital of the world.”

Some researchers have suggested the darker possibility that Josef Mengele, the Nazi physician known as the Angel of Death, was involved. Mengele, residents say, roamed this region of southern Brazil, posing as a veterinarian, in the 1960s, about the time the twins explosion began. In a book published last year, an Argentine journalist, Jorge Camarasa, suggested that Mengele conducted experiments with women here that resulted in the higher rate of twins, many of them with blond hair and light-colored eyes. The experiments, locals said, may have involved new types of drugs and preparations, or even the artificial insemination Mengele claimed to know about, regarding cows and humans.

But neither Mr. Camarasa nor any other adherent of the Mengele theory has been able to prove the escaped Nazi conducted any experiments here. Mengele, who died in Brazil in 1979, was notorious for his often deadly experiments on twins at Auschwitz, ostensibly in an effort to produce a master Aryan race for Hitler.

“People who are speculating about Mengele are doing so to sell books,” said Paulo Sauthier, a historian who runs a museum here. “He studied the twins phenomenon in Germany, not here.”

A sign at the entrance to Cândido Godói says, “Garden City and Land of Twins.” More than 80 percent of its 6,700 residents are of German descent. They began arriving around World War I, lured by the prospect of cheap land, an agreeable farming climate and incentives from the Brazilian government to colonize the area.

The twins phenomenon is centered in the 300-person settlement of São Pedro, the part of Cândido Godói where the Grimms live. Mr. Sauthier, a twin, was born here in 1964. His mother, a Grimm, comes from one of the eight original families to settle São Pedro in 1918.

Even today they live a relatively isolated existence. Oxen still drag farm machinery. Residents speak a German dialect to one another.

It was in the early 1990s that the high proportion of twins was widely noticed. Soon, camera crews were rolling in from all over. Town leaders declared São Pedro to have the highest concentration of twins in the world. (A spokesman for Guinness World Records could not confirm that claim, saying Guinness did not keep track of the category.)

Today, residents relish the attention. Last year, at São Pedro’s sixth biennial twins party, they erected a statue of a woman holding a boy in one arm and his twin sister in the other, and installed a moat-like “fertility spring” that lights up at night.

Like many twins here, Fabiane and Tatiane Grimm, 22, have been posing for twins-seekers since they were babies. When a journalist and a photographer showed up unannounced, their mother ushered them from a barn into the house to shower before posing for pictures.

“It’s not too much of a mystery to me,” said Fabiane, whose family has five pairs of twins. “My brother married his third cousin. There are lots of cases like that, people marrying their cousins or other close family members.”

But to some, the mystery remains. A decade ago, Anencir Flores da Silva, a town doctor and former mayor of Cândido Godói, set out to solve it, and he has since interviewed more than 100 people. He said he believed that people were holding back information about Mengele.

“In a region full of Nazis, there are some that remain silent, who are scared,” Dr. da Silva said. “It is important that we discover the truth.”

A book he helped write about the twins, published in 2007, tells of several visits Mengele made to the region, using false names.

“I am convinced that Mengele was in the region and was observing the twins phenomenon,” Dr. da Silva said. He said a man identifying himself as Rudolf Weiss attended women with varicose veins and sometimes performed dental work. And some residents told him a German man was driving from home to home in a mobile laboratory, collecting samples and ministering to women.

Mr. Sauthier, the historian, said that the assertions lacked proof and that the German community did not deserve to be associated with “a criminal like Mengele.”

“There are no Nazi sympathizers in this region,” he said, although he acknowledged a historical interest in Nazi artifacts, including a 1937 metal milk can with a swastika in his museum and a 1936 photo of schoolchildren in Cândido Godói holding swastika flags that was included in Dr. da Silva’s book.

Geneticists say the most likely explanation for the twins is genetic isolation and inbreeding. Ursula Matte, a geneticist in Porto Alegre, found that from 1990 to 1994, 10 percent of the births in São Pedro were twins, compared with 1.8 percent for the state of Rio Grande do Sul.

There was no evidence of the use of contraceptives or fertility drugs among the women, nor of any genetic mixing with people of African origin, who have higher twinning rates than caucasians, Dr. Matte said. But the rate of identical twins here, at 47 percent of all twin births, is far higher than the 30 percent that is expected in the general population, she found.

While identical twins are generally thought to occur randomly in the population, independent of genetic factors, the remarkable discrepancy in the frequency of identical twins has led Dr. Matte to conclude that Sao Pedro is an "isolated phenomenon" where unknown genetic factors must be at work.

So the speculation continues.

Mr. Sauthier said he believed private water sources like the one Derli Grimm enjoys contain a mineral that affects ovulation. “To this day, no one has tested that water,” he said, noting that in the past decade the town switched to underground well water, a possible explanation for a recent decline in twin births.

Testing the spring sources would be expensive and, Dr. Matte said, would require some hypothesis about what the research was looking for. She doubts the town will ever push seriously to do a study. “They like to maintain the mystery,” she said.

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Iran: the friendliest people in the world

Young Iranian women in Tehran

The metal door to the synagogue swung open and a small boy skipped across the courtyard. He looked puzzled at the three people who stood before him, two of whom were clearly not Iranian. He led us up some steps to the temple, where I slipped a skullcap on to my head. A lady came towards us, smiling. “Are you Jewish?” she asked.

“No,” I replied. “Sorry.”

My friend Annette and I went inside anyway, past a table of food laid out for Passover, and sat at the back as an elderly man read from the Torah in front of eight others.

I'd never have guessed that my first time inside a synagogue would be in Tehran, but Iran is full of surprises. It has a fundamentalist leadership that many in the West believe to be as nutty as a box of pistachios. But it also has a population of 65 million, most born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution (which culminated in the return from exile of Ayatollah Khomeini 30 years ago this month), and far removed from the dour and menacing stereotype often portrayed on the 10 o'clock news. The ordinary Iranian people are by far the friendliest and most welcoming I've met in more than 20 years of travelling.

Our ten-day trip took us from traffic-snarled Tehran 600km (370 miles) south across the Zagros Mountains to Shiraz and the magnificent ruins at Persepolis, started by Darius I in 515BC and destroyed by Alexander the Great in 330BC. (I have never been to a historical site where the past felt so approachable.)

Then we headed back north to the capital via Esfahan and the holy city of Qom, passing near the controversial nuclear facility at Natanz, which looked more like a car assembly plant. I assume, though, that most car factories aren't protected by banks of anti-aircraft guns.

Our guide for the journey was the ever-smiling Mr Sassan, a font of knowledge and always ready with a new story. At the start of the trip I believed all he told me, but as the week got longer his tales got decidedly taller.

We learnt that it paid to sit down when he started to talk, for with Mr Sassan there was no such thing as a quick skip through 3,000 years of history and the conspiratorial goings-on as empires rose and fell, invaders came and went.

“Now this is a sad one,” he'd say before recounting a tale of humble beginnings, love, jealousy, power, betrayal, exile and death. And when we seemed incredulous he'd look slightly hurt. “No, it's true, I'm telling you,” he'd reply. He was also adept at scooping handfuls of nuts and fruit for us from displays in open-fronted shops, walking away waving his cane shouting “Free samples, they don't mind,” as we scurried off. He was also a Mr Fixit.

In Shiraz, after guiding us to the tombs of the classical poets Sa'di and Hafez - as Shakespeare is to us, so are these to Iranians - he tracked down the best local faludeh, a wonderful frozen dessert flavoured with rose water.

The Mausoleum of Shah-e Cheragh has supposedly been closed to non-Muslims for the past three years, since a mullah objected to the revealing outfits of some Spaniards, so we headed through a winding, covered bazaar to its back entrance for a peek through the gates.

Yet, rather than shooing us away, a young caretaker welcomed us inside on the proviso that Annette put on a chador (an enormous cloth that covered her from top to toe) and that we didn't go inside the main shrine.

The large courtyard was busy with worshippers paying their respects to the remains of Sayyed Mir Ahmad, who died in the city in AD835. The caretaker asked where we were from. Inglistan? “Ah, welcome to Iran,” he beamed. Could he, though, ask us a few questions? What is the difference between England and Britain, he wondered, and whereabouts was Charles Dickens buried?

Another gracious encounter was with Mr Abbas and his wife in the dusty, backwater village of Imamzadeh Bazm.

We had planned to camp for two nights with Qashqai nomads, but a drought had delayed their 500km migration from the Gulf. Instead of 1,700 families on the grassy plain, we found just one; the women making crisp, thin bread over a stove, the men smoking opium in a tent next door and then coming back to fiddle, glassy-eyed, with a gun that they use to scare away wolves.

Back in the village, Mr Abbas's B&B was basic but clean and comfortable, and his wife's cooking was the hit of the holiday: aubergines mixed with yoghurt and mint; mushroom and barley soup; pickles; lettuce dipped in vinegar; and, for breakfast, tea and fruit followed by cheese with chopped walnuts.

But, above all, it was the people we met who made this trip for us. Groups of teenage lads - many in trendy T-shirts and elaborately gelled (and, in theory, illegal) hairstyles - always offered us big smiles and a “Salaam” (Hello). After establishing our nationality, there would be an invitation to pose for a photo with someone's mobile phone. Annette and I would beam away while everyone else adopted an authoritative stare into the lens.

“How-are-you-I'm-fine?” was the standard opener from laughing students. What did we think of Iranians, they all asked. Did we think Iran was dirty? What about the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad? Was it right that Iran shouldn't be allowed nuclear power? (No mention of nuclear weapons.)

And what about America? “They think we're all terrorists,” said a laughing, leather-skinned loo-brush seller from his kiosk outside Tehran's main bazaar. He waved several of his products towards us: “Look! Weapons of mass destruction!”

Their simple acts of hospitality were a continual delight - women offering tea as they tended a relative's grave by a mosque, a man inviting us for dinner after we asked to photograph him on a bridge, several people giving us their phone numbers in case we ever needed translation help.

The women didn't shy away from us. Far from it. Yes, they wore drab, shapeless overcoats and headscarves, the latter often pushed back to show plenty of hair.

And tourists must cover up too, although Italian tour groups we encountered had their own fashionista definition of what was acceptable. Annette found wearing a headscarf in 35C heat thoroughly annoying and couldn't wait to remove it the moment she stepped on the London-bound plane.

Our experience in the Tehran synagogue came on our last day in the country. Annette and I said goodbye to the tiny congregation, then returned outside to Simi Alley and bought sweet lemons from a fruit shop. We went to the swankier north of the city for pizza and carrot juice, then explored the Shah's former palaces alongside dozens of picnicking families.

“Stop and have some tea with us,” we were asked more than once. “Please take some almonds. Tell people in Britain how we really are.” I promised I would.

Magic Carpet Travel (013..., www.magiccarpet travel.co.uk) offers tailor-made and group journeys to Iran. A fully inclusive eight-day trip taking in Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz and Persepolis costs from £1,545pp including flights. Two-week itineraries, including a visit to the Qashqai nomads, are from £2,395pp.

Bmi (0870 6070555, www.flybmi.com) flies daily from Heathrow to Tehran from £501 return.

Reading

Iran (Bradt Guides, £14.99)
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Vintage, £7.99).

Exhibition

Shah Abbas - the Remaking of Iran opened this week and runs until June 14 at the British Museum (020..., www.britishmuseum.org. Tickets £12).

OTHER VIEWS OF IRAN

One of my favourite areas of Iran is around Shiraz. In addition to the wonderful gardens, the tomb of the poet Hafez is a must. Iranians recite his poems by heart around the tomb and you can begin to appreciate their love and reverence for their poets. The awe-inspiring site of Persepolis is near by, and around Firuzabad you can watch Qashqai nomads moving their flocks south - Neil McGregor, director, British Museum

Esfahan is a gem of the Islamic world: sitting in a café on Naghsh-e Jahan Square, looking out at the Safavid architecture, puffing on a hubble pipe, is to inhale centuries of civilisation. I once saw an old man sheltering from the sun under one of the famous stone bridges and singing a haunting mystic song that reverberated under the arches and sent shivers up the spine - Damian Whitworth, Times Feature Writer

One day when I was a child my father drove us through a crack in the mountain wall and around the back of Tochal, the 3,900m peak overlooking Tehran. The valley was flanked by steep mountains. Because we were nearer the Caspian Sea to the north, it was an ocean of blossom: pink, white, yellow - cherry, apple and apricot. The valley opened into a meadow with a couple of makeshift cafés. We got out of the car and smelt the view, taking in the ancient, sweet perfume of the valley. You could hear the cool wind, a subliminal hum of bees, and nothing else save distant waterfalls, high up the mountainside, where snowfields were melting. “This,” my father said, “is spring.” I hope to make it back to that valley to eat the cherries, apples or apricots one day - Darius Sanai, magazine writer who spent childhood in Iran

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That “Other Stuff” in Marijuana

One of the arguments regularly raised against medical marijuana is that THC is available in pill form, so — according to the Drug Enforcement Administration and other opponents — patients don’t need that nasty weed, which has all sorts of other stuff in it.

The problem with that argument is that some of that “other stuff” is really useful, not to mention remarkably safe. For example, an article recently published onlineby the journal Phytotherapy Research reviews the many beneficial effects of a less well-known marijuana component known as cannabidiol, or CBD. CBD, the article notes, “displays a plethora of actions including anticonvulsive, sedative, hypnotic, antipsychotic, antiinflammatory and neuroprotective properties,” while being “well tolerated in humans, with a profile of very low toxicity and devoid of psychoactive and cognitive effects.”

Indeed, CBD seems to counter some of the unwanted effects of pure THC, which in some people can include increased anxiety or the aggravation of a pre-existing vulnerability to psychosis.

Maybe some day human researchers will manage to improve on the natural properties of the marijuana plant, but they haven’t done so yet.

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Child abuse 'impacts stress gene'

Child in distress
Child abuse has long-lasting effects

Abuse in early childhood permanently alters how the brain reacts to stress, a Canadian study suggests.

Analysis of brain tissue from adults who had committed suicide found key genetic changes in those who had suffered abuse as a child.

It affects the production of a receptor known to be involved in stress responses, the researchers said.

The Nature Neuroscience study underpins the impact of stress on early brain development, experts said.

Previous research has shown that abuse in childhood is associated with an increased reaction to stressful circumstances.

Whilst these results obviously need to be replicated, they provide a mechanism by which experiences early in life can have an effect on behaviour later in adulthood
Dr Jonathan Mill

But exactly how environmental factors interact with genes and contribute to depression or other mental disorders in adulthood is not well understood.

A research team led by McGill University, in Montreal, examined the gene for the glucocorticoid receptor - which helps control the response to stress - in a specific brain region of 12 suicide victims with a history of child abuse and 12 suicide victims who did not suffer abuse when younger.

They found chemical changes which reduced the activity of the gene in those who suffered child abuse.

And they showed this reduced activity leads to fewer glucocorticoid receptors.

Those affected would have had an abnormally heightened response to stress, the researchers said.

Long-term

It suggests that experience in childhood when the brain is developing, can have a long-term impact on how someone responds to stressful situations.

But study leader Professor Michael Meaney said they believe these biochemical effects could also occur later in life.

"If you're a public health individual or a child psychologist you could say this shows you nothing you didn't already know.

"But until you show the biological process, many people in government and policy-makers are reluctant to believe it's real.

"Beyond that, you could ask whether a drug could reverse these effects and that's a possibility."

Dr Jonathan Mill, from the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College London said the research added to growing evidence that environmental factors can alter the expression of genes - a process known as epigenetics.

"Whilst these results obviously need to be replicated, they provide a mechanism by which experiences early in life can have an effect on behaviour later in adulthood.

"The exciting thing about epigenetic alterations is that they are potentially reversible, and thus perhaps a future target for therapeutic intervention."

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