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Our World Transcript — 1 April 2006


This transcript is provided as a service; there may be some variation between it and the program as broadcast.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... problems with a promising avian flu vaccine ... a controversial assessment of America's wetlands... and violent video games: do they trigger real life aggression?

BICKHAM: "We understand television teaches kids by them viewing the violence, and then incorporating that into their own behavior. Video games actually allow them to do it on screen themselves."

Those stories, poetry on our Website of the Week, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

U.S. scientists reported this week that an experimental vaccine against avian, or bird flu is safe and seems to protect some people against infection, but only when given in large doses. Researcher John Treanor of the University of Rochester in New York state led the study.

TREANOR: "The study involved 451 people who received a vaccine called a subvirion vaccine, very similar in the way that it's made to the conventional vaccine. They all received two doses of the vaccine separated by 28 days, and they had their blood measured after each dose to see whether or not they had developed antibody against the H5 virus."

The most effective dosage was 12 times more vaccine than is used in the seasonal vaccine. Even at that, only about half the people in the test developed significant antibodies and thus presumably have some protection against the flu. Treanor says the research is continuing to see if giving more of the vaccine would make it more effective.

TREANOR: "All the people in this study have received a third dose, and we don't know yet how much of an additional antibody response we're going to get from that. But again, the experience in england with a similar H5 vaccine was that there was a fairly dramatic improvement in the response rate with a third dose. So we'll just have to see how that turns out."

Multiple shots would be inconvenient, and Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health — and one of the country's top scientists on infectious diseases — admits that the relatively large dose required does present a problem because it would require more manufacturing capacity than now exists.

FAUCI: "Hopefully we can get the dose down to sigificantly less, that would get us to this level of immunity that John talked about, that would be predictive of being protective. Also, having a vaccine that would require 90 micrograms times two, in and of itself, would not and can not be the answer to where we want to be. It's a step towards that, but it is a small step.

Some scientists believe it's possible that administering the vaccine along with some other medicine or vitamin — an adjuvant, scientists call it — could boost the protection given by the vaccine alone. On the other hand, researcher Treanor says he and his colleagues may have set the standard too high. In their study they measured the antibodies produced as a way of assessing whether the vaccine was being effective. But they had to make an educated guess as to how much of an antibody response was enough to protect against the bird flu virus.

The brains of very intelligent children develop differently than those of kids with average intelligence, according to a new study published in the journal "Nature." The researchers say the study, involving normal, healthy children, could ultimately be useful in helping kids with serious emotional and neurological difficulties. VOA medical correspondent Jessica Berman has our report.

BERMAN: For the past 15 years, researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Mental Health have been using high-tech brain imaging known as MRI to look at the brains of just over 300 children between five and 11 years old.

According to researcher Philip Shaw, investigators have been trying to answer a number of questions.

SHAW: "The one we were looking at here was do children's brains grow differently according to how clever they are?"

BERMAN: Over the course of the study, each child underwent an MRI at least once, while others had two or more brain scans at least two years apart.

During this same time period, the children also took intelligence tests that measured their verbal and non-verbal reasoning, which is associated with an area of the brain known as the frontal cortex.

Shaw says all of the children showed the same basic pattern of increased cortical thickening from a young age.

SHAW: "And we find the most intelligent children started off with a relatively thin cortex, but it then got thicker relatively rapidly, reached its peak thickness in certain key areas several years later but then also got thinner quicker."

BERMAN: In the study, the brains of very intelligent kids reached their peak thickness around age 11, a couple of years ahead of children with average intelligence.

Shaw speculates on the effect of the extra development time.

SHAW: "It might — and this is, you know, purely speculation — but it might reflect an extended period for the development of very high level, complicated brain circuits in this region which support very high level, complicated thought."

BERMAN: Shaw hopes the data collected on the brain structures of healthy children will help scientists develop treatments for youngsters with serious brain disorders, including childhood onset schizophrenia and less severe conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Mary Blue is a pediatric developmental disabilities researcher at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. Blue notes that the study found only a slight, 6-12 percent difference in brain structure development among the children.

But she agrees that studies mapping a normal brain could help children with serious neurological difficulties.

BLUE: "This could be a measure that you could use to look at when you are applying therapies. So, if you use different kinds of therapies, can you actually change brain structure?"

Meanwhile, Shaw and his colleagues are currently using data collected from the current study to see if they can pinpoint key differences between the brains of healthy children and those with severe disorders. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

Vitamin supplements are big business — Americans alone buy about $7 billion worth each year. Some take a multivatamin — a single pill with most of the recommended nutrients you might not get if you don't eat in a balanced diet. Others take megadoses of Vitamin C, E and others in the belief that consuming many times the recommended dose will protect them against anything from the common cold to heart disease. But recent studies show that mega-doses of such popular supplements as vitamins E, A and C may be doing more harm than good. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.

SKIRBLE: Yale University public health expert David Katz says research has shown, for example, that 400 IUs or international units or more a day of vitamin E may not only fail to prevent heart disease, but can actually hurt you..

KATZ: "Vitamin A in a large study — where we didn't give the supplements, we just let the people do their own thing and watched to see what would happen — there was actually an increase risk of hip fracture with women who had the highest intake of vitamin A. We've also known that high doses of vitamin A can cause birth defects."

SKIRBLE: And Katz says that while vitamin C in food promotes good health, there is no evidence that any mega-dose supplement can prevent colds or cancers.

KATZ: "Perhaps one of the more disturbing things [is that] if you are taking vitamin C while you are being treated for cancer it might actually help protect the cancer cells from chemotherapy."

SKIRBLE: Rather than relying on fistfuls of daily vitamins that may do you no good, Dr. Katz suggests consumers take one daily multi-vitamin.

KATZ: "I consider that an insurance policy to make sure that we get enough of all the vitamins and all the minerals we need for good health."

SKIRBLE: However, Dr. Katz says eating a well-balanced diet rich in vitamins is still the best defense against disease. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

The U.S. space agency NASA this week reversed course and reinstated a science mission it had cancelled earlier this month.

The program is called Dawn, and it is now, again, set to visit two of the largest objects in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Scientists hope that by sending the unmanned space probe to visit the two asteroids, called Ceres and Vesta, they'll gain a better understanding of how our solar system was formed and what conditions prevailed when the planets came into being.

When they cancelled the mission four weeks ago, NASA officials said that Dawn was getting too expensive, and that its engineers were having trouble solving some technical issues.

But the move to kill Dawn sparked loud protests from the mission's scientists, and the space agency backed down. Official Rex Geveden, says he decided to reinstate the nearly half-billion dollar mission because NASA can absorb the 20 percent higher costs and overcome the technical problems.

GEVEDEN: "I think that the risk posture on this mission is not atypical for this type of mission. When you are doing deep planetary missions and dealing with the environments and temperature regimes and the complications of integrating a suite of instruments, there are always pretty tall challenges, and it looks like Dawn is prepared to take those on and beat them."

Planetary researchers have reacted positively to news of Dawn's reinstatement. But one researcher, Bruce Betts of the Los Angeles-based Planetary Society, says he remains concerned about reductions in other NASA science projects.

BETTS: "The president's budget for fiscal 2007 slashes and burns all sorts of science missions and science research, unfortunately. Dawn is a nice success amongst that, with it coming back to life, but there still are other missions and other concerns, amongst them cutting basic planetary science research by 15 to 50 percent, cutting astrobiology by 50 percent, and cutting some of the big missions of the future to study our solar system and others."

The Bush administration's focus for NASA has been on returning human astronauts to the moon, and then traveling on to Mars. Critics say the expensive, long-term program threatens to starve important but less-glamorous science missions.

Time again for our Website of the Week. And this time, as April dawns, we salute the start of National Poetry Month with an online source for all your poetic needs.

SWENSON: "Poets.org is the largest website devoted to poetry. We represent all different kinds of poetry."

Tree Swenson is president of the Academy of American Poets, the 70-year-old organization behind Poets-dot-org.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, Poets-dot-org features a select list of some 1700 American poems, biographies of 500 poets, essays on poetry, and more. And it's well organized, too, with lots of links to help you find your way around.

SWENSON: "For instance, if you go to the page on Langston Hughes, you not only have the biography, just a brief life of Langston Hughes, but you can click on certain of his poems and hear them read aloud."

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

Langston Hughes reading his poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." Among the other popular poets featured are Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Walt Whitman and Maya Angelou.

Now, I often have trouble decoding poems, so I wondered how accessible this site would be to listeners who are not native English speakers. But Tree Swenson says poetry isn't just for sophisticated language experts.

SWENSON: "They should just relax, take a deep breath, and whatever they feel coming out of the poem, whatever images the poem brings to mind, that's fine. That's poetry. The fear of poetry, I think, prevents many people from loving poetry. And I think it's less of a problem in other countries."

Poetry has slipped a bit out of the mainstream in the United States and other western countries. Those of you living in other parts of the world where poems are a more popular form of expression, should have no difficulty enjoying this online library of American poetry. Make poems part of your everyday experience at our Website of the Week, Poets-dot-org, or get the link from our site, VOANews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: "Poetry in Motion" — La Bouche

You're listening to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is out with a report this week on the state of America's wetlands.

After years of decline, as marshes, swamps and other watery environs were lost to development and other factors, the report finds that for the first time in a half-century, there was gain in total wetland areas. The findings are based on satellite data, spot-checked on the ground.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton introduced the report at a press briefing in Washington.

NORTON: "We believe that this report shows very good news in the overall trends on wetlands protection. It is encouragement to continue those efforts and to continue our expansion of wetlands protection and enhancement programs."

Wetlands are complex ecosystems that provide breeding and nesting areas for wildlife, control erosion and storm damage, and serve as natural filters for the water supply, among other benefits.

The report comes two years after President Bush declared a goal of "no net loss" of wetlands.

But if the amount of wetlands is increasing, not everyone is completely satisfied.

WENTZ: "Well, it's good news on the surface of it, but there are some hidden problems with that good news."

Alan Wentz is a senior executive at Ducks Unlimited, a prominent U.S. conservation group. He says that while the quantity of wetlands in America might be on the rebound, the quality has suffered, as natural wetlands are being lost, replaced by artificial, so-called "shallow pond" wetlands.

WENTZ: "We certainly have seen a decline in the rate of loss of wetlands, and that is good news. In this particular case we've seen the tradeoff of natural marsh and natural wetlands that are really diverse, full of wildlife and good for wildlife and other purposes. We've been seeing a trade of those kind of wetlands for golf course hazards and ponds around apartment buildings and other urban places that have a lot less value."

Most environmentalists contend that those ponds and golf course water hazards really are not the ecological equivalent of the natural wetlands being lost.

What's in a game? If it's a video game, in many cases the answer is, mayhem, violence, and death.

A U.S. Senate subcommittee Wednesday looked into whether violent video games can cause players to become violent, and whether this controversial form of entertainment ought to be regulated by the government.

There are legal barriers to such regulation. Even violent video games enjoy the free speech protections promised by the U.S. Constitution. Courts have repeatedly struck down state laws aimed at violent video games for just this reason. But Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brownback, who called the hearing, says children and adolescents may need to be protected.

BROWNBACK: "Thanks to new technology, the violence in today's video games is becoming more graphic, realistic and barbaric. Today's video games allow players to decapitate and electrocute their opponents, beat their victims to death with golf clubs, pin women against walls with pitchforks, and have sex with prostitutes before beating them to death."

This is clearly a political issue and a legal one, so why is Our World interested? Well, aside from the tremendous technical sophistication of games that can be played on a personal computer, or on a game console, or with thousands of other players over the Internet, it turns out that the constitutionality of regulating games could hinge on whether researchers can prove there's a link between the pretend violence of video games and actual violence committed by gamers.

Decades of studies have confirmed the negative impact of TV violence, especially on impressionalble youngsters. And David Bickham of Harvard Medical School, who has studied the extensive literature on the effects of televison on kids, says video games are like TV, only more so.

BICKHAM: "We understand television teaches kids by them viewing the violence, seeing it rewarded, and then incorporating that into their own behavior. Video games go one step further, and actually allow them to imitate it and do it on screen themselves. So I see that television provides a very good basis for understanding the effects of video game violence because it is also a visual medium."

And an increasing body of research would seem to support that view, according to Elizabeth Carll of the American Psychological Association.

CARLL: "A comprehensive analysis of violence in interactive video game research suggests exposure increases aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, psysiological arousal, and decreases helpful behavior."

That makes sense to Republican Senator — and physician — Tom Coburn.

COBURN: "I'm amazed that we don't sit back and look at common sense on this. I mean, we know what television does. It's pretty firm, the conclusions that both the psychologists, the pediatricians, the social psychologists have come to in terms of the influence on violence through television, and it seems to me strange that we wouldn't start with the concept that probably there's an impact, now let's go prove it."

But other researchers are more skeptical. There are all kinds of different video games, and how they are played might make a difference. Some gamers play alone, and others do it in a more social setting. More and more are playing online, often with thousands of other gamers at the same time.

One prominent video game researcher warns against extrapolating from studies about television violence, and he criticizes the limitations of the studies that have been done so far on violent video games. Dmitri Williams of the University of Illinois says flat-out that "games are not television."

WILLIAMS: "I talk to gamers every day. They say things like 'GLA for the win' and 'minus 50 DKP' and other arcane slogans. Unless you enter their very social world, you won't understand what meanings they're making."

Williams criticized as unrealistic most existing studies, which typically involve testing for some sign of aggression after playing a game for a short time in a controlled setting.

WILLIAMS: "That's not how people play, espeically in the Internet era. If I told you that we had a study that showed games causing aggression and that that study lasted 30 minutes, you'd have a hard time then concluding that the games would cause aggression over an hour or a week or a year. For that, you'd need a study that lasted an hour, a week or a year. I'm not sure you realize that all you've been given are these short studies. They usually last between 10 and 30 minutes, and yet we're all talking about years and lifespans."

Williams conducted what he says was the longest study of gaming ever done. Gamers were studied for a month, and played an average of 56 hours — at home — during that time. At the end he says there was no statistically significant effect on aggression.

And before we go, here's an important announcement. Our schedule, here on Our World, is changing a bit.

Our World is still on three times on Saturday and twice on Sunday, but some of the times have changed, so listen closely.

From now on you can catch Our World on Saturday after the news at 0530 and 1530 UTC, plus 1400 UTC on our English to Africa service. On Sunday, listen after the newscast at 0530 UTC and then again on English to Africa at 1500 UTC

Same great Our World quality, always online, and now on different times on Saturday and Sunday. Hope you can listen!


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's it for this week. Drop us a line, let us know what you think. The email is ourworld@voanews.com. Or write our address on an envelope -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

The show was edited by Rob Sivak. Eva Nenicka is our technical director. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology...in Our World.

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