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Our World — 27 September 2008


This week on Our World ... A surprising link between smells and our dreams ... America's high-speed Internet challenge... and a low-tech way to prevent hospital infections ...

PROVONOST: "We saved the state of Michigan somewhere around $200 million a year and about 1,800 deaths a year from this sole intervention."

All that with a simple checklist. Those stories, electric trees, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World.

Sweet Smells Lead to Sweet Dreams

Sometimes, scientists make some fascinating discoveries because they happen to be interested in seemingly unrelated things.

Take Dr. Boris Stuck, a German researcher who studies sleep and also the sense of smell.

A while back, he decided to combine his two interests and see if smells affected sleep or the dreams people have when they're sleeping. He says there's been been very little research in this area. Health reporter Rose Hoban picks up the story.

HOBAN: The first thing Stuck did was to find people who would be willing to sleep in the lab at the University of Heidelberg, where he works. While they were sleeping, he and his colleagues exposed the subjects alternately to the smell of roses and the smell of rotten eggs.

STUCK: "We expected that those subjects may incorporate the stimulus in their dream, because we knew from other research, from our colleagues that if you just give them some kind of noise or sound, or whatever, very often this is incorporated into the dream. It becomes then part of the dream content. So we expected that it happens as well for the olfactory system. But it didn't actually, so no matter what you use, people hardly ever dream about smelling... so nobody told us they were dreaming about roses or something like that. This didn't happen."

HOBAN: But Stuck did find something unexpected. He found that the smells had an impact on the emotional content of the dreams.

STUCK: "If you use positive stimulus, nearly all the subjects reported that the dream they had was predominantly positive, emotionally positive. And if you use the negative smell, the rotten eggs, nearly all the subjects reported that the dream they had was more negative, there were more negative emotions... and this is a clear and very strong influence."

HOBAN: And Stuck says the emotional effect was surprisingly strong — it was something experienced by almost all the subjects.

He says this kind of phenomenon might be used to help people who have suffered trauma — or who have recurrent nightmares — to overcome their difficulties with sleep. He says he'll be exploring these ideas further in future research.

Stuck presented his research this week at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery Foundation in Chicago. I'm Rose Hoban.

Scientists Discover Earth's Oldest Rocks

Up in Canada they've discovered some rocks that are nearly as old as the Earth itself.

As we hear from VOA's Jessica Berman, researchers say the finding will offer clues to understanding the formation of the Earth's crust early in our planet's history.

BERMAN: The rocks — dated between 3.8 and 4.25 billion years old — were taken from an expanse of bedrock on the eastern shore of the Hudson Bay in northern Quebec [the Nuvvuagittuq greenstone belt].

They were analyzed by scientists at McGill University in Montréal and the Carnegie Institution's terrestrial magnetism department in Washington, D.C. They concluded the rocks were 250 million years older than previous rock samples.

Jonathan O'Neil is a student at McGill who helped analyze the rocks. He says the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old, about 300,000 years older than the oldest discovered rock.

In an interview with the editors of Science, which published a paper on the discovery, O'Neil says the extremely rare rocks should offer invaluable clues as to the formation of the Earth's early crust.

O'NEIL: "If you want to study the primordial crust, or how the first crust formed, we actually need to have terrain. We need rocks of that age. And they are pretty rare. So the idea is to identify and have these old rocks and then when we confirm the age, now we can start to ask questions, Okay, are these rocks different? Did the crust back then, did it form exactly like how the crust forms today?"

BERMAN: Experts say ancient rocks are extremely rare because the primordial crust was crushed and recycled into the Earth's interior many times by plate tectonics, the movement of the planet's early crust that led to the formation of continents.

Scientists say geologists have found older mineral grains called zircons in Western Australia. The oldest zircon was dated to 4.36 billion years.

Experts say a mineral analysis of the oldest of the rocks suggests it was made of ancient volcanic deposits. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

Senate hearing focuses on U.S. lag in Internet service

Congress is considering ways to expand high-speed — or broadband — Internet access, with the goal of making the service faster and bringing it to more Americans.

At a Congressional hearing recently, the message was that high speed service, not just dial-up Internet access, is increasingly important for health, for education, and for the economy.

Senate Commerce Committee chairman Daniel Inouye set the tone up front, noting that there are more broadband subscribers in China than in the U.S., and that residents of other industrialized countries enjoy high-speed Internet connections that are not only half the cost but also 20 times faster than those available to Americans.

INOUYE: "And I believe that all of us will agree this is unacceptable, and we should do better."

Inouye said this is more than just about bragging rights.

INOUYE: "Broadband matters because broadband communications have become the great economic engine of our time. Universal broadband adoption would add $500 billion to the United States economy and create more than a million new jobs."

Some of those jobs would go to people who install and service the high-speed Internet circuits, including members of the Communications Workers of America, one of the country's biggest labor unions. Union president Larry Cohen said high-speed connections can support innovation, but that the United States is on the wrong side of a digital divide.

COHEN: "The average download speeds in the U.S. now, based on our survey, is 2.3 megabits per second. This is people who have broadband. And then you see Japan leading the world Internet, where the average download speed is 63 megabits per second."

In addition to slower broadband speeds, American home Internet users are less likely to have high-speed connections than many other industrialized countries.

The union leader urged Congress to adopt a national broadband policy, including a goal of 100 mbps [megabits per second] speed for both uploads and downloads by 2015.

Jonathan Linkous, who heads the American Telemedicine Association, explained how high speed Internet helps bring medical care — and more — to people who are sick. Doctors in small town clinics can transmit digital x-rays or more advanced images for real-time evaluation by specialists at top medical centers.

Patients also can use high-speed Internet. As an example, he talked about his own sister, who has breast cancer.

LINKOUS: "She's 60 years old. She lives alone in a rural area. And since getting her diagnosis, Diana's relied on access to the outside world via telecommunications. She looks up the complicated terms that her doctors give her. I'd say broadband is my sister's lifeline. And it's extremely important for her well-being."

High speed Internet access can also make it practical for many people to work from home, an arrangement known as telecommuting.

Mara Mayor is a board member of the AARP, a private group which advocates on behalf of Americans age 50 and older. She told the Senate committee that broadband can help keep older employees productive.

MAYOR: "Access to broadband makes it easier to have flexible work schedules, to work part-time where that's appropriate, to take on consulting, and most important to continue to earn a living."

In these uncertain economic times, it's not clear whether Congress will be willing to put any money into programs to improve high-speed Internet availability. That investment has traditionally come from the private sector.

Some advocates are suggesting tapping something called the Universal Service Fund to help bring broadband service to rural areas and the poor. That fund currently subsidizes regular telephone service to those customers. The money comes from telephone companies who usually pass on the cost to their customers.


Presidential documents on our Website of the Week

For many of us, a key reason to want faster Internet connections is for a better experience surfing the Web — which brings us to our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

As we get deeper into the presidential election campaign here in the United States, face-to-face debates are an important part of the process. This campaign saw an exceptionally large number of debates during the long primary season as well, when numerous candidates were vying for their party's nomination. So we dip into the Website of the Week archives for a site that features transcripts of all of them, as well as previous debates and a wide range of other U.S. presidential documents from the 18th century right through today.

PETERS: "We have all of the Public Papers and Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents in a searchable database, and they're available online for researchers, and that way people can search presidential documents across the entire range of presidential history."

Gerhard Peters is co-founder of AmericanPresidency.org. Various kinds of presidential documents — speeches, press conferences and other material — are widely available, but this website, which is hosted at the University of California in Santa Barbara, aims to bring everything together in one place.

PETERS: "So this includes everything from public remarks, transcripts of news conferences, transcripts of all the addresses, and also written documents such as proclamations, executive orders, memoranda, statements, and the messages to Congress."

The emphasis is on written material, but there are also hundreds of audio and video clips, such as President Franklin Roosevelt's World War II-era fireside chats on radio and video of President John F. Kennedy's inauguration address.

KENNEDY: "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. (applause)"

To help you learn more about the candidates in November's important U.S. presidential election, there are transcripts of debates going back through the primary election season as well as some 300 speeches, interviews and other public comments by Senators Obama and McCain over the course of this very long campaign.

Two centuries of presidential history on AmericanPresidency.org, or get the link to this and more than 200 other Websites of the Week from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: The Goldman Band — "President's March"

It's VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.


Electricity generated by trees enough to power fire detectors

You might be surprised to learn that trees generate small amounts of electricity. Not enough to shock you, but enough to recharge batteries that could power a network to track forest fires in remote areas. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, a team of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is working on taking that project from the laboratory into the forest.

SKIRBLE: Andreas Mershin is a post-doctoral associate at MIT's Center for Biomedical Engineering. He was working on generating energy from spinach plants when a group from a small bioengineering company came to talk to him about producing electricity from trees.

MERSHIN: "And I said, well, how do you do it? Do you burn them in a furnace and then have a turbine spinning on the top. And they said, no, we just plug in a couple of nails [into the tree] here and there and they generate some voltage and amperage."

SKIRBLE: All living organism have electricity in their cells; some do more with it than others. The electric eel, for example, is a freshwater predator that can produce a large electric field around its body, strong enough to stun prey and ward off enemies. But the cellular electricity in the rest of us is at much lower levels.

Mershin and his colleagues wanted to understand how a tree could generate enough power to be measured, and why it would.

In lab experiments, they eliminated possible power sources such as radio or microwaves and underground cables.

MERSHIN: "And to our great surprise we couldn't make the voltage go away."

SKIRBLE: The scientists finally concluded that the tree generates electricity as a way to regulate its pH level, reacting to the acidity of its environment.

MERSHIN: "So what the tree does is always try to keep itself at a happy pH, no matter what the soil is. If there is an imbalance between the tree and the soil, that results in an electric voltage being generated. The final 'nail' in this theory was that if you manage to match the soil pH exactly to the tree's pH, that was the only time that you could make the voltage go away."

SKIRBLE: Over time, the so-called 'trickle charge' can add up and produce enough electricity to recharge batteries. Mershin says a start-up company called Voltree Power wants to transfer that technology into a tree-powered remote sensor network that could help manage forest fires.

MERSHIN: "Where every few trees, one of them is equipped with a little circuit that is buried under the ground and nobody can see it. It's touching the root of the tree, where it's getting some of its juice, some of its power, and it's using this power to very slowly all day and all night charge up a battery and then, when needed, this battery can release charge through a circuit that can report on the humidity and the temperature around that tree."

SKIRBLE: Important data, Mershin says, that can help predict where fires might start, and once started, how best to respond.

MERSHIN: "Because now the data will be much more local, and then the fire fighters and the fire fighting resources can be deployed more strategically and choke off the fires at the best points, and know up ahead where they're going to occur and where they are going to go, therefore saving a lot of money just from fuel alone, of moving people across rough terrain. Not to mention the fact that it will be now easier to detect fires at an earlier stage."

SKIRBLE: Mershin says while the system has preformed well in the laboratory, it's time to see if it can work in the forest.

Mershin is an advisor to Voltree and says the company plans to install a sensor network on a four-hectare tract in a remote forest in Idaho next year. Mershin and his colleagues discuss their research in a recent issue of the open access journal, PLoS One. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

Award-winning doctor saves lives with a checklist

The MacArthur Foundation this week announced winners of 25 fellowships for 2008. This is an annual honor for creative people working in all fields, and it comes with an unrestricted grant of a half-million dollars.

They're popularly known as "genius awards." The winners don't seem to like that description, but it's probably as good a term as any to embrace a group that this year includes a music critic, a couple of artists, several scientists and physicians — including Dr. Peter Pronovost.

He's a 43-year-old professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

His claim to genius? Something seemingly as obvious as taking an ordinary checklist and using it to make sure that doctors and nurses do the right thing in caring for their patients.

His checklist covers one specific problem in critical, or intensive care settings: catheter-related bloodstream infections.

PROVONOST: "Those are infections that we give to people when they're hospitalized from putting catheters in their body — tubes that go in their neck or their groin to give them medicines, and sometimes they get infected. Sometimes ... about 250,000 of those infections a year, about 28,000 in the U.S. a year, and about $3 billion in excess health care costs attributed to these."

The five-point checklist included nothing new, no radical innovation: wash your hands, wear a sterile gown and mask — that sort of thing. But simple as it was, using a checklist turned out to be effective. Remarkably effective. Infection rates dropped to near zero. Pronovost and his team ran a pilot program in the state of Michigan.

PROVONOST: "The results of this are estimated that we saved the state of Michigan per year somewhere around $200 million a year and about 1,800 deaths from this sole intervention."

Peter Pronovost described his work this week at a briefing on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Congressional Biomedical Research Caucus.

Afterwards, I asked him how he got the idea for a medical checklist.

PRONOVOST: It came from aviation. Aviation has a long history since the '30s of using checklists because they recognized the limitations of the human brain — that we're fallible, we're not going to remember everything and as their planes got more complex they realize we're not able to expect pilots to remember everything. And health care, it's the same thing. You know, 30 years ago the only therapies we had were what the doctors carried around in their black bag. And whether you used them or not, didn't make any difference. Now we have incredibly complex therapies that require teams to work together, that have many decision nodes, and we can't rely on that outdated model of the omnipotent physician. We need aids, and this checklist is a very simple way to do that.

Q: We've seen movies of how pilots are checking off the checklist in the cockpit. How actually does it work at the bedside or in the [operating room]?

PRONOVOST: When the doctor goes to do the procedure, the nurse stands there with a checklist and it's a check and read-back system. Doctor, did you wash your hands? Yes, my hands are washed. OK, you can go to step two. Did you use chlorhexidine, a special soap? Yes I did. Teams of clinicians working together to make sure patients always get what they're supposed to.

Q: If the guidelines are in existence and as you described them they're hundreds of pages long, how do they get distilled down to a five- or seven-point checklist?

PRONOVOST: Well, we did this one perhaps by luck because I'm an ICU doc, I just picked what seemed common sense. What we're hoping to do is to get some- develop that science. I don't know how to do that. How do you cull it down? What we think we'll likely do is tap into a community of clinicians and say, what do you vote as the most five or seven best things, and then just show the rankings and say, here's what the community of docs thinks are most important. 63.55 What we don't have is the science to do that, and we desperately need it.

Q: Is there a target that you're working on next?

PRONOVOST: We're starting this exact same approach for Methacillin Resistant Staph Aureus (MRSA) and Vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus — those infections that are devastating to patients, cost billions of dollars a year, and we think (but we don't know for sure) are largely preventable with this same approach.

Q: Our healthcare system is enormously sophisticated, very complicated on so many levels — even before you get to the actual medicine. Our audience is international. Is this sort of system something that can be deployed not just in sophisticated hospitals in Europe, for example, but also in clinical settings in developing countries?

PRONOVOST: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, we're partnering with the World Health Organization to put this program in globally. I just had a team come back from Pakistan who, for a whole bunch of reasons why they want to foster that cultural relationship, is putting this checklist in Pakistan. I have this group of physicians from Mozambique visiting me next week in the [intensive care unit]. We're training them how to put it [in place] in Mozambique. So it absolutely has universal applicability. Again, there's no technology. The checklist is paper. Right, what the checklist requires is just doing what we know works. There's no marginal cost to it. That's the beauty of it.

Q: So you got to figure out what works, and then put it on a checklist?

PRONOVOST: That's exactly right.

Dr. Peter Pronovost of Johns Hopkins University. Despite the demonstrated usefulness of the checklist concept, it's still a hard sell. Developing and implementing the checklists isn't particularly costly, compared with the benefits. But Pronovost says that while there are plenty of sources for funding medical research, it's much harder to find the money to turn the results of research into something like a simple infection-prevention checklist.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to get in touch, email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Or use the postal address —

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA

Rob Sivak edited the show. Eva Nenicka is the 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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