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Our World — 22 November 2008


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This week on "Our World" ... Regulating genetically engineered animals in the food supply ... A study finds no proof that a popular herbal supplement helps prevent memory loss ... and Oliver Sacks and the healing power of music...

SACKS: "And these seemingly motionless people could dance and sing and function while there was music. This was very, very astounding."

Those stories and more ... and be sure to stay awake for our segment on sleep. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Brain scientists cite increasing evidence of sleep's value

Thousands of brain researchers and other neuroscientists got together in Washington this week to share their latest discoveries.

The topics included the link between sex and smell; how songbirds learn to sing and what that can teach us about human learning; and the biological basis of addiction.

But let's focus on something we all do every day: sleep.

The more scientists study sleep, the more it shows up as a factor in a wide range of human conditions.

Robert Stickgold of Harvard Medical School spoke about the link between sleep and some mental illnesses.

STICKGOLD "All of the major psychiatric disorders have sleep disturbance as one of their characteristics. And I think there's more and more data coming out suggesting that rather than, well, he's depressed, so he doesn't sleep as much; she has ADHD so she doesn't sleep as much, and in fact the causal relationship might be in the opposite direction."

In other words, a lack of sleep may cause depression or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, not the other way around.

Stickgold also says there are studies linking a fully-functioning immune system with getting enough sleep. Glucose regulation, too, suggesting that obesity might be linked to bad sleeping habits.

Sleep is also now seen as a key element in remembering, how short-term memory becomes long-term.

The process by which memories get saved for long-term storage is not completely understood, but Prof. William Fishbein of the City College of New York says sleep appears to play an important role.

FISHBEIN: "I'm a college teacher. And I teach students. And I sometimes wonder about what they do when they take an exam. They cram for an exam all night long to perform as well as they can, so that the information is stored in their short-term memory, but they don't get any sleep, and the information doesn't transfer to the long-term memory. They do well on the test, but a week later (pfft!) it's all gone."

Getting a good night's sleep is a function of both quantity and quality. But as Gina Poe of the University of Michigan points out, sleep researchers have been discovering that not everyone needs the same amount of sleep.

POE: "Sleep is very different sleep. In recent years, [researchers have been] finding the sleep fingerprint is as individual as a fingerprint. Each person sleeps differently, characteristically quite differently, and it might be that what we can find is that people who have this kind of sleep only need six hours, and people with this [other] type of sleep need more like eight or ten hours. And so it depends on your own sleep fingerprint."

A few of the many findings from this week's meeting of the Society for Neuroscience here in Washington.

Ginko Biloba does not prevent memory loss

New research on a popular herbal supplement that's been touted as a memory enhancer and maybe protection against Alzheimer's Disease has failed to show any benefit in a large-scale study of older Americans. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

BERMAN: It's been widely touted as a natural treatment for enhancing memory. But in the largest study ever to look at Ginkgo Biloba in people with Alzheimer's disease, researchers found the herbal supplement did nothing to prevent memory loss, a hallmark of the disease.

To see whether Ginkgo Biloba might stop or slow that descent, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh conducted a study involving 3,000 seniors over the age of 75, the people who most often get Alzheimer's disease.

DEKOSKY: "Delaying onset of the disease by ten years would effectively eliminate it from the population."

BERMAN: Steven DeKosky is the study's lead author.

Half of the participants recruited by DeKosky and his colleagues took 240 milligrams of the herbal tablets daily. The other half took a placebo or sugar pill. Investigators then followed the volunteers for six years, comparing the two groups.

DeKosky, who is now a professor of medicine at the University of Virginia, says 246 people in the placebo group and 277 people in the Ginko group were eventually diagnosed with dementia.

DEKOSKY: "The test results showed us that under these circumstances, Ginkgo doesn't appear to have any effect of slowing down thinking changes in late life."

BERMAN: An editorial accompanying the study results in this week's JAMA notes that there's been a lot of excitement about Ginkgo Biloba as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia but little actual scientific data on its effectiveness. The author says DeKosky's findings add to the growing body of evidence that the herb has little impact. I'm Jessica Berman.

US considers regulation of genetically engineered farm animals

The U.S. Food and Drug administration, which oversees food safety in this country, is considering how to regulate food from genetically modified farm animals.

Genetic engineering involves modifying the DNA of a plant or animal to change some particular characteristic.

Former science journalist Rick Weiss says the technique spans a broad range of possible modifications.

WEISS: "Traits that would benefit the animal itself, such as cows resistant to mastitis, which is a pretty serious ailment in cows; traits that could benefit industry - goats, for example, that produce spider silk in their milk, from which bullet-proof vests, for example, can be woven; and traits that make for tastier or healthier food."

Weiss is now a fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. At a symposium here in Washington he said genetic changes could help animals produce organs for human transplant, or could benefit the environment, by making animal waste less harmful.

This is where the Enviropig comes in.

Pig manure is loaded with phosphorus, because pigs can't digest it, and phosphorus is in the feed they eat.

John Phillips of the University of Guelph in Canada says the problem is that the phosphorus-rich manure is used as fertilizer

PHILLIPS: "That fertilizer is used to grow crops. Those crops will absorb much of the nutrient that's applied as fertilizer, but the phosphorus level is so high, the crops can not usually use it all. Year after year, the applications of pig manure to these fields will build up phosphorus residues in the soil, which will run off and pollute, and you'll be into a cycle of water pollution."

The Enviropig, which Dr. Phillips developed, is genetically modified to digest the phosphorous, making its manure less harmful to the environment.

Scientists involved in food production look at how genetic changes can improve crops or livestock, but many consumers aren't so sure. This is different from conventional breeding. As Rick Weiss mentioned with goats producing spider silk, there is seemingly no limit to how different species' genes can be combined with each other.

The critics decry what they call "Frankenfood" and say the risks of possibly catastrophic harm outweigh the potential benefits.

When given the choice, most shoppers say they prefer unmodified milk or fruit or chicken. But Scott Eiler, a corporate vice president at food processing giant Cargill, suggested that some day, genetically modified foods might actually be more desirable than un-modified products.

He draws an analogy to the improvement that genetic engineering has brought to the insulin that his diabetic daughter uses, compared with the inconsistent insulin previously derived from cows and pigs.

EILER: "And that gives me a sense of assurance. I know that every batch of insulin is going to be consistent, time-after-time. And so, as I see it, that's a use of recombinant technology that gives me great assurance. It's not crazy to think that at some point we could think the same way about the food that we consume. Hard for me to imagine today, but many things are possible."

In the meantime, Greg Jaffe of consumer advocacy group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says this new way of changing the food we eat requires a showing of some benefit for consumers, plus trustworthy government oversight.

JAFFE: "That regulatory system needs to, first and foremost, address whether the food from genetically-engineered animals is safe to eat. But it also needs to look at what is the environmental impact from any of those animals as well as ensuring that those animals are healthy and that they don't have any major animal welfare concerns."

The Food and Drug Administration proposal for new rules governing genetically engineered animals prompted almost 17,000 public-comment submissions to the agency. You can read many of them online at Many of the comments contend that because genetically modified animals are different, they should be regulated more strictly. In particular, the commenters want food from genetically engineered animals to be labeled as such ... which the proposed government rules would not require.

International trade in farm products on our Website of the Week

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

The United States grows and exports vast amounts of wheat, soybeans, corn, and other agricultural products each year. We also import a staggering array of food products from virtually every country on earth.

For a wide range of information about American agricultural imports and exports, head on over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service at

Spokesman Harold Kanarek says the website's information is collected from throughout the United States and directly from agents around the world, in what they call attaché reports.

KANAREK: "We have 102 offices around the world in 82 countries, so we have market information about markets in India, China, Japan - every country you can think of. This is an incredibly valuable resource. It's one of our most popular accessed pages."

The main job of the Foreign Agricultural Service is to promote U.S. exports, but in the process they collect tons of data that will be of interest to farmers, processors, economists, students, and anyone interested in food.

KANAREK: "We have a lot of searchable databases that give statistics about agricultural trade and production. Not only U.S. statistics, but also we have a production supply and distribution database, which gives estimates about agricultural production in countries all around the world."

As we gear up for a change in presidential administration here in Washington, policy change is in the air, and the Food and Agricultural Service website keeps track of U.S. trade policy for you.

KANAREK: "So this is where somebody would go to find out information about what our trading policy is, what our free trade status is with a particular country, and also find out the status of world trade negotiations and trade liberalization efforts."

The U.S. Foreign Agricultural Service is online at, or get the link to this and more than 200 other Websites of the Week including several other recent political selections, from our site,

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

Book probes links between music and the human brain

Physician and author Oliver Sacks has won international renown for his bestselling accounts of his work at the frontiers of clinical neurology.

In his latest book, Musicophilia, Sacks explores the many subtle and mysterious connections between music and the human brain, and how musical perception offers a window into the workings of our most complex organ. VOA's Adam Phillips reports.

PHILLIPS: Dr. Oliver Sacks has been a music lover ever since his boyhood in London back in the 1940s, and the upright piano in his Greenwich Village home office today is very well-used. But Dr. Sacks first became interested in music's clinical potential at the Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx during the 1960s. He had just started to work on a ward for people suffering from the debilitating effects of encephalitis, a viral brain infection. Many patients had languished for decades in a deep physical lethargy. Many were unable to move at all - except, Sacks found, when they heard music.

SACKS: "Music could get them going and these seemingly motionless people could dance and sing and function while there was music. And this was very, very astounding. It astounded me. It astounded everyone I knew. At that time I knew [the poet] W.H. Auden in his later years, and I once took him along there. And he was very fascinated. And being a poet, he quoted a poetic aphorism, an aphorism of [the German Romantic poet] Novalis who said every disease is a musical problem, every cure is a musical solution."

PHILLIPS: Dr. Sacks has treated many other musical problems in his career as a neurologist. They include musical hallucinations, music-induced epileptic seizures, and a strange condition which Dr. Sacks himself once suffered while driving in his car enjoying Chopin's "Ballade Number 4."

SACKS: "But then something started to happen to the music. It started to sound unpleasant and to reverberate, and then it seemed to lose its tonality. So that all these notes had the same pitch, and finally it just sounded like banging on a steel plate. So I had a brief experience of 'amusia,' of a complete amusia in which one loses the perception of pitch. You can't say that one note is higher than another. Everything becomes flat. If such a thing were to happen when I was in an MRI, having functional brain imaging, you would see that the parts of the brain concerned in perceiving and processing pitch were out of action, whereas other parts of the brain concerned with perceiving rhythm were intact."

PHILLIPS: In Musicophilia, Dr. Sacks delves into other unusual neuro-musical phenomena, some with arguably positive effects, such as synesthesia, in which a person actually sees or even tastes music, as well as hears it. This condition suggests the diverse areas of the human brain that are involved in perceiving and imagining music.

SACKS: "There is no single music center for the brain. There are auditory areas involved, but there are also visual areas. There are also motor areas, because whenever music is thought of, one tends to keep time with it automatically. And even if you don't do so visibly, the brain is keeping time. And there's always an emotional aspect to music and there's nearly always an evocative aspect to music. So the many, many parts of the brain to do with sensation, with movement, with intellectual judgment, with emotion, with memory, all tend to be involved."

PHILLIPS: Dr. Oliver Sacks believes that continued research into the ways music interacts with the brain will lead to new treatments for patients suffering from a range of brain dysfunctions. And as Sacks' latest book, Musicophilia suggests, that research may also shed new light on the mysterious power music holds over the human mind. I'm Adam Phillips reporting from New York.

Internet advocates see U.S. lagging in broadband use

And finally today ...

Some 55 percent of Americans have high-speed, or broadband Internet service at home, according to a Pew study conducted earlier this year. There's been a steady increase in home broadband for several years, as prices have dropped and the amount of online video has increased.

But the United States is not keeping up with some other industrialized countries, where broadband service is often faster and cheaper.

Internet-related companies and organizations representing users are hoping the incoming Obama administration will develop a strategy for better Internet service here.

Many of those groups are members of the Internet Innovation Alliance. Co-chairman Larry Irving noted that Barack Obama's successful election campaign made unprecedented use of the Internet to organize supporters, get out its message, and raise money.

IRVING: "And that's what this debate in this country over the next several weeks and months is going to be: how do we get the infrastructure we need and deserve, how to make sure that every American that wants it can afford it and can have it in his or her household. The thing about broadband isn't that it's something abstract. It's not something that is just good because it's there. It's good because of what it can do."

Some of those uses were highlighted at a symposium in Washington on Wednesday. One of the things it can do is help people learn about government programs. Paul Cosgrave heads the Department of Information Technology in New York City. He says residents can use the Internet to find out what help they can get from the government and apply for assistance, all in one step.

COSGRAVE: "And we do that in several different languages including Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Haitian Creole, and English. So by entering their household information once, the residents can then find out which of those 35 programs they're actually eligible for, rather than having to do that 35 different times, which was the way they could have had to do it before, and in most cases not even know they were eligible for programs because who in the world would go through that sort of a process."

Government programs are only one anti-poverty approach where the Internet can help. Elaine Kamarck of Harvard University has written about some of the numerous other ways a good Internet connection can help, such as by helping rural producers in developing countries avoid middlemen and connect to buyers directly.

KAMARCK: "Programs in rural areas - agronegocios in El Salvador is one - are helping to link rural farmers with markets. We're seeing this in the area of crafts. We're seeing it in a variety of economic development projects where the Internet is able to link producers to markets."

Broadband Internet service is also helping in education. Math and science teachers, who are in short supply, can reach more students through lessons transmitted over the Internet. Susan Patrick of the North American Council for Online Learning says other schools use the Internet to enrich the curriculum.

PATRICK: "If you're in Kentucky or Michigan, both of those state virtual schools are offering Mandarin Chinese that are co-taught by a licensed teacher in that state with a teacher in China. And those students are able to do voice-over-IP [Internet Protocol] and have discussions with Chinese students and the Chinese teachers."

She says that in the years to come, a blended style of education is likely to emerge, with Internet-based lessons an important adjunct to regular in-person teaching.

We'll mention one more example: health care. Throughout the United States, rural hospitals are threatened. Tough cases get transferred to big-city hospitals, where highly-trained doctors use advanced equipment. When that happens often enough, hospitals may be forced to close. High-speed Internet connections make it possible for specialists at a major medical center to consult directly with doctors at the rural hospital. Not only does it mean that more patients can be treated closer to home, Dr. Jay Sanders, adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins Medical School says it has an unanticipated benefit for those doctors at the rural hospital.

SANDERS: "The primary care physician who uses a telemedicine system over a period of time actually decreases their consultative requests for the best of reasons: their educational level has been increased so that the question that they had previously, they now know how to take care of, and they don't need to ask for the specialist."

During the just ended campaign, President-elect Obama said "America should lead the world in broadband penetration and Internet access." The details of how to do that, and on what timetable, may become clear in the months ahead.

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

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA

Rob Sivak edited the show. Bob Doughty is the technical director.

And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology ... in Our World.