Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Mental Alchemy

By Adina Roskies

Adina Roskies is Professor of Philosophy and chair of the Cognitive Science Program at Dartmouth College. She received a Ph.D from the University of California, San Diego in Neuroscience and Cognitive Science in 1995, a Ph.D. from MIT in Philosophy in 2004, and an M.S.L. from Yale Law School in 2014. Dr. Roskies’ philosophical research interests lie at the intersection of philosophy and neuroscience, and include philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and ethics. Her recent work focuses on free will and responsibility. Dr. Roskies is also a member of the AJOB Neuroscience editorial board.

In the last several months I’ve attended a few workshops on the topic of “cognitive ontology.” One workshop, held at the Rotman Institute at the University of Western Ontario was entitled “Rethinking the taxonomy of psychology”; the other, at Macquarie University was called “Reshaping the mind: New work on cognitive ontology”. The basic question raised by these workshops is whether the concepts we use to investigate cognition and refer to its constructs and processes are the “right” ones, or the ones we ought to use. The way in which this question has been elaborated by the speakers at these meetings varies: the topic has very broad scope. In what follows, I’ll sketch a few of the ways it has been discussed. As you will see, although the topic is more centrally one of interest to philosophy of neuroscience and psychology, it also has potential ramifications for neuroethics.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Should Getting High be a Possible Treatment for Depression?

By Maria Paula Martinez

This post was written as part of a class assignment from students who took a neuroethics course with Dr. Rommelfanger in Paris of Summer 2016.

Maria Paula Martinez is a student of a joint degree program majoring in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University and Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. She is 20 years old and originally from Bogota, Colombia.

What if instead of the traditional and usually ineffective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) used to treat depression, we could provide patients with a drug that directly mimics the effects of serotonin, the “happiness neurotransmitter”? Not only have such compounds been around for over a millennium, but they are the active ingredients in psychedelic drugs such as magic mushrooms. A scientific paper released in The Lancet Psychiatry this past May opened the possibility for compounds like psilocybin, the active ingredient of “shrooms”, to potentially treat depression. A group of researchers in the Imperial College of London were able to give psilocybin to 12 patients with depression who had unsuccessfully tried at least two different treatment types and had suffered from depression for an average of 17.8 years. The results of this preliminary study were astonishing. Not only did all patients show significant improvements after a single week of treatment, but the remission rate was double that of patients given SSRIs in a three-month treatment period (Cormier, 2016). Even though these are only preliminary results, it seems there is little control over how the media decides to portray these results, and what is likely to happen when these news articles reach the hands of patients with depression is not promising. “Magic-mushroom drug lifts depression in first human trial” and “How Magic Mushrooms Could Treat Depression” are only two of the titles of the news articles about this study. Both in prestigious journals, Nature News and Time, respectively, they portray an erroneous view of how this hallucinogen can be used as a treatment for depression and make the line between illicit drug and therapy a blur.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Dopamine Stimulating Headphones and How They Can Change Our Definition of Being High

By Laura Morales

This post was written as part of a class assignment from students who took a neuroethics course with Dr. Rommelfanger in Paris in Summer 2016.

Laura Morales is 21 years old and originally from Panama. She is currently a senior pursuing a double major in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology and Psychology in Emory University in Atlanta, GA.

If you have ever heard a song that sends chills down your spine, relaxes your entire body and gives you a general feeling of being close to ecstasy, you have experienced the “high-like sensation” the makers of Nervana wish to tap into. The company Nervana has designed a set of headphones that, while playing music, transcutaneously send electrical signals into the left ear to stimulate the vagus nerve to match the frequency of the beat of the music. The vagus nerve is involved with activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is normally activated when the body is at rest. This nerve stimulation results in the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins—these are transmitters thought to be related to that “feel-good” sensation (Ashby & Isen, 1999). Vagus nerve stimulation has been used to treat epilepsy (Schachter & Saper, 1998), although the mechanism through which it works is not well understood. While reducing seizures, there have also been reports that vagus nerve stimulation has improved the overall mood in people with epilepsy (Terry Jr, 2014). Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation has also been shown to have equivalent anticonvulsive effects as the more invasive method (Ellrich, 2011). Similar to this therapeutic approach, Nervana advertises their headphones as promoting wellness and recommends the headphones be used twice a day for 45 minutes to improve mood and increase general health.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Ethical Implications of Harvesting Human Organs from Pigs

By Anayelly Medina

This post was written as part of a class assignment from students who took a neuroethics course with Dr. Rommelfanger in Paris in Summer 2016.

Anayelly is a rising Senior at Emory University majoring in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology.

The Chimera is a Greek mythological fire-breathing monstrosity composed of multiple animal parts with the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a snake. Not surprisingly, in the realm of science, chimera is also the name given to an organism or embryo containing a mixture of cells from two species. Recently, the world has learned of the current research efforts being made towards growing human organs in other animals, specifically pigs [2,3,4,5]. From these efforts, the human-pig chimera has been developed and so have ethical questions concerning the process and outcomes of this research.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A Battle of Nerves

By Sol Lee

This post was written as part of a class assignment from students who took a neuroethics course with Dr. Rommelfanger in Paris of Summer 2016.

Sol Lee studies Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University. As a pre-med student, he is enthusiastic about primary care and global health concerns. Sol is currently doing research on glutamate receptors in Parkinson’s Disease in the Smith Lab.

Absolutely preposterous. This was the response of British doctors in 1916 as they declared heresy to Frederick Mott’s proposal: that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) coincides with an abnormal physical alteration of the brain. PTSD is caused by traumatic events or extreme stressors such as war, personal assaults, and car accidents. Symptoms include negative changes in feelings or beliefs, constantly feeling jittery or alert, having difficulty sleeping or concentrating, and experiencing flashbacks. Physicians and scientists at that time, and until recently, believed that PTSD simply meant emotional trauma. After one hundred years, however, new research suggests that Mott may have been right.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Ethics of Using Brain Stimulation to Enhance Learning in Children

By Peter Leistikow

This post was written as part of a class assignment from students who took a neuroethics course with Dr. Rommelfanger in Paris in Summer 2016.

Peter Leistikow is an undergraduate student at Emory University studying Neuroscience and Sociology. When he is not doing research in pharmacology, Peter works as a volunteer Advanced EMT in the student-run Emory Emergency Medical Service. 

Ever since the advent of electricity, people have tried to harness this power for therapeutic purposes. Nineteenth century posters touted the benefits of “self-applicable curatives for nervous, functional, chronic, and organic diseases” in the form of electric belts and harnesses (Browne 2014). Although these items are historical curiosities today, scientists are still trying to harness the potential benefits of electricity, especially in the treatment of psychiatric and learning disorders.

Transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) is a non-invasive experimental procedure that utilizes direct currents applied to two electrodes on the head with the goal of stimulating specific brain areas (John Hopkins Medicine 2016). Although there is evidence that this technology, and it’s closely related variant transcranial random-noise stimulation (TRNS), can increase attention and aid in treating cognitive impairments and depression, TDCS has caught the interest of companies and hobbyists assembling these devices for cognitive enhancement (Hogenboom 2014). This has worried some researchers, who have called for regulations regarding the sale and use of this technology which they fear can have detrimental effects if used incorrectly (Wexler 2015).

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation and Humanity

By Ethan Morris

This post was written as part of a class assignment from students who took a neuroethics course with Dr. Rommelfanger in Paris of Summer 2016.

Ethan Morris is a rising undergraduate senior at Emory University, majoring in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology with a minor in History. Ethan is a member of the Dilks Lab at Emory and is a legislator on the Emory University Student Government Association. Ethan is from Denver, Colorado and loves to ski.

Do you ever want to turn your brain off, even just for a moment? Most of us have probably wanted to get away from the daily stressors and concerns that plague our lives. But aside from a vacation, how can we truly get away? Some people are beginning to turn this hypothetical question into reality.

One man, Thomas Thwaites, decided he would live as a goat for a few days, choosing to forego life as a human in favor of four-legged prosthetics and an all-grass diet. To achieve goat-hood, Thwaites used an increasingly prominent technology called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) that uses electromagnetic induction to temporarily alter brain function. Thwaites applied TMS to the temporal lobe of his brain, namely his speech areas of cortex, thus electromagnetically impairing his ability to speak like a human so he could become more like a goat.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Would a Therapy for Down Syndrome Change Lives For Better or For Worse?

By Sarika Sachdeva

This post was written as part of a class assignment from students who took a neuroethics course with Dr. Rommelfanger in Paris of Summer 2016.

Sarika Sachdeva is an undergraduate junior at Emory studying Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology and Economics. She is involved with research on stimulant abuse and addiction under Dr. Leonard Howell at Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

Researchers around the world are working to develop treatments and cures for all kinds of genetic disorders and abnormalities, but what happens when the people affected by the condition don’t want it taken away? New breakthroughs in treatment are often controversial for non-fatal conditions such as Down Syndrome, which causes inhibited neural communication and leads to learning delays as a result of an extra copy of chromosome 21 (Rochman, 2015).

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

New Frontiers in Animal Research Neuroethics at the Center for Neuroscience and Society

By Tyler M. John

Tyler John is a postbaccalaureate fellow at the National Institutes of Health Department of Bioethics interested in resource allocation, animal ethics, and moral theory. This fall, he will begin a PhD in Philosophy at Rutgers University. 

The opinions expressed are the authors’ own. They do not reflect any position or policy of any U.S. governmental entity, including the National Institutes of Health or the Department of Health and Human Services. 

On June 9-10, I joined a gathering of philosophers, psychologists, veterinarians, and biomedical researchers for the Animal Research Neuroethics Workshop at the Penn Center for Neuroscience and Society. The workshop, organized by neuroethicists Adam Shriver, James Serpell, and Martha Farah, focused on the ethical issues raised by new advances in neuroscience research with non-human animals. Here, researchers from many disciplines came together to share notes from the field and discuss new neuroethics problems. 

Over two days, we discussed problems like, What is the moral status of so-called “brains in dishes”? Is it morally permissible for scientists to cognitively enhance mice, rats, and chimps, giving them advanced cognitive capacities? Is it even conceptually possible to have a mouse model of human depression given the substantial psychological differences between humans and mice? What, more broadly, should we say about the scientific validity and moral permissibility of current neurological research on non-human animals? 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Physical, Social, and Societal Consequences of “Smart” Drugs

By Sunidhi Ramesh

This post was written as part of a class assignment from students who took a neuroethics course with Dr. Rommelfanger in Paris in Summer 2016.

Sunidhi Ramesh, an Atlanta native, is entering her third year at Emory University where she is double majoring in Sociology and Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology.  After experiencing an educational environment in high school that was so competitive that it practically forced students into taking study drugs, cheating, and cutting corners, she founded “The Prism Project,” an initiative that revolves around anonymous stories that highlight the problems that exist within the American education system. She plans to pursue a career in medicine and has served on College Council’s Admissions and Scholarships committee, is presently active on Emory’s Committee of Academic Integrity, and is involved in the Indian Cultural Exchange organization at Emory. 

“I remember the night I first took one. A friend of mine had some extra, so he handed me one the night before a big test. This test was important; I was doing pretty badly in the class, and I knew that my performance on it would decide my final grade. I wasn’t the type to take Adderall to get ahead. But I was desperate. And I thought it was only going to be this one time.

My grades skyrocketed. Like, you don’t understand. I played football and had to take care of my mom after school; the main reason I did so badly before was that I didn’t have the energy to put into school that I wanted to. But these pills… these pills gave me that. The energy I didn’t have.”