Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Forget the Map; Trust Your Brain: The Role Neuroscience Plays in Free Will

by Fuad Haddad

The following post is part of a special series emerging from Contemporary Issues in Neuroethics, a graduate-level course out of Emory University’s Center for Ethics. Fuad is an undergraduate junior at Emory studying neuroscience and behavioral biology and ethics. He currently performs research at Yerkes National Primate Research Center under Dr. Larry Young, studying the relationship of single nucleotide polymorphism and pair bonding. His other research interests are the relationship between oxytocin and allopatric grooming as a model of empathy. 

Lizzie laughs as we drive down Briarcliff. “What do you mean an adventure?” she chuckles at me. I have a propensity to get lost for fun, an unhealthy and interesting habit. We approach a stop light. “Left, right, straight – pick one!” I say. As we arrive at a consensus, we journey onward until we reach a green highway sign that signals the exit to Athens. Her smile gives her motive away; I think, “Sorry Emory, but I’m going to be a Bull Dog today.” 

Take a moment to fast forward four months. On a September afternoon, I sit in the same car, with the same girl, leaving from the same place. “Left, right, straight?!” I ask again. Like before, we haphazardly trek through the jungle of northeast Atlanta. In the midst of yet another game of “where can we get lost now?” a peculiar phenomenon occurs. Slamming on the brakes, the car comes to a halt. Almost instantaneously we both realize that in this seemingly random choice in direction, our choices lead us back to the same green sign again and even more interestingly, through the same path. 
I guess Robert Frost isn’t going to Athens. From southeastroads.com

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Is Multilingualism a Form of Cognitive Enhancement?

The following post is part of a special series emerging from Contemporary Issues in Neuroethics, a graduate-level course out of Emory University’s Center for Ethics.

People often ask me what language I dream in. I usually tell them that I dream in both languages – Romanian and English – and that it depends on the content of the dream and on the people featured in it. I associate emotional states with my native Romanian, while organized, sequential thinking is easier in English. Most of the time, I am not even aware of the identity of the language I produce and hear in my dreams.

Leaving the mysterious dimension of dreams behind, how does the multilingual brain navigate the world? Faced with an information-dense environment, it is able to switch its language of appraisal at the moment’s need. Consider the increasingly large group of bilingual English-speaking Hispanics in the United States. Most of them use English in their academic and work environments, then effortlessly switch to Spanish when talking to family members and other Spanish speakers. They also retrieve autobiographical memories in the original language of encoding without losing any more details than a monolingual individual. Given a context, multilingual individuals are able to adjust to the linguistic requirements of the situation. The multilingual brain is, therefore, an adaptable brain.

This leads us to the next point of inquiry. How does speaking several languages sculpt the brain? The Brain and Language Laboratory for Neuroimaging led by Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto has been investigating the differential activity in monolingual and bilingual brains during comprehension tasks, and has found that bilinguals show increased activation in the left inferior frontal cortex, an area associated with semantic processing and behavior inhibition. Another group led by Dr. Jubin Abutalebi has found that the brain of bilinguals recruits more areas when processing language than the brain of monolinguals. Finally, a recent study replicated the finding that learning a second language early in life changes the structure of white matter in the brain. This study is of particular interest, because it suggests that learning a second language later in life and using it concurrently with the first has the same effects on the brain.
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Image by Harriet Russell. From www.nytimes.com

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

So You Want to be a “Successful” Psychopath?

The following post is part of a special series emerging from Contemporary Issues in Neuroethics, a graduate-level course out of Emory University’s Center for Ethics.

Within the past two years, the media has followed the recent turn toward exploring the characteristics of a “successful” psychopath. A simple Google search on “successful psychopathy” now renders a slew of attention-grabbing articles ranging from How to Protect Yourself from a Successful Psychopath to Why Psychopaths are More Successful to Is Your Boss a Psychopath? Together, these articles reference some of America’s more fascinating psychopathic fictional characters, such as Dexter, Jordan Belfort from The Wolf of Wall Street, and Frank Underwood from House of Cards, to create a case for an adaptive psychopath. The recent discussion about the successful psychopathic personality in the media most certainly raises questions about the nature of psychopathy and the ethical implications of concluding that some psychopathic tendencies may be adaptive.
From iDigitalTimes

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Can Sugar be Addicting?

by Michael Kuhar, PhD

Editor’s Note:
Dr. Kuhar is a Candler Professor at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and Senior Faculty Fellow in the Center for Ethics at Emory University.  An expert in addiction, he is one of the most productive and highly cited scientists worldwide.  He has received a number of prestigious awards for his work, and is involved in many aspects of brain/behavioral research and education.

You might be interested in his book: The Addicted Brain


Recently, Constance Harrell facilitated an Emory Neuroethics Program Neuroscience and Neuroethics in the News Seminar on sugar and depression. Obesity became a topic and, not surprisingly, out of this discussion arose the question, “Can sugar be addicting?”  This is closely related to the question, “Can food be addicting?”

Somebody might say, we need sugar/food to be healthy, and we can’t do without them, so how can we say they are addicting?  Well, there is an answer to this.  Addiction, by definition, is seeking and taking a substance even though there are negative consequences.  Negative consequences are key. So if we take a substance but there are no negative consequences, addiction wouldn’t be in the discussion.  The question of danger for addiction and abuse might be, but definite addiction probably wouldn’t be (Kuhar 2012).

Consider taking opiates for pain.  Chronic pain patients repeatedly take morphine or similar medicines for a long time.  These patients are “dependent” because if they stop the drug, they go into painful withdrawal. But they are not “addicted” because they don’t compulsively seek out the drug and experience negative consequences.  This would be different from the addict who searches for heroin and in doing so breaks the law, ignores relationships, health, and work, etc.  So you can “need” something but yet not exhibit the key identifier of addiction, which is seeking and taking even though they are destructive.  We can need food, but yet not experience it as destructive, provided it is taken in moderate quantities and provides necessary nutrients. But perhaps some do experience the negative. As with drugs, there are interpersonal variations in how we experience sugar.  An extreme case would be a person with diabetes where taking sugar is more dangerous.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Hot off the presses! Ethical issues with direct-to-consumer neuroscience

Ethical issues with Lumosity and other Direct-to-Consumer Brain Training Games by Emory Neuroethics Program Director and AJOB Neuroscience Editor-in-Residence, Dr. Karen Rommelfanger and AJOB Neuroscience editorial intern Ryan Purcell.

Article is open access here for the next 50 days until June 11, 2015.



"Internet brain training programs, where consumers serve as both subjects and funders of the research, represent the closest engagement many individuals have with neuroscience. Safeguards are needed to protect participants’ privacy and the evolving scientific enterprise of big data."

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Special Event Reprise: Exploring the Ethics of Cognitive Enhancement and the University's Policy at Emory

Last month, Emory’s Committee on Academic Integrity and the Barkley Forum collaborated to host “Study Drugs: Exploring the Ethics of Cognitive Enhancement and the University’s Policy.” The program featured a debate among four Emory University undergraduates and a discussion between Emory Center for Ethics's very own Dr. Karen Rommelfanger and Dr. John Banja in addition to Willie Bannister, Emory’s Associate Director of Health Promotion. This event, organized by Emory University senior Grant Schleifer, brought out students from many areas of study to weigh in on how the university can better address the potential issue of increasing usage of cognitive enhancement drugs within Emory’s student body.

In an effort to relay the contents of the event to the greater student body, the speeches from the event are displayed below in the order of their presentation. This 20-minute debate included two affirmative speeches advocating that Emory ought to take a stance on the use of cognitive enhancement drugs and set up a regulatory regime to oversee students’ use of cognitive enhancers.  The negative team argued against this approach to the “study drugs” problem by presenting potential negative consequences to greater monitoring of the intake of cognitive enhancers, such as creating a larger black market for drugs like Adderall.

Further, Dr. Jason Ciejka, Emory’s Associate Director of the Honor Council attended this event and provided us with a wonderful commentary on the proceedings. Given his role at the university, his perspective on issues such as cognitive enhancement is incredibly valuable and aids in further understanding the intersection of ethics and policy at the university level. His commentary along with the content of all the speeches from the event will demonstrate how academics, administrators, and students can collaborate to discuss thorny ethical issues that impact all Emory community members and will hopefully stimulate further discussion on this blog.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Adderall as a motivational enhancer

Prescription stimulant use is on the rise at college campuses, especially at elite schools where the pressure and demands can be overwhelming. Students have a variety of methods to handle the stresses of their studies, but the consumption of prescription stimulants, such as Adderall or Ritalin, has become more popular among healthy individuals. While this trend raises multiple important ethical issues, the interesting idea that prescription stimulants may be masking authentic versions of ourselves was the topic of the most recent Neuroethics in the News discussion. Facilitated by AJOB Neuroscience editorial intern Ryan Purcell and AJOB Neuroscience Editor John Banja, the discussion centered around a recently published article by Torben Kjaersgaard entitled “Enhancing Motivation by Use of Prescription Stimulants: The Ethics of Motivation Enhancement."1

                                                                from Smart Drug Smarts

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

On Killing: Neuroscience and State-Sponsored Executions

A number of botched executions over the past 16 months have reopened national discourse about the relevance of capital punishment in the 21st century, which has been polarized by passage of a Utah bill reinstating use of the firing squad. As of March 2015, the United States is the lone Western power and one of only 36 nations (18%) worldwide that executes its own citizens. Some common points of contention against state-sponsored execution include, but are certainly not limited to: cases of wrongful execution; distributive injustice, whereby racial minorities are disproportionately executed; diminished mental capacity, which may limit the perpetrator’s moral discernment and decision-making abilities; and insufficient evidence of its deterrent effect on other criminals. On the other hand, death penalty supporters often speak from two conventional perspectives about punishment: (1) a consequentialist perspective – that capital punishment will protect society against that particular convict’s future crimes, and/or (2) a retributivist perspective – namely, an intuitive notion of “an eye for an eye,” that people deserve punishment in proportion to the evilness of their past misdeeds. It’s important to note that retributivists also require proof of criminal intent, known as mens rea. While both sides of the conversation about capital punishment raise defensible points that are worthy of debate, and other perhaps more compassionate approaches to punishment exist, I’ll focus here on the two perspectives most supportive of capital punishment, which neuroscience may have the capacity to inform.

The relevance of both perspectives – consequentialist and retributivist – in this debate is demonstrated in the recent high-profile case of Kelly Gissendaner, the State of Georgia’s only female death-row inmate. Hundreds of faith leaders cite Kelly’s psychological transformation during her time in prison when they insist that the State grant her clemency, which speaks to a consequentialist approach to justice: Kelly is no longer a threat to others, and therefore taking her life, versus lifetime imprisonment, is unwarranted and unjust. By contrast for the pure retributivists, rehabilitation is irrelevant when meting out an individual’s punishment. Such a position was recently articulated by Danny Porter, the District Attorney for Gwinnett Country (GA), who stated that "[Kelly's] sentence is appropriate for the crime that was committed...and really what she's done since is almost not something that needs to be considered." These two perspectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but public discourse in this case tends to divide opponents and supporters along consequentialist and retributivist lines, respectively. So how can neuroscience, and possibly neurotechnology, speak to these perspectives?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Is Brain Dead Really Dead?

By Amber Green

Amber Green is currently a senior in the Emory College of Arts and Sciences, double majoring in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology and Philosophy. Her majors led her to an interest in neurophilosophy and neuroethics. She hopes to pursue a MA in Bioethics and/or Neurophilosophy and go into a career as a clinical neuroethicist after graduating in May.



Having a family member pronounced dead is a very heartbreaking moment. Be it your pet, your sister, your mother, or your child, the pain you feel when the doctor reports that your loved one has passed away is overwhelming. Doctors know that there are no take-backs once they inform the family of the patient’s death, which is why there are strict procedures for a doctor to follow when declaring someone dead. However, when it comes to “brain death” and the advances of life support technology, these procedures become harder to follow and leads one to ask the question: “More importantly, if the brain is dead, are we dead?”

In Oakland, California, this past year, a 13-year old girl named Jahi McMath had been maintained on a ventilator since an elective procedure to treat her sleep apnea went horribly wrong. Jahi McMath had been pronounced brain dead, yet she had not been taken off of life support. In fact, her parents persuaded a judge to have her life support extended for at least a week past the doctor’s declaration of brain death. Her parents insisted that she is still alive and that taking their daughter off life support is equivalent to killing her. But, who is in the right: the doctors or the parents of Jahi McMath? And whose wishes should we honor?


Friday, March 27, 2015

Gray Matters Volume II Released by Presidential Commission

The highly-anticipated second volume of Gray Matters: Topics at the Intersection of Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society was released by the US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues on March 26th. This report is in “response to President Obama’s request related to the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative.”

According to the Commission’s announcement, in this volume “the Bioethics Commission broadly focused its analysis on three particularly controversial topics that illustrate the ethical tensions and societal implications of advancing neuroscience and technology: cognitive enhancement, consent capacity, and neuroscience and the legal system.”

“In its latest release, the Bioethics Commission seeks to clarify the scientific landscape, identify common ground, and recommend ethical paths forward. Cautioning against hyperbole and misinformation when discussing the promise of neuroscience, the report offers 14 recommendations to help clear a path to productive discourse.”

The full report can be read here.

Eleven members of the AJOB Neuroscience editorial board made presentations for the Bioethics Commission: Anjan Chatterjee, Martha Farah, Paul Ford, Hank Greely, Joshua Greene, Steven Hyman, Stephen Morse, Eric Racine, Peter Reiner, Adina Roskies, Paul Root Wolpe.