Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Me, Myself, and my Social Constructs

By Ashley Oldshue

“He began to search among the infinite series of impressions which time had laid down, leaf upon leaf, fold upon fold softly, incessantly upon his brain”
--- Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Image courtesy to Tomas Castelazo, Wikimedia Commons
Identity is a motif that runs central to our lives, it is woven into our language, our learning, and our literature. Virginia Woolf, in her novel To the Lighthouse, describes identity as a flipbook of images (Woolf, 1981, p. 169). She asserts that when we look at someone, we do not hold a single, uniform concept of them. Instead, we see a series of images and interactions running like a flipbook in our heads. It is in this idea of who they are that we are able to add pages and evolve over time. However, no one deed can erase all the rest. Everybody is made up of good and bad, and these inconsistencies together form an identity. However, what if someone did change so drastically that it was like reading a whole new book?

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Neuralink: Concerns of Brain-Machine Interfaces

By Oscar Gao

Image courtesy to Nicolas Ferrando and Lois Lammerhuber, Flickr
When Elon Musk starts a company developing brain-machine interfaces, you know it has the potential to be the next big thing. He claimed that for people to be competitive in the artificial intelligence age, we will have to become cyborgs, a "merger of biological intelligence and machine intelligence” (Marsh, 2018; Solon, 2017). He started the company Neuralink, which aims to build “ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers.” This company, at the moment, is hiring computer scientists and engineers who have "exceptional ability and a track record of building things that work" (“NEURALINK”, n.d.). Also specified on its website, one does not need experience in neuroscience to apply for a job. The company does, however, need to work with neuroscientists and neuroethicists to discuss the ethical implications and guidelines for their projects.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Medicine & Neuroethics: Perspectives from the Intersection

By Somnath Das

Image courtesy of
The first year of medical school is infamously rigorous – it both challenges and changes virtually anyone who dares to undertake it. My experience with this trial was certainly not unique. Despite the knowledge I have gained (on paper, at least), I greatly missed learning about a passion of mine: neuroethics. June marked the two-year anniversary of my attending the Neuroethics in Paris study abroad course hosted by Emory University, which served as the foundation of my exposure to this field. I additionally had the pleasure of taking a graduate neuroethics course offered by the Emory Center for Ethics Masters of Bioethics Program during my time at Emory, which was a more rigorous, yet very essential and fulfilling, dive into the field. Given my previous exposure, it felt odd to begin medical school with little opportunity to formally engage in the field of neuroethics. While my experience with the first year of medical school did not include formal content in neuroethics, I couldn’t help but notice multiple parallels between the two fields, which I will briefly discuss in this blog post. Ultimately, it is my belief that physicians must pay attention to, study, and engage in the field of neuroethics. In this post, I illustrate the reasons for holding this belief by highlighting some of the critical discussions present in both fields; it is my hope that these debates balloon to involve many doctors and patients in the near future.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Phenomenology of the Locked-in Syndrome: Time to Move Forward

By Fernando Vidal

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The main features of the locked-in syndrome (LIS) explain its name: persons in LIS are tetraplegic and cannot speak, but have normal visual perception, consciousness, cognitive functions and bodily sensations. They are “locked in” an almost entirely motionless body. A condition of extremely low prevalence identified and named in 1966, LIS most frequently results from a brainstem stroke or develops in the advanced stage of a neurodegenerative disease such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which affects the motor neuron system and leads to paralysis. LIS presents three forms. In total or complete LIS (CLIS), patients lack all mobility; in classic LIS, blinking or vertical eye movements are preserved; in incomplete LIS, other voluntary motion is possible. Mortality is high in the early phase of LIS of vascular origin, but around 80% of patients who become stable live ten years and 40% live twenty years after entering the locked-in state. Persons who are locked-in as consequence of stroke or traumatic injury sometimes evolve from classic to incomplete LIS. They can usually communicate via blinking or vertical eye movement, by choosing letters from an alphabet spell board. When additional movements are regained, they facilitate the use of a computer. It is hoped that brain-computer interfaces (BCI) will enable CLIS patients to communicate too.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Normalization of Enhancement: Recap of September’s The Future Now: NEEDs

By Nathan Ahlgrim

As I sit down to write this post, I have just consumed my first Nerv shot. It actually tastes quite nice, the penetrating citrus sensation gone in a couple gulps. The taste, however, is secondary; it’s marketed as “Liquid Zen.” At September’s The Future Now: Neuroscience and Emerging Ethical Dillemas Series (NEEDs), Dr. Michael Jiang presented his motivation for co-founding and developing Nerv. His presentation began just how his company did, with a simple question: “Who here drinks coffee?”

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

What can neuroscience tell us about ethics?

By Adina L. Roskies

Image courtesy of Bill Sanderson, Wellcome Collection
What can neuroscience tell us about ethics? Some say nothing – ethics is a normative discipline that concerns the way the world should be, while neuroscience is normatively insignificant: it is a descriptive science which tells us about the way the world is. This seems in line with what is sometimes called “Hume’s Law”, the claim that one cannot derive an ought from an is (Cohon, 2018). This claim is contentious and its scope unclear, but it certainly does seem true of demonstrative arguments, at the least. Neuroethics, by its name, however, seems to suggest that neuroscience is relevant for ethical thought, and indeed some have taken it to be a fact that neuroscience has delivered ethical consequences. It seems to me that there is some confusion about this issue, and so here I’d like to clarify the ways in which I think neuroscience can be relevant to ethics.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Ethical Considerations for Emergent Neuroprosthetic Technology

By Emily Sanborn

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
In the 21st century, there is a push towards producing neurotechnology that will make our lives easier. A category of these technologies are neuroprosthetics, devices that can supplement or supplant the input or output of the nervous system to obtain normal function (Leuthardt, Roland, and Ray, 2014). In the emergence of these technologies, there are ethical issues presented and a question is formed: are we fixing what is not broken? (Moses, 2016). 

A recent article from the Smithsonian magazine reported a technology that will allow humans to develop a “sixth sense” (Keller, 2018). David Eagleman, an adjunct professor at Stanford University’s department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, invented a sensory augmentation device called Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer (VEST), which is a vest covered with vibratory motors that is worn on the body. VEST works by receiving auditory signals from speech and the surrounding environment and translating that signal via Bluetooth to vibrations. The vibrations are transmitted to the vest in dynamic patterns that correlate to specific speech and auditory signals. The user is then able to feel the sonic world. In time, they may be able to use this new touch sensation to understand spoken word (Eagleman, 2015). 

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

An injection of RNA may transfer memories?

By Gabriella Caceres

Figure 1. Image by Bédécarrats et al. 2018
Imagine a future in which you could tell your spouse about your day by simply transferring the memory to them, or one in which you could pass your memories on even after your death. These scenarios may seem far ahead in the future, but steps are definitely being taken towards this development. To combat our natural memory inaccuracy and decline due to old age or Alzheimer’s disease, which has been found in 1 out of every 10 people over 65 years old (WHO, 2017), scientists are beginning to investigate the biology of memory and the ways in which the process of making memories can be improved. A recent and controversial article published by Science News reported that RNA may be used to transfer memories from one sea slug to another. Bedecarrats et al. 2018 claimed that they were able to transfer memories from neurons of sea slugs (Aplysia californica) by first sensitizing the slugs with shocks until they had a long-lasting withdrawal response to touch. Then, the researchers extracted the RNA from the sensory neurons of the shocked slugs, and injected that RNA into the sensory neurons of non-sensitized sea slugs (figure 1). The authors postulated that the sensitization occurred because the donor sea slug underwent epigenetic changes, or when a methyl group gets attached to the DNA and modulates gene expression (D’Urso et al. 2014). This whole process resulted in a transfer of sensitization (a form of implicit, or unconscious, memory) to the recipient slug, as it experienced the same long-lasting response to touch that the donor slug did.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

How to be Opportunistic, Not Manipulative

By Nathan Ahlgrim

Opportunistic Research
Government data is often used to
answer key research questions.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau

Opportunistic research has a long and prosperous history across the sciences. Research is classified as
opportunistic when researchers take advantage of a special situation. Quasi-experiments enabled by government programs, unique or isolated populations, and once-in-a-lifetime events can all trigger opportunistic research where no experiments were initially planned. Opportunistic research is not categorically problematic. If anything, it is categorically efficient. Many a study could not be ethically, financially, or logistically performed in the context of a randomized control trial.

Biomedical research is certainly not the only field that utilizes opportunistic research, but it does present additional ethical challenges. In contrast, many questions in social science research can only be ethically tested via opportunistic research, since funding agencies are wary of explicitly withholding resources from a ‘control’ population (Resch et al., 2014). We, as scientists, are indebted to patients who choose to donate their time and bodies to participate in scientific research while inside an inpatient ward; their volunteerism is the only way to perform some types of research.

Almost all information we have about human neurons comes from generous patients. For example, patients with treatment-resistant epilepsy can have tiny wires lowered into their brains, a technique known as intracranial microelectrode recording, enabling physicians to listen in on the neuronal chatter at a resolution normally restricted to animal models (Inman et al., 2017; Chiong et al., 2018). Seizures, caused by runaway excitation of the brain, are best detected by recording electrical signals throughout the brain. By having such fine spatial resolution inside a patient’s brain, surgeons can be incredibly precise in locating the site of the seizure and treating the patient. It’s what else those wires are used for that introduces thorny research ethics.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Caveats in Quantifying Consciousness

This piece belongs to a series of student posts written during the Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology Paris study abroad program taught by Dr. Karen Rommelfanger in June 2018.

By Ankita Moss

Image courtesy of Flickr user, Mike MacKenzie.
As I was listening to a presentation during the 2018 Neuroethics Network Conference in Paris, a particular phrase resonated with me: we must now contemplate the existence of “the minds of those that never lived.”

Dr. John Harris, a professor at the University of Manchester, discussed both the philosophical and practical considerations of emerging artificial intelligence technologies and their relationship to human notions of the theory of mind, or the ability to interpret the mental states of both oneself and others and use this to predict behavior.

Upon hearing this phrase and relating it to theory of mind, I immediately began to question my notions of “the self” and consciousness. To UC Berkeley philosopher Dr. Alva Noe, one manifests consciousness by building relationships with others, acting deliberately on the external environment in some capacity. Conversely, a group of Harvard scientists claim they have found the mechanistic origin of consciousness, a connection between the brainstem region responsible for arousal and regions of the brain that contribute to awareness.