Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Oxytocin: The Hormone of Hype, Hope, and Healing

By Shweta Sahu

Due to his work interrogating the role of certain chemicals in vole behavior at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Dr. Larry Young has come across the problem of his results being portrayed hyperbolically, as the science sometimes goes to fictional lengths. Yet this work has important implications for mental health. To demonstrate this exaggeration as well as its potential, I am going to address: 1. the buildup of the oxytocin hype, 2. the translation of the research and 3. the ethical implications in humans.

Prairie voles, image courtesy of Flickr user theNerdPatrol
Oxytocin and pair bonding
Dr. Young researches oxytocin (OT), a neuropeptide known to be involved in birthing and associated with maternal bonding, and his lab utilizes voles as an experimental model. Their research was founded upon on the idea that prairie voles are highly social, bi-parental, and monogamous by nature while meadow voles are less social, uniparental, and promiscuous. They investigated differences in oxytocin receptor distribution in the brains of prairie voles and meadow voles and found that in the monogamous prairie voles, there are more oxytocin receptors in the reward system of the brain. Young and colleagues then injected oxytocin antagonists into the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), an area implicated in bonding and reward. They found that prairie voles, whose oxytocin receptors were blocked, would not bond when they mated.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Should Presidential Candidates Be Required to Undergo Preclinical Alzheimer’s Disease Testing?

By Kaitlyn B. Lee

Kaitlyn “Kai” Lee is a Project Coordinator in the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine. She helps to investigate the ethical, legal, and social issues of integrating whole genome sequencing into clinical care as part of MedSeq, a project funded by the NIH’s Clinical Sequencing Exploratory Research (CSER) program. Kai earned her BA in Neuroscience from Middlebury College and hopes to continue her education through a joint JD/MPH program.

In her op-ed published in the Houston Chronicle, “Presidential candidates should be tested for Alzheimer’s,” radio and television personality turned author and keynote speaker Dayna Steele advocates testing presidential candidates for Alzheimer’s disease and releasing their results to the voting public. Steele believes voters have a right to know their future president’s Alzheimer’s test results, as she maintains, “I want to know that the candidate I choose not only supports my priorities but is also of sound mind – a mind that will last through four or eight years” (Steele, 2016). Drawing upon her own personal experience with her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, Steele describes the progression of her mother’s disease from simply forgetting things, to driving while lost, to total mental and physical incapacitation. Steele cites her mother’s rapid 3-year decline to assert that an affected person in a position with as much power as the President would be devastating for the country, arguing that we can avoid such a “catastrophe” by insisting candidates be tested for Alzheimer’s disease and disclose those results to the public.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A Review of Gut Feminism

By Katie Givens Kime

Katie Givens Kime is a doctoral student at Emory University in the Graduate Division of Religion, as well as the Center for Mind, Brain and Culture, and the Psychoanalytic Studies Program. Her dissertation investigates the role of religious conceptions in addiction recovery methods.

As neuroscience has expanded in capacity, resources, and public attention, many in the social sciences and humanities have been loudly critical: “Reductionism! Neurobiological chauvinism!” The essence of such critique is that the objectivity championed by the sciences masks all sorts of hidden biases, unconscious agendas, political motivations and economic purposes. Many historians and philosophers of science have argued that even choosing the object of scientific study and communicating observations inevitably involves language, point-of-view, and value prioritization. This means the nature of scientific knowledge, to an important degree, is unavoidably sociocultural [1].

Feminist theory has leaned more heavily upon this critique than other social sciences, for reasons at the roots of feminist movements. Essentialist claims about the “biology” and “nature” of women’s bodies have historically justified all manner of public policy, cultural conventions, and medical care models that violate and oppress women and other historically vulnerable populations, from the right to vote to equal pay. Thus, when it comes to the engagement of neurobiological data of most any sort, feminist theory is a realm of scholarship where deep suspicion has reigned. Projects revealing the sexism, racism, and classism embedded in the structures of supposedly objective scientific inquiry have been crucial for the success of various waves and stages of feminist liberation movements.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Neuroethics and the BRAIN Initiative

By Henry T. Greely

Hank Greely is the Deane F. and Kate Edelman Johnson Professor of Law and Professor, by courtesy, of Genetics at Stanford University. He specializes in ethical, legal, and social issues arising from advances in the biosciences, particularly from genetics, neuroscience, and human stem cell research. He directs the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences and the Stanford Program in Neuroscience in Society; chairs the California Advisory Committee on Human Stem Cell Research; and serves on the Neuroscience Forum of the Institute of Medicine, the Advisory Council for the National Institute for General Medical Sciences of NIH, the Committee on Science, Technology, and Law of the National Academy of Sciences, and the NIH Multi-Council Working Group on the BRAIN Initiative. He was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2007. His book, THE END OF SEX AND THE FUTURE OF HUMAN REPRODUCTION, was published in May 2016.

Professor Greely graduated from Stanford in 1974 and from Yale Law School in 1977. He served as a law clerk for Judge John Minor Wisdom on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and for Justice Potter Stewart of the United States Supreme Court. After working during the Carter Administration in the Departments of Defense and Energy, he entered private practice in Los Angeles in 1981 as a litigator with the law firm of Tuttle & Taylor, Inc. He joined the Stanford faculty in 1985.

On April 2, 2013, President Obama launched the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative®. (Neuroscience has yet to reveal why an initiative about the brain had to have an acronym that spelled BRAIN; * legal issues explain the trademark notation.) Built on the report, BRAIN 2025: A SCIENTIFIC VISION, of a committee created to advise Francis Collins, the NIH Director, and chaired by neuroscientists Cori Bargmann of Rockefeller University and Bill Newsome of Stanford, the Initiative, in spite of political deadlock and budgetary woes, has survived and, in some respects, even thrived.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Erasing Memories

By Walter Glannon, PhD

Walter Glannon, PhD, is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Calgary. He is the author of Bioethics and the Brain (Oxford, 2007) and Brain, Body and Mind: Neuroethics with a Human Face (Oxford, 2011) and editor of Free Will and the Brain: Neuroscientific, Philosophical and Legal Perspectives (Cambridge, 2015).

Neuroscientists can measure changes in the brain associated with different types of memory. Recent experiments on rodents have shown that memories can be manipulated. In one experiment, researchers implanted a false fear memory in a mouse brain, causing it to elicit a fear response to a stimulus to which it was not actually exposed [1]. In a different experiment, researchers electrically stimulated place cells in a mouse hippocampus as well as cells in the reward system during sleep. This induced learned behavior where mice linked a specific location to a reward [2].  This type of manipulation may eventually serve a therapeutic purpose in humans.  Psychiatric disorders including subtypes of major depression, generalized anxiety, phobia, panic and especially post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be conceptualized as disorders of memory content. In such a model, the neural representation of the emotional component of the memory, or emotional trace, of a traumatic experience persists beyond any adaptive purpose. This causes dysregulation in the fear memory system, resulting in pathology associated with impaired cognitive, affective and volitional functions [3, 4]. I’d also like to propose that unlike disorders of memory capacity, such as anterograde or retrograde amnesia, where one cannot form or retain memories, the problem in disorders of memory content, like PTSD, is the inability to get rid of or “extinguish” them. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

AlphaGo and Google DeepMind: (Un)Settling the Score between Human and Artificial Intelligence

By Katie L. Strong, PhD 

In a quiet room in a London office building, artificial intelligence history was made last October as reigning European Champion Fan Hui played Go, a strategy-based game he had played countless times before. This particular match was different from the others though – not only was Fan Hui losing, but he was losing against a machine.

The machine was a novel artificial intelligence system named AlphaGo developed by Google DeepMind. DeepMind, which was acquired by Google in 2014 for an alleged $617 million (their largest European acquisition to date), is a company focused on developing machines that are capable of learning new tasks for themselves. DeepMind is more interested in artificial “general” intelligence, or AI machines that are adaptive to the task at hand and can accomplish new goals with little or no preprogramming. DeepMind programs essentially have a kind of short-term working memory that allows them to manipulate and adapt information to make decisions. This is in contrast to AI that may be very adept at a specific job, but cannot translate these skills to a different task without human intervention. For the researchers at DeepMind, the perfect platform to test these types of sophisticated AI: computer and board games. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

When it comes to issues of identity and authenticity in DBS, let patients have a voice

By Ryan Purcell

Reconstruction of DBS electrode placement, image courtesy
of Wikipedia
Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is an extraordinarily popular topic in neuroethics. In fact, you could fill a book with all of the articles written on the subject just in AJOB Neuroscience alone (and the editors have considered doing this!). A special issue on the topic in AJOBN can be found here. Among the most widely discussed neuroethical issues in the DBS arena are concerns over the effects on patient identity and authenticity. But perhaps one perspective that has not been fully represented in the academic literature is that of the patients for whom this is actually their last hope to find a way out of a profound, debilitating and often years-long episode of depression. At February’s Neuroethics and Neuroscience in the News journal club, Dr. Helen Mayberg spoke passionately about the approach that led her team to attempt DBS for major depressive disorder (MDD), the ensuing media response, and how that has affected her ongoing work to improve the technique, better understand the etiology of MDD, and allow patients to get back to their lives.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Naming the devil: The mental health double bind


By Jennifer Laura Lee

Jenn Laura Lee recently received her undergraduate in neuroscience from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and hopes to pursue a PhD in neurobiology this fall. Her current interests include the advancement of women in STEM and the ethics of animal experimentation.

The “Bell Let’s Talk” initiative swept through Canada on January 27, hoping to end the stigma associated with mental illness, one text and one share at a time. Michael Landsberg shares his thoughts in a short video on the Facebook page. “The stigma exists because fundamentally there’s a feeling in this country still that depression is more of a weakness than a sickness,” he explains. “People use the word depression all the time to describe a bad time in their life, a down time. But that’s very different than the illness itself.” Perhaps such a bold statement merits closer examination.

Philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists find themselves rallying behind two starkly contrasting paradigms of mental health, lobbying for conflicting changes in policy and attitude. On one end of the spectrum lies the medical model of psychiatry - the notion that the classification of mental illness can and ought to be truly objective, scientific, and devoid of value judgements. At the other extreme, a Foucault-esque theory posits that most psychiatric classifications are nothing more than a reflection of the values of those who do the classifying; classification is inherently normative and necessarily serves the interests of those in power. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The ethical duty to know: Facilitated communication for autism as a tragic case example

By Scott O. Lilienfeld, Ph.D.


Scott O. Lilienfeld is a Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology at Emory University. He received his A.B. from Cornell University in 1982 and his Ph.D. in Psychology (Clinical) from the University of Minnesota in 1990. His interests include the etiology and assessment of personality disorders, conceptual issues in psychiatric classification, scientific thinking and evidence-based practice in psychology, and most recently, the implications of neuroscience for the broader field of psychology. Along with Sally Satel, he is co-author of Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience (2013, Basic Books).

I’m a clinical psychologist by training, although I no longer conduct psychotherapy. In the course of my graduate work at the University of Minnesota during the 1980s, I – like virtually all therapists in training – learned all about the ethical mandates of clinical practice. By now, all mental health professionals can practically recite them by heart: don’t sleep with your clients, avoid dual relationships, don’t show up drunk to work, don’t violate client confidentiality, always report child abuse and elder abuse to appropriate authorities, and so on. To be sure, all of these ethical requirements are exceedingly important.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Sitting Here in My Safe European Home: How Neuroscientific Research Can Help Shape EU Policy During the Syrian Refugee Crisis

By Joseph Wszalek, J.D. and Sara Heyn

Joseph Wszalek, J.D., is a fourth-year PhD student in the Neuroscience Training Program/Neuroscience and Public Policy Program at the University of Wisconsin. His research work focuses on the interaction between social cognition, language, and traumatic brain injury, with an emphasis on legal contexts. He holds a law degree cum laude and Order of the Coif from the University of Wisconsin Law School, where he was a US Department of Education Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellow through the Center for European Studies and a member of the Wisconsin International Law Journal’s senior editorial board. 

Sara Heyn is currently a graduate student pursuing a J.D. along with a PhD in Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests include psychopathy, decision-making processes, and the use of neuroscientific evidence in the courtroom. 

Ethical guidelines are a fundamental aspect of the legal profession. The modern attorney serves three simultaneous ethical roles: he is an advocate for his clients, he is an officer of the legal system, and he is a public citizen with special responsibility for the rule of law (ABA Model Rules, 2014). These ethical obligations do not merely prohibit unacceptable conduct: they impose positive duties on licensed attorneys to actively promote and improve the administration of justice in all three capacities. In stark contrast to the legal profession, however, the ethical obligations of the scientific profession are considerably less well-defined. So-called research ethics are concerned more with establishing responsible research practices and less with encouraging active social duties. Put another way, while the modern scientist has an undeniable ethical obligation in his role as a member of the scientific community, it’s unclear whether or not this obligation extends to his role as a general citizen, and it’s unclear whether or not he, like his lawyer counterpart, has a “special responsibility” to actively improve society.