Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Widening the use of deep brain stimulation: Ethical considerations in research on DBS to treat Anorexia Nervosa

by Carolyn Plunkett

Carolyn Plunkett is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Philosophy Department at The Graduate Center of City University of New York. She is also an Ethics Fellow in The Bioethics Program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and a Research Associate in the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center. Carolyn will defend her dissertation in spring 2016, and, beginning July 2016, will be a Rudin Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Divisions of Medical Ethics and Medical Humanities at NYU Langone Medical Center. 

This post is part of a series that recaps and offers perspectives on the conversations and debates that took place at the recent 2015 International Neuroethics Society meeting.

Karen Rommelfanger, founding editor of The Neuroethics Blog, heard a talk I gave on deep brain stimulation (DBS) at Brain Matters! 3 in 2012. Three years later, she heard a brief synopsis of a paper I presented a few weeks ago at the International Neuroethics Society Annual Meeting. Afterward, she came up to me and said, “Wow! Your views have changed!” I had gone from being wary about using DBS in adults, much less minors, to defending its use in teens with anorexia nervosa. She asked me to write about this transition for this blog, and present my recent research.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Do you have a mouse brain? The ethical imperative to use non-human primates in neuroscience research

by Carlie Hoffman

Much of today’s neuroscience research investigating human brain diseases and disorders utilizes animal models. Animals ranging from flies, rodents, and non-human primates are routinely used to model various disorders, with mice being most commonly utilized. Scientists employ these animal models to approximate human conditions and disorders in an accessible manner, with the ultimate purpose of applying the findings derived in the animal back into the human brain.

Rhesus macaques, a species of NHP often used in research.
The use of animals in research has been the source of much debate, with people either supporting or objecting their use, and objections arising from animal rights activists, proponents of critical neuroscience such as Nikolas Rose and Joelle Abi-Rached, and others. A main focus of this debate has also been the use of non-human primates (NHP) in research. The cognitive functions and behaviors of NHPs are more closely related to those seen in humans than are rodent cognitions and behaviors, thus causing primates to be held as the closest approximation of human brain functioning in both normal and disease states. Though some say NHP research is essential, others call for scaling down or even completely eliminating it. Strides have already been made towards the reduction and removal of NHPs from experimental research, as displayed by the substantial justification required to perform experiments utilizing them, the increasing efforts going towards developing alternative non-animal models (including the Human Brain Project’s goal to create a computer model of the human brain), and the recent reduction of the use of chimpanzees in research [2, 6].  A case was even brought to the New York Supreme Court earlier this year to grant personhood status to two research chimpanzees.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Why defining death leaves me cold

by John Banja, PhD

*Editor's note: In case you missed our annual Zombies and Zombethics (TM) Symposium entitled Really, Most Sincerely Dead. Zombies, Vampires and Ghosts. Oh my! you can watch our opening keynote by Dr. Paul Root Wolpe by clicking on the image below. We recommend starting at 9:54 min.


Two weeks ago, I attended a panel session on brain death at the annual conference of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. Forgive the bad pun, but the experience left me cold and …lifeless(?). The panel consisted of three scholars revisiting the more than a decade old conversation on defining death. Despite a standing room only crowd, there was utterly nothing new. Rather, we heard a recitation of the very familiar categories that have historically figured in the “What does it mean to be dead?” debate, e.g., the irreversible cessation of cardio-respiratory activity, the Harvard Brain Death criteria, the somatic integration account, the 2008 Presidential Commission’s “loss of the drive to breathe,” and so on. I walked out thinking that we could come back next year, and the year after that, and the year after that and get no closer to resolving what it means to be dead.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Shrewder speculation: the challenge of doing anticipatory ethics well

by Dr. Hannah Maslen 

Hannah Maslen is a Research Fellow in Ethics at the Oxford Martin School and the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. She currently works on the Oxford Martin Programme on Mind and Machine, where she examines the ethical, legal, and social implications of various brain intervention and interface technologies, from brain stimulation devices to virtual reality. 

This post is part of a series that recaps and offers perspectives on the conversations and debates that took place at the recent 2015 International Neuroethics Society meeting.

In its Gray Matters report, the United States Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues underscored the importance of integrating ethics and neuroscience early and throughout the research endeavor. In particular, the Commission declared: 

"As we anticipate personal and societal implications of using such technologies, ethical considerations must be further deliberated.  
Executed well, ethics integration is an iterative and reflective process that enhances both scientific and ethical rigor." 

What is required to execute ethics integration well? How can philosophers make sure that their work has a constructive role to play in shaping research and policy-making?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Is football safe for brains?

by Dr. L. Syd M Johnson

Dr. Johnson is Assistant Professor of Philosophy & Bioethics in the Department of Humanities at Michigan Technological University. Her work in neuroethics focuses on disorders of consciousness and sport-related neurotrauma. She has published several articles on concussions in youth football and hockey, as well as on the ethics of return-to-play protocols in youth and professional football.

This post is the first of several that will recap and offer perspectives on the conversations and debates that took place at the recent 2015 International Neuroethics Society meeting.

At the International Neuroethics Society annual meeting in Chicago this month, Nita Farahany and a panel from the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University (FHPS) headlined the public talk “Is professional football safe? Can it be made safer?” The panel declined to provide direct answers to these important questions, but the short answers are “No,” and “Not by much,” respectively.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Technologies of the extended mind: Implications for privacy of thought

by Peter Reiner, PhD

Dr. Reiner is Professor and co-founder of the National Core for Neuroethics, at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Reiner began his academic career studying the cellular and molecular physiology of the brain, and in 1998, Dr. Reiner became President and CEO of Active Pass Pharmaceuticals, a drug discovery company that he founded to tackle the scourge of Alzheimer's disease. Upon returning to academic life in 2004, Dr. Reiner refocused his scholarly work in the area of neuroethics. He is also an AJOB Neuroscience board member.

Louis Brandeis in his law office, 1890.
In 1890, Samuel Warren and his law partner Louis Brandeis 
published what has become one of the most influential essays in the history of US law. Entitled The Right to Privacy [1], the article is notable for outlining the legal principles that protect privacy of thought. But it is not just their suggestions about privacy that are illuminating – it is their insight into the ways that law has changed over historical time scales that makes the paper such a classic. In very early times, they write, “the law gave a remedy only for physical interference with life and property...[and] liberty meant freedom from actual restraint.” Over time, as society began to recognize the value of the inner life of individuals, the right to life came to mean the right to enjoy life; protection of corporeal property expanded to include the products of the mind, such as literature and art, trademarks and copyrights. In a passage that resonates remarkably well with the modern experience, they point out that the time was nigh for the law to respond to changes in technology.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Neuroethics Blog Reader hot off the presses!

It is my pleasure to present you with our first edition of The Neuroethics Blog reader. This reader includes some of the most popular posts on the site and highlights our junior talent.

While the blog showcases cutting-edge debates in neuroethics, it also serves as a mechanism for mentoring junior scholars and students and providing them with exciting opportunities to have their pieces featured alongside established scholars in the field. In addition, the blog allows for community building, inviting scholars from multiple disciplines to participate. Our contributors have included individuals at various levels of education from fields such as law, neuroscience, engineering, psychology, English, medicine, philosophy, women’s studies, and religion, to name a few. Each blog post is a collaborative process, read and edited numerous times by the editorial leadership in partnership with the author.

We aim to continue to mentor and deliver quality posts that serve to cultivate not only our neuroethics academic community, but also members of the public who may be cultivating their own interests in neuroethics. Whether for direct applications in your profession or simply to understand the world in which we live, we hope the blog will help you navigate the implications of new neurotechnologies and explore what is knowable about the human brain.

At this time, I'd like to thank our amazing editorial team including Lindsey Grubbs (Managing Editor), Carlie Hoffman (Editor of this reader), Ryan Purcell, and Katie Strong. I'd also like to highlight our previous Managing Editors Dr. Julia Haas and Julia Marshall who have since graduated and are continuing their scholarship in neuroethics, as well as Jonah Queen who was there from the very beginning. Stay tuned for more great things from this group along with all of our talented contributors.

Thank you for taking the time to embark on this journey with us and please enjoy this reader!

P.S. If you are lucky enough to find yourself at the International Neuroethics Society conference this Oct 15-16, we will have limited printed copies available. Just look for folks wearing the "Ask Me About AJOB Neuroscience" buttons.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Your Brain on Movies: Implications for National Security

by Lindsey Grubbs

An intellectually diverse and opinionated crowd gathered recently for the most recent Neuroethics and Neuroscience in the News journal club at Emory University—“Your brain on movies: Implications for national security.” The discussion was one of the liveliest I've seen in the years I've been attending these events, which is perhaps not surprising: the talk touched on high-profile issues like neuromarketing (which is controversial enough that it has been banned in France since 2011) and military funding for neuroscience.

The seminar was led by Dr. Eric Schumacher, Associate Professor of Psychology at Georgia Tech, director of the Georgia State University/Georgia Tech Center for Advanced Brain Imaging, and principle investigator of CoNTRoL—Cognitive Neuroscience at Tech Research Laboratory. Currently, the lab investigates task-oriented cognition, as well as the relationship between film narratives and “transportation” (colloquially, the sense of “getting lost” in a story), which is a complex cognitive puzzle involving attention, memory, and emotion.

Cary Grant chased by an airplane in North by Northwest,
courtesy of Flickr user Insomnia Cured Here.
Schumacher presented his recent article, “Neural evidence that suspense narrows attentional focus,” published in Neuroscience. Subjects in the study were placed in an MRI scanner and shown film clips of suspenseful films including Alien, Blood Simple, License to Kill, and three Hitchcock films: North by Northwest, Marnie, and The Man Who Knew Too Much (I think I enrolled in the wrong studies to pay for college). The scanner revealed when suspense in the film increased, people's gaze was focused on the film.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Overexposed: The role of environmental toxicants on your brain

By Carlie Hoffman

It is often said that we are products of our environment: who we are is shaped by the things, people, and situations with which we surround ourselves. However, whatever we may like to think, we are not in control of every facet of our environment. In fact, we are unknowingly and involuntarily exposed to dozens of man-made environmental chemicals, called toxicants, each day that can negatively alter our bodies and even our very brain matter. In essence, we are becoming literal products of our environment.

Synthetic chemicals and toxicants are ubiquitous within our surroundings. While some toxicants come from obvious sources, like cigarette smoke and car exhaust, other sources of exposure are more subtle. For instance, electrical equipment (like computers and cell phones), beauty products (like makeup and shampoo), mattresses, and furniture all contain flame retardants, chemicals used to reduce flammability [3, 13]. Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, chemicals used to harden plastics, can also be found in dental sealants, cigarette filters, soda bottles, and the linings of canned foods [4, 8, 12]. Additionally, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), a pesticide commonly used in the mid-1900s to combat outbreaks of pests, malaria, and lice, was banned in 1972 in the US and yet is still currently present within both the environment and human tissues [12].

Pesticides not only harm insects, but certain doses can also have harmful effects on the human body.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Unintentional discrimination in clinical research: Why the small decisions matter

by Arthur T. Ryan, M.A. and Elaine F. Walker, Ph.D.

Arthur Ryan is a graduate student in clinical psychology at Emory University. His research focuses on understanding the etiology and neuropathology underlying severe mental illness.

Elaine Walker is a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience in the Department of Psychology at Emory University and is the Director of the Development and Mental Health Research Program, which is supported by the National Institute of Mental Health. Her research is focused on child and adolescent development and the brain changes that are associated with adolescence. She is also a member of the AJOB Neuroscience editorial board.

Arthur Ryan, M.A.
Over the past several decades, there has been a significant effort to minimize bias against individuals based on ethnicity and other demographic factors through the creation of seemingly impartial and objective criteria across a host of domains. For example, when the United States Federal Sentencing Guidelines were created in the 1980’s, one of their primary goals was to alleviate “...unwarranted disparity among offenders with similar characteristics convicted of similar criminal conduct” [1]. Unfortunately, even well-intentioned efforts such as this one can still have a disparate negative impact upon historically marginalized groups, such as the well-documented disproportionate sentencing of black individuals due to differing rules governing offenses committed with crack vs. powdered cocaine [2]. Concerns about such inadvertent bias are not limited to the legal domain. Agencies that fund clinical investigations are paying greater attention to demographic representativeness and access to participation in health-related research.