Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The interplay between social and scientific accounts of intergroup difference

By Cliodhna O’Connor

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The investigation of intergroup difference is a ubiquitous dimension of biological and behavioural research involving human subjects. Understanding almost any aspect of human variation involves the comparison of a group of people, who are defined by some common attribute, with a reference group which does not share that attribute. This is an inescapable corollary of applying the scientific method to study human minds, bodies and societies. However, this scientific practice can have unanticipated – and undesirable – social consequences. As my own research has shown in the contexts of psychiatric diagnosis (O’Connor, Kadianaki, Maunder, & McNicholas, in press), gender (O’Connor & Joffe, 2014) and sexual orientation (O’Connor, 2017), scientific accounts of intergroup differences can often function to reinforce long-established stereotypes, exaggerate the homogeneity of social groups, and impose overly sharp divisions between social categories.

Without disputing the scientific legitimacy of intergroup comparisons in research, it is important to acknowledge that the definitions and distinctions that determine which populations are compared are given by culture, not by nature. For one thing, there are relatively few discrete categories underlying human variability ‘in the wild:’ even for variables seen as the most obvious examples of natural kinds, such as sex, the boundaries between categories are much fuzzier than is typically acknowledged (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). The pragmatic demands of experimental design encourage scientists to carve the social world at joints that it may not naturally possess. Secondly, the choice of intergroup comparison is not value-neutral: the priorities of governments, industries, funding agencies, universities and individual scientists dictate which comparisons are deemed sufficiently interesting or important to investigate. Therefore, even within the scientific sphere, how questions are asked and answered is influenced by a priori understandings of social categories. These understandings are absorbed into all stages of the scientific process, from research design right through the collection, analysis and interpretation of data.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Solitary Confinement: Isolating the Neuroethical Dilemma

By Kristie Garza
Eastern State Penitentiary
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
In 1842, Charles Dickens visited the Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia to examine what was being called a revolutionary form of rehabilitation. After his visit, he summarized his observations into an essay in which he stated, “I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow-creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body” (1).  Dickens’ words describe solitary confinement. While there is no one standard for solitary confinement conditions, it usually involves an individual being placed in complete sensory and social isolation for 23 hours a day. What Dickens observed in 1842 is not unlike current solitary confinement conditions.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Neuroethics: the importance of a conceptual approach

By Arleen Salles, Kathinka Evers, and Michele Farisco

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
What is neuroethics? While there is by now a considerable bibliography devoted to examining the philosophical, scientific, ethical, social, and regulatory issues raised by neuroscientific research and related technological applications (and a growing number of people in the world claim to take part in the neuroethical debate), less has been said about how to interpret the field that carries out such examination. And yet, this calls for discussion, particularly considering that the default understanding of neuroethics is one that sees the field as just another type of applied ethics, and, in particular, one dominated by a Western bioethical paradigm. The now-classic interpretation of neuroethics as the “neuroscience of ethics” and the “ethics of neuroscience” covers more ground, but still fails to exhaust the field (1).

As we have argued elsewhere, neuroethics is a complex field characterized by three main methodological approaches (2-4). “Neurobioethics” is a normative approach that applies ethical theory and reasoning to the ethical and social issues raised by neuroscience. This version of neuroethics, which generally mirrors bioethical methodology and goals, is predominant in healthcare, in regulatory contexts, and in the neuroscientific research setting.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Facial recognition, values, and the human brain

By Elisabeth Hildt

Image courtesy of Pixabay.
Research is not an isolated activity. It takes place in a social context, sometimes influenced by value assumptions and sometimes accompanied by social and ethical implications. A recent example of this complex interplay is an article, “Deep neural networks can detect sexual orientation from faces” by Yilun Wang and Michal Kosinski, accepted in 2017 for publication in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In this study on face recognition, the researchers used deep neural networks to classify the sexual orientations of persons depicted in facial images uploaded on a dating website. While the discriminatory power of the system was limited, the algorithm was reported to have achieved higher accuracy in the setting than human subjects. The study can be seen in the context of the “prenatal hormone theory of sexual orientation,” which claims that gay men and women tend to have gender-atypical facial morphology.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Disrupting diagnosis: speech patterns, AI, and ethical issues of digital phenotyping

By Ryan Purcell, PhD

Jim Schwoebel, presenter at April The Future Now: (NEEDS)
Diagnosing schizophrenia can be complex, time-consuming, and expensive. The April seminar on The Future Now: (NEEDs) Neuroscience and Emerging Ethical Dilemmas at Emory focused on one innovative effort to improve this process in the flourishing field of digital phenotyping. Presenter and NeuroLex founder and CEO Jim Schwoebel had witnessed his brother struggle for several years with frequent headaches and anxiety, and saw him accrue nearly $15,000 in medical expenses before his first psychotic break. From there it took many more years and additional psychotic episodes before Jim’s brother began responding to medication and his condition stabilized. Unfortunately, this experience is not uncommon; a recent study found that the median period from the onset of psychotic symptoms until treatment is 74 weeks. Naturally, Schwoebel thought deeply about how this had happened and what clues might have been seen earlier. “I had been sensing that something was off about my brother’s speech, so after he was officially diagnosed, I looked more closely at his text messages before his psychotic break and saw noticeable abnormalities,” Schwoebel told Psychiatric News. For Schwoebel, a Georgia Tech alum and co-founder of the neuroscience startup accelerator NeuroLaunch, this was the spark of an idea. Looking into the academic literature he found a 2015 study led by researchers from Columbia University who applied machine learning to speech from a sample of participants at high risk for psychosis. They found that the artificial intelligence correctly predicted which individuals would transition to psychosis over the next several years.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Ethical Concerns Surrounding Psychiatric Treatments: Do Academics Agree with the Public?

By Laura Y. Cabrera, Rachel McKenzie, Robyn Bluhm

Image courtesy of the
U.S. Airforce Special Operations Command.
Treatments for psychiatric disorders raise unique ethical issues because they aim to change behaviors, beliefs, and affective responses that are central to an individual’s sense of who they are. For example, interventions for depression aim to change feelings of guilt and worthlessness (as well as depressed mood), while treatments for obsessive-compulsive disorder try to diminish both problematic obsessive beliefs and compulsive behaviors. In addition to the specific mental states that are the target of intervention, these treatments can also affect non-pathological values, beliefs, and affective responses. The bioethics and neuroethics communities have been discussing the ethical concerns that these changes pose for individual identity [1,2], personality [3,4], responsibility [5], autonomy [6,7], authenticity [8], and agency [9,10]. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Participatory Neuroscience: Something to Strive For?

By Phoebe Friesen

Image courtesy of Pixabay.
In the last few decades, there has been an increasing push towards making science more participatory by engaging those who are part of or invested in the community that will be impacted by the research in the actual research process, from determining the questions that are worth asking, to contributing to experimental design, to communicating findings to the public. Some of this push stems from the recognition that research is always value-laden and that the values guiding science have long been those of an elite and unrepresentative few (Longino, 1990). This push also has roots in feminist standpoint theory, which recognizes the way in which marginalized individuals may have an epistemic advantage when it comes to identifying problematic assumptions within a relevant knowledge project (Wylie, 2003). Additionally, many have noted how including the voices of those likely to be impacted by research can support the process itself (e.g. by identifying meaningful outcome measures) (Dickert & Sugarman, 2005). As a result, participatory research is becoming widely recognized as having both ethical and epistemic advantages. The field of neuroscience, however, which takes the brain as its primary target of investigation, has been slow to take up such insights. Here, I outline five stages of participatory research and the uptake of neuroscientific research in each, discuss the challenges and benefits of engaging in such research, and suggest that the field has an obligation, particularly in some cases, to shift towards more participatory research.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Ethical Implications of fMRI In Utero

By Molly Ann Kluck

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
When my neuroethics mentor approached me with a publication from Trends in Cognitive Science called “Functional Connectivity of the Human Brain in Utero” (1) in hand, I was immediately delighted by the idea of performing an ethical analysis on the use of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) on fetuses in utero. As of right now, I’m still conducting this ethical analysis. 

Using fMRI to look at human brains as they develop in utero is groundbreaking for a couple reasons. For one, there is a vast difference between the fMRI method currently used to investigate developing brains and previous methods that were used to examine fetal brain development. Research on developing brains had utilized preterm neonates, or babies born prematurely. While these data are valuable, there are issues with validity associated with this method: early exposure to an abnormal environment (e.g. being in the intensive care unit, where many preterm babies go after birth, being in an MRI machine, etc.) for a fetal brain, incomplete exposure to the essential nutrients and protection offered by the womb, and the plasticity of the fetal brain all can cause preterm neonates to experience differences in brain development (2). An accurate map of the brain as it typically develops will not be truly accurate if it is produced solely using preterm neonates. However, surveying a developing brain while it is still in utero, as can be done with fMRI in utero, is a different matter altogether. The chances of this research providing a more accurate picture of the developing brain increase due to the uninterrupted development of the fetus in utero. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Should you trust mental health apps?

By Stephen Schueller

Image courtesy of Pixabay.
If you were to search the Google Play or Apple iTunes store for an app to help support your mental health you’d find a bewildering range of options. This includes nearly 1000 apps focused on depression, nearly 600 focused on bipolar disorder, and 900 focused on suicide (Larsen, Nicholas, & Christensen, 2016). But how much faith should you have that these apps are actually helpful? Or to take an even more grim position, might some apps actually be harmful? Evidence suggests the latter might be true. In one study, researchers who examined the content in publicly available bipolar apps actually found one app, iBipolar, that instructed people to drink hard liquor during a bipolar episode to help them sleep (Nicholas, Larsen, Proudfoot, & Christensen, 2015). Thus, people should definitely approach app stores cautiously when searching for an app to promote their mental health.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Presenting... The Neuroethics Blog Reader: Black Mirror Edition!

It is our pleasure to present you with The Neuroethics Blog Reader: Black Mirror Edition!

This reader features the seven contributions from the blog's Black Mirror series, in which six different student writers explored the technology and neuroethical considerations presented in various  episodes of the British science fiction anthology television series. 

As Dr. Karen Rommelfanger puts it: 

This reader "... features critical reflections on the intriguing, exciting and sometimes frightful imagined futures for neurotechnology. Every day, in real life, we move closer to unraveling the secrets of the brain and in so doing become closer to understanding how to intervene with the brain in ways previously unimaginable. Neuroscience findings and the accompanying neurotechnologies created from these findings promise to transform the landscape of every aspect of our lives. As neuroethicists, we facilitate discussions on the aspirations of neuroscience and what neuroscience discoveries will mean for society. Sometimes this means dismantling overhyped neuroscience and staving of possible dystopian futures, but ultimately neuroethics aims to make sure that the neuroscience of today and of the future advance human flourishing."

The Neuroethics Blog, now in its 7th year of creating weekly publications, runs mostly in part to our amazing blog editorial team. A special thank you to: Sunidhi Ramesh (Volume Editor of the reader and outgoing Assistant Managing Editor), Carlie Hoffman (Managing Editor), Nathan Ahlgrim (incoming Assistant Managing Editor), Kristie Garza (Supporting Editor and blog contributor), and Jonah Queen (Supporting Editor and blog contributor). We would also like to thank the authors of the pieces featured in the reader; you can read more about them on the last page of the publication.

Want to read more? Check out a digital copy of the reader below.