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.

Ethics and suicide: Are we paying attention to the important issues?

by Victoria Saigle and Eric Racine, Ph.D.

Eric Racine, Ph.D.

Victoria Saigle is a graduate student at the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal's Neuroethics Research Unit. She is a completing her MSc in Experimental Medicine at McGill University through the Biomedical Ethics Unit. 

Dr. Eric Racine is the director of the Neuroethics Research Unit at the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal and holds academic appointments in the Department of Medicine and the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine at Université de Montréal and in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, the Department of Medicine, and the Biomedical Ethics Unit at McGill University. He is also a member of the AJOB Neuroscience Editorial Board.

Discussing suicide can be difficult in clinical, public, and academic settings because many people have strong intuitions about which, when, and whether voluntary death is appropriate. However, discussions about suicide are largely absent from bioethics scholarship. Considering that suicide is among the ten most common causes of death worldwide and the second leading cause of death for individuals aged 15-29 (World Health Organization, 2014), it is surprising that more attention is not devoted to this topic.

Victoria Saigle
Ethical dilemmas related to suicide intersect with important questions in research ethics, clinical ethics, and public health ethics. However, we discovered in recent work that the majority of ethics scholarship on voluntary death focuses either entirely on physician-assisted dying (PAD – a term we are using here to describe many different acts in which a physician helps to hasten death at a patient’s request) or consists of philosophical arguments about the acceptability or rationality of suicide. Though interesting, these topics do little to address the challenges and lived experiences of suicidal individuals, their families, suicide researchers, or health professionals. Below, we will delineate aspects of suicide that deserve more attention.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Is trauma in our genes? Ethical implications of epigenetic findings

by Neil Levy

Neil Levy is professor of philosophy at Macquarie University, Sydney and deputy director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics. He is the author of 7 books, including Neuroethics (2007) and Consciousness and Moral Responsibility (2014), and edits the journal Neuroethics. He is also a member of the AJOB Neuroscience board.

A recent study by Rachel Yehuda et al. in Biological Psychiatry provided further evidence for the genetic transmission of acquired characteristics, by showing that Holocaust survivors passed certain acquired genetic markers to their children. The idea that acquired characteristics can be genetically transmitted is (roughly) equivalent to the doctrine of Lamarckism, and was long considered a heresy in biology. [Editor's note: see also Ryan Purcell's 2014 post for this blog on the relationship between Lamarckism and epigenetics.] According to the Darwinian orthodoxy, traits change because randomly occurring mutations confer a relative fitness advantage on some organisms, not because they change their behaviour, and that change then comes to be encoded in the genes. But the orthodoxy has long been shattered. Scientists now recognize that the story is a lot more complex than that.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Brain devices: Navigating collaborations between industry, government, and researchers

by Paul J. Ford, PhD

Dr. Ford is Director of the NeuroEthics Program at the Cleveland Clinic. He is an active clinical ethicist, and teaches ethics to medical students, residents, and fellows. His publications have appeared in Science, The Hastings Center Report, Neurology, Neuromodulation, and Journal of Medical Ethics. He is also a board member for AJOB Neuroscience.

This spring (June 3-4, 2015) the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as part of the BRAIN Initiative convened an eclectic group of individuals in hopes of encouraging more investigator initiated studies of currently approved neuromodulation and neuro recording devices for new indications (agenda, session videos, and program goals available here). The participants, both on the program and in the audience, specifically included industry, researchers, universities, and governmental agencies. I was delighted to participate in the workshop and was impressed by the number of sincerely interested parties across the spectrum of roles. Within these conversations it was apparent that there existed many shared values and goals as well as complex challenges for protecting particular interests. It beautifully highlighted the complexities of interactions among varied stakeholders.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Self/less and transplanting (ID)entities

by Karen Rommelfanger

I recently sat on a panel discussion for an early screening of the movie Self/less. I'm quoted (mostly correctly) with my name (mostly) spelled correctly here.

In Self/less, an aging business tycoon with a terminal illess (played by Ben Kingsley) pays to "shed" his skin for a new, younger, fitter body (played by Ryan Reynolds). See trailer above.

The film, despite the futuristic theme, revisits mundane themes of the Faustian tradeoff or a deal with a devil, ultimately conveying the message that the costs, even for the rich, are too high when trying to cheat death. The title of the movie implies that for the greater good the selfless thing to do is to just die as nature intended.

While the film would surely be categorized as science fiction, there are entrepreneurs quite dedicated to making such a possibility a reality.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Why I teach with an English professor

by Krish Sathian, MD, PhD

Dr. Sathian is Professor of Neurology, Rehabilitation Medicine, and Psychology at Emory University, and directs the Neurorehabilitation Program in the Department of Neurology. The recipient of Emory’s 2001 Albert Levy senior faculty award for excellence in scientific research, he is Executive Director of the Atlanta VAMC Rehabilitation R&D Center for Visual and Neurocognitive Rehabilitation and immediate Past President of the American Society of Neurorehabilitation.

Editor's note: The following post is the second of a pair of essays about interdisciplinary teaching we will feature on the blog. Please see its companion piece from last week, Dr. Laura Otis's "Why I teach with a neurologist." It is often said that academic fields are becoming increasingly siloed as specializations become more and more detailed and jargon-filled with each new peer-reviewed paper. The classes co-taught by Professors Otis and Sathian were unique interdisciplinary spaces where students across traditional disciplinary divides were able to wrestle with topics shared by the humanities and sciences: perception, imagination, and art. Is this kind of interdisciplinary inquiry a necessary counterbalance to the siloing of the disciplines? Or could it even be seen as part of the ethical practice of science? Might having more of such classes improve the science literacy of those in the humanities, and keep scientists in touch with the depth of expertise that other fields can contribute (as I have argued in an earlier post)? Should we begin to find ways to institutionalize more of this type of work into the higher education system, or provide more movement between the disciplines? Or is interdisciplinarity merely a fad? Readers: what do you think? 

I consider myself very fortunate to work both as a clinical neurologist in academia, and as a neuroscientist investigating fundamental questions about the brain that may in time have an impact on how we treat people with neurological disorders. My own research over many years has concentrated on studies of perception, but I recently began to study how the brain handles metaphor.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Why I teach with a neurologist

by Laura Otis, PhD

Dr. Otis is a Professor of English at Emory University. Although she ultimately obtained a PhD in Comparative Literature and now teaches English literature, she holds a BS in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and an MA in Neuroscience, and she worked in research labs for years. She was awarded a MacArthur fellowship for creativity in 2000 and is currently working as a visiting scholar at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

Editor's note: The following post is the first of a pair of short essays about interdisciplinary teaching that will be featured on the blog. Stay tuned next week for Dr. Krish Sathian's "Why I teach with an English professor." It is often said that academic fields are becoming increasingly segregated as specializations develop more jargon and become more detailed with each new peer-reviewed paper. However, the classes co-taught by Professors Otis and Sathian are unique interdisciplinary spaces where students across traditional disciplinary divides are able to wrestle with topics shared by the humanities and sciences: perception, imagination, and art. Is this kind of interdisciplinary inquiry a necessary counterbalance to the segregation of the disciplines? Or even part of the ethical practice of science? Might having more classes like this improve the scientific literacy of those in the humanities, and keep scientists in touch with the depth of expertise that other fields can contribute (as I have argued in an earlier post)? Should we begin to find ways to institutionalize more of this type of work into the higher education system, or provide more movement between the disciplines? Or is interdisciplinarity merely a fad and a buzzword? Readers: what do you think? 

In teaching, there are few things worse than realizing you’ve told your students something wrong. The jolt may come a year, five years down the line, but you can’t issue a retraction. They’ve dispersed to medical schools, where they’re now propagating your error. It’s been thirty years since I studied Neuroscience at UCSF, and a few things have changed since then. The human genome has been sequenced. Scientists analyze data on computers. I try to keep abreast of what’s happening, but this is hard while teaching Victorian literature. In this climate of near-worship for Neuroscience, I worry that I could say anything about the brain, and people would believe me. With a neurologist in the room, this can’t happen.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Meeting ethological needs: Conflicting data on orca longevity in captivity

by Frans de Waal

Editor's note: Frans de Waal, PhD, is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University and the Director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He is also a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences and a member of the AJOB Neuroscience editorial board. His research focuses on primate social behavior, including conflict resolution, cooperation, inequality aversion, and food-sharing.

de Waal, a leading primatologist, makes an argument here for thinking seriously about the captivity of certain animals such as orcas. Of course, the orca also has a sophisticated mammalian brain. Is the defining criterion of our responsibility to other animals their ecological needs, as de Waal suggests, or is it their cognitive function? What do you think?

There is so much to-do about orcas (killer whales) in captivity, with a drumbeat of voices against humans keeping this species, that it was about time we got some data on longevity. Not that longevity is the only measure to consider with regards to the ethics of keeping these fascinating animals, but since there is the claim out there that orcas in human care live short, stressful lives, there is a need to know the truth.

Source: flickr.com