Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Early Intervention in Schools: A Site for Empirical Neuroethics

By Ilina Singh, MSc

Ilina Singh is a Professor of Science, Ethics, and Society in the department of Social Science, Health, and Medicine at King’s College London, and is cross-appointed to the Institute of Psychiatry. Her work examines the psycho-social and ethical implications of advances in biomedicine and neuroscience for young people and families. She is also a member of the AJOB Neuroscience Editorial Board.
The developmental logic of early intervention is currently all the rage across child care-related sectors, including education, mental health, juvenile justice and social policy. It’s not a new logic by any means (witness longstanding programmes such as HeadStart), but it has new energy and justification with the emergence of epigenetic theories of development. Epigenetics has brought attention to ‘environment’ to the fore, particularly in pediatrics and in child psychiatry. While epigenetic theories are still that – theories – the last few years have seen a surge in research and policy focused on children’s early environments: womb, home, school, community. Students and researchers interested in neuroscience ethics, particularly in relation to children and adolescents, should find rich and fruitful ground for research here. In this blog I outline some thoughts about why neuroethicists might be interested in early intervention programmes in one key environment - schools.

From iStockPhoto

Schools have a long history of collaborations with psychiatry, psychology and pediatric medicine. A rich and frequently critical sociological literature details how these collaborations have informed and embedded a range of normative understandings of child development, particularly in the interrelated areas of behaviour, morality, intelligence and attachment. Scientific discoveries have had an important influence on shifting tropes in child education; from the ‘well adjusted’ child in a psycho-analytic framework, to a contemporary focus on child ‘wellbeing’ and ‘flourishing’ informed especially by positive psychology and emerging discoveries in developmental biology and neuroscience. In this context, early years schooling provides both the environmental conditions to kindle the capacities that promote flourishing, and a pre-clinical site in which to monitor and evaluate children and deploy early intervention strategies when a child appears to be at risk of failure to flourish.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Montreal Neuroethics Conference for Young Researchers 2015

The Montreal Neuroethics Conference for Young Researchers 2015 will be held in Montréal, Québec, on April 17th, 2015 at the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal (IRCM), Montréal, Quebec. This one-day international conference is aimed at young researchers, trainees, and students from all fields interested in neuroethics. In addition to the program on the day of the event, we are hosting an essay competition where 5 winning papers in English will be candidates for fast-tracked publication in a special issue of the journal Neuroethics and 5 winning papers in French will be candidates for fast-tracked publication in a special issue of the journal Bioéthique Online. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Newly Released 6.1 Issue of AJOB Neuroscience

The 6.1 Issue of the American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience (AJOB Neuroscience) is now hot off the presses with two target articles highlighting ethical issues behind the use of two very different therapeutic interventions: first-in-human trials to treat Parkinson’s disease using stem-cell based therapies and prescription stimulants to enhance motivation.

The Target Article “Ethical Criteria for Human Trials of Stem-Cell Derived Dopaminergic Neurons in Parkinson’s Disease”1 by Samia A. Hurst et al. discusses three specific considerations of a phase I(safety)-II (efficacy) clinical trial designed to test an experimental neurorestorative stem cell therapy for Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease is a result of the loss of dopamine-producing neurons in the substantia nigra, and significant depletion of dopamine leads to the tremors, rigidity, and difficulty initiating or halting movement that is often seen as the disease progresses. To compensate for the diminishing levels of the neurotransmitter, standard treatment relies on the drug levodopa, which is converted to dopamine in the body. Levodopa is not curative though, and for that reason, researchers are beginning to study the neurorestoration technique of dopamine-producing stem cells transplants2. As promising and groundbreaking as stem-cell therapy is, protecting human subjects will be of utmost importance as the therapies enter clinical trials.

Parkinson’s disease is progressive, meaning that patients could exhibit a wide spectrum of mild to debilitating symptomology. After considering the risk-to-benefit ratio of enrolling patients who have either just been diagnosed or are at an advanced state of the disease, the authors suggest that only patients with approximately less than 15 years to live with “moderately advanced” Parkinson’s disease should be enrolled. Moderately advanced Parkinson’s is defined as a time when patients have been diagnosed and are responding to levodopa therapy. These patients should have minimal motor impairments and no impairment of cognitive function. Since neurosurgery is not without risks and stem-cell therapy benefit may not be obvious for a long time period, a clear informed consent process is critical. The patients must understand that the study’s purpose is not to alleviate Parkinson’s symptomatology immediately, but to instead increase understanding for the disease and the experimental, high risk nature of the procedure.

The authors conclude that a sham surgery, which involves inserting a needle into the brain, but not injecting stem cells, cannot be justified in a phase I-II clinical trial. Sham surgery is fraught with its own ethical concerns related to the powerful placebo effect, especially when research has suggested that Parkinson’s disease patients are especially susceptible to the placebo effect3,4. While a 2005 investigation of sham surgeries in Parkinson’s disease research suggested that the majority of clinicians support sham surgeries over unblinded controls5, finding interventions better than placebo or sham is challenging if sham is the ultimate threshold over which novel therapy should pass6. The authors ultimately recommend an open-label clinical trial design or a trial that compares stem-cell therapy to alternative medicines other than highly invasive surgery. The authors also remark that even if Parkinson’s disease patients are more likely to improve based on a placebo, Parkinson’s is degenerative and the placebo effect would most likely not survive declining motor function over the long-term of this study.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Primordial soup to nuts: are some men naturally selected to be better dads?

Children are the future. So “why do some men choose not to invest in their children?” This was the question that Dr. James Rilling set out to answer over the last few years. Dr. Rilling is the head of the Laboratory for Darwinian Neuroscience in the Anthropology Department at Emory University and states one of the lab’s aims is “exploring the neural basis of human social cognition and behavior, particularly those aspects that have been under strong evolutionary selection pressure.” But are absent fathers the result of natural selection?

In the last half-century, the basic structure of American families has been changing. Within two-parent households, fathers are spending more time with their children than they used to as more mothers work outside the home. However, there are also many more single mothers raising children without any paternal help and roughly half of all American children are raised by a single parent at some point during childhood [1].

These changes have occurred far too rapidly to be the result of natural selection, but this trend compels additional study into the factors underlying paternal commitment. It is not known if there may in fact be an evolutionary explanation for why some men are more committed fathers than others. More to the point, do biological differences between men influence behavioral variation? Life History Theory posits that natural selection shapes the allocation of finite resources toward aspects of growth, survivorship, and reproduction. Within reproduction, there is arguably a trade-off in this zero-sum game between parenting and mating activities, and natural selection shapes phenotypes to support optimal strategies.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Diversity in Neuroethics: it’s more important than you might think

By Nicholas Fitz and Roland Nadler**

Nicholas Fitz
Nick is a Graduate Research Assistant at the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia. 

Roland is a third-year J.D. student at Stanford Law School and previously worked as a Graduate Research Assistant at the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia.

**equal contribution

Roland Nadler
The second decade of neuroethics is now well underway. Much like the human brain itself, some of its developmental “critical periods” have run out, but many others remain open. How will we use these remaining opportunities to shape the field?

Junior participants in these spaces should take the initiative to engage with unresolved questions about the nature and structure of neuroethics as a discipline. After all, those of us at the beginning of our careers have a particularly significant stake in the answers to those questions, with most of our academic and professional lives still ahead of us. As we work to integrate society’s growing technological power with best ethical practices and societal values, we must ask: whose practices, whose values?

Last year, in a bid to foster this discussion, we offered three visions for diversity in neuroethics. In that article, we devoted much attention to diversity along intellectual, disciplinary, and political lines.

Today, we offer a few more thoughts on the importance of diversity in neuroethics in the more familiar sense of having a wide array of identities and backgrounds represented in the field.

Chiefly, we hope to convince you that robust identity diversity is beneficial — indeed, crucial — to neuroethics. The field simply could not provide the kinds of insights that it promises if its practitioners were a homogenous group of people speaking comfortably from positions of social power and privilege.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Neuroimaging in the Courtroom

If just any picture is worth a thousand words, then how much weight should we ascribe to a picture of our own brain? Neuroimaging can be quite compelling, especially when presented in the media as evidence for neuroscientific findings. Many researchers have pointed out though that the general public may be too entranced by fMRI images highlighting which parts of the brain are activated in response to certain stimuli, such as your iPhone, high-fat foods, or even Twitter. Neuro-realism is the idea that attaching a brain scan to a scientific finding suddenly makes the conclusion more credible, and examples of this have populated the media and the scientific literature1. But, from where does this theory of “neuro-seduction” really stem and is there even ample evidence to support it? For the first journal club of the new semester Emory undergraduate student and AJOB Neuroscience Editorial Intern Julia Marshall along with Emory professor Scott Lilienfeld discussed the role that neuroimaging plays in the courtroom, and whether brain scans have the potential to help or hurt those convicted of crimes in light of neuro-realism, neuro-seduction, and neuroredundancy.

from Scientific American blog

Recently, an article by Martha Farah and Cayce Hook2 took a critical look at the two studies that are most frequently cited as being evidence for neuro-realism and discussed why this theory has continued to persist despite its lack of evidence. The first study by McCabe and Castel3 analyzed whether people consider scientific findings more believable when accompanied by functional brain images, and the collected data suggested that scientific reasoning in research descriptions made more sense to participants when a brain image was provided as evidence. However, Farah and Hook point out that these brain images are actually more informative than a bar graph or topographic map, and participants should find them more compelling. The second paper often cited in relation to neuro-realism is a study by Weisberg, et al.4 which asked participants to consider whether an explanation for a psychological phenomenon, which did or did not include irrelevant neuroscientific rationale, was good or bad. Participants that were not neuroscience experts were more likely to rate a bad explanation as favorable when accompanied by neuroscience data. This study, however, did not include images, and even the authors of the paper admit that people may respond in a similar fashion to information that comes from specialties outside of neuroscience and psychology; there could be a general fascination with science that makes poor explanations appear reasonable. Farah and Hook also highlight a number of experiments5–7 that have been unable to replicate the findings from these two studies, helping to cast a shadow of doubt on neuro-realism.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Exchanging 'Reasons' for 'Values'

Julia Haas is a McDonnell Postdoctoral Fellow in the Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology program at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research focuses on decision-making.

Over the past two decades, computational and neurobiological research has had a big impact on the field of economics, bringing into existence a new and prominent interdisciplinary field of inquiry, ‘neuroeconomics.’ The guiding tenet of neuroeconomics has been that by combining both theoretical and empirical tools from neuroscience, psychology and economics, the resulting synthesis could provide valuable insights into all three of its parent disciplines (Glimcher 2009). And although some economists have resisted the influence of neuroscience research (Gul and Psendorfer 2008), neuroeconomics has by all measures thrived as a theoretical endeavor, and proven itself as a discipline capable of marshaling substantial institutional and financial resources.

For example, theories from economics and psychology have already begun to restructure our neurobiological understanding of decision-making, and a number of recent neurobiological findings are beginning to suggest constraints on theoretical models of choice developed in both economic and psychological domains. Similarly, a study by the Eigenfactor project at the University of Washington showed that while there were no citations from either of these disciplines to the other in 1997, by 2010, there were 195 citations from economics journals to neuroscience journals, and 74 citations from neuroscience journals to economics journals.

Disciplinary cross-pollination 
This interdisciplinary partnership has caught the attention of the National Institutes of Health, which finances 21 current research projects with "neuroeconomics" in their descriptions, to the tune of $7.6-million. The agency gives out many more millions for other neurobiology work related to decision-making: Caltech got $9-million this month to establish a center in this field. The National Science Foundation has backed eight neuroeconomics projects with $3.5-million in research money.

Neuroeconomics: A Role Model for the Neuroscience of Ethics 

Neuroeconomics has thus been one of the most significant and astute beneficiaries of computational and neuroscientific research on decision-making. By contrast, the discipline of philosophy has fallen behind. Although many insights from computational and decision neuroscience are directly relevant to philosophical discussions about deliberation and choice, the vast majority of them have fallen by the philosophical wayside. This is not to say that philosophy has ignored neuroscience: this would not at all be true. Beginning with the publication of Patricia Churchland’s Neurophilosophy in 1985, both neurophilosophy and the philosophy of neuroscience have become active research areas across philosophy departments. But many of these neuroscientific contributions have focused on issues pertaining to traditional metaphysics (such as consciousness and free will) and epistemology (such as perception and representation). By contrast, the implications of computational and decision neuroscience for philosophical theories of decision-making and practical reasoning have yet to be realized.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Obama’s BRAIN and Free Will

By Eddy Nahmias, PhD

Eddy Nahmias is professor in the Philosophy Department and the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State University. He is also a member of the AJOB Neuroscience editorial board.

On April 2, 2013 President Barack Obama announced the BRAIN Initiative, a 10-year, $3 billion research goal to map all of the neurons and connections in the human brain. The BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative is modeled on the Human Genome Project, which successfully sequenced the entire DNA code of the human genome in 2003. Our brains, with 100 trillion neuronal connections, are immensely more complicated than our DNA, so the BRAIN Initiative has a much higher mountain to climb.

But let’s suppose that, finally, during the next Clinton presidency, the BRAIN Initiative is completed…. that is, the presidency of Charlotte Clinton, Bill and Hilary’s grandchild. In fact, suppose that eventually neuroimaging technology advances to the point that people’s brains can be mapped fully enough to allow real-time computations of all of their occurrent brain activity. Neuroscientists can then use this information to predict with 100% accuracy every single decision a person will make, even before the person is consciously aware of their decision. Suppose that a woman named Jill agrees to wear the lightweight BrainCapTM for a month. The neuroscientists are able to detect the activity that causes her thoughts and decisions and use it to predict all of Jill’s thoughts and decisions, even before she is aware of them. They predict, for instance, how she will vote in an election. They even predict her attempts to trick them by changing her mind at the last second.

From interbilgisayar.com

Question: Do you think it is possible for such technology to exist in the future (the “near” future of Charlotte Clinton’s presidency or perhaps a more distant future)? And if such technology did exist, what would it tell us about whether we have free will?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

When the Hype Doesn’t Pan Out: On Sharing the Highs-and-Lows of Research with the Public

By Jared Cooney Horvath

Jared Cooney Horvath is a PhD student at the University of Melbourne in Australia studying Cognitive Psychology / Neuroscience.

15-years ago, a group of German researchers decided to revive the ancient practice of using electricity to effect physiologic change in the human body. Using modern equipment and safety measures, this group reported that they were able to alternately up- and down-regulate neuronal firing patterns in the brain simply by sending a weak electric current between two electrodes placed on the scalp1.
tDCS electrode placement

Today, this technique is called Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) and over 1,400 scientific articles (calculated by combining non-replicated articles from a joint PubMed, ISI Web of Science, and Google Scholar search using the keywords “Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation”: October 15, 2014) have been published suggesting that passing an arguably innocuous amount of electricity through the brain of a healthy individual can improve his/her memory, learning, attention, inhibitory control, linguistic function, etc. In parallel with these findings (often fueled by the researchers themselves), the public hype surrounding tDCS has grown to impressive proportions: in fact, in the last year alone, stories about this device and its ability to improve cognition and behavior have appeared in popular news outlets ranging from the BBC2 to Wired3 to The Wall Street Journal4.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Neuroscience in the Courtroom: An Attempt for Clarity

*Editor’s note: You can catch a lengthier discussion of this topic at our Jan 29th session of Neuroscience and Neuroethics in the News.

When people think about functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and the courtroom, many often think of mind reading or colorful images of psychopathic brains. Portable fMRI machines capable of reading our personal thoughts pop into our heads and arouse a fear that one day a neuroscientist could reasonably discern our deepest secrets through a brain scan. Despite recent scholarship that suggests a world filled with covert fMRI lie detection devices is far away (if ever attainable), I think further attention should be paid to how people think about neuroscience and interpret scientific information that draws on brain-laden language, particularly in the courtroom (Farah, Hutchinson, Phelps, & Wagner, 2014). This topic is of special interest to me as it is the focus of my undergraduate research thesis. I also think it should be relevant to neuroscientists, ethicists, and journalists as well because the way in which people interpret and understand aspects of the brain and human behavior is perhaps a consequence of how such information is portrayed to the public.

Photo from Ali, Liftshitz, & Raz, 2014