Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Two Internship Openings with Emory's Neuroethics Program for Spring 2013!


NEUROETHICS INTERNSHIP OPENINGS

Are you interested in the ethical and social implications of neuroscience?

The Emory Neuroethics Program invites you to apply for a Neuroethics Internship. We are looking for up to two self-motivated, creative, and organized individuals who are interested in topics that fall at the intersection of neuroscience, society, and ethics.

The Neuroethics Program is a community of scholars at the Emory University Center for Ethics who explore the ethical and social implications of neuroscience and neurotechnology. You can be part of that exciting team.

The Center for Ethics at Emory is an interdisciplinary hub that collaborates with every school at Emory University as well as local universities and the private and public community. The Center for Ethics houses The American Journal for Bioethics Neuroscience, the premier journal in Neuroethics. The director of the Center for Ethics, Dr. Paul Root Wolpe, is one of the founders of the field of Neuroethics as well as the International Neuroethics Society, where he serves on the Executive Board.

Students will have creative input into this new, growing program and play an integral role in its day-to-day functions. Duties will include things like:

• Social Media: Writing for The Neuroethics Blog, FB and Web design
• Participating in projects led by the undergrad-run Neuroethics Creative
• Neuroethics Journal Club
• Organizing Symposia
• Neuroethics Research and more…

Please visit our program page (ethics.emory.edu/neuroethics) or Facebook (The Neuroethics Program at Emory) to learn more about us, or contact us at neuroethics@emory.edu.

To apply please submit a 1-pg letter of interest and resume to neuroethics@emory.edu by January 18, 2013.

Eligibility and expectations:
• Must be organized and deadline-oriented
• Must be self-motivated
• Must currently be an undergraduate student (can be from any discipline)
• Hours are flexible, but must be consistent

Who's responsible for 'free will?' Reminding you that all ideas were once new

A figure adapted from Soon, Brass, Heinze and Haynes' 2008 
fMRI study where a "free decision" could be predicted above
 chance 7 seconds before it was consciously "felt."  Those 
green globs could be thought of as the unconscious part of 
your brain that is actually in control of your life.  Image here,
paper here 
As seen previously on this blog, the notion of "Free Will" is a bit of a Neuroethics battleground. About 30 years ago, Dr. Benjamin Libet et. al. published an experiment where the researchers were able to predict when human volunteers would press a button- a fraction of a second before the participants themselves realized they were going to do so.  And despite suggestions that the scientific method is breaking down, there is an entire cottage industry of scientists replicating Libet's result and finding more and more effective ways to predict what you are going to be 'freely' thinking.

I'll defer to Scott Adams of Dilbert fame to describe why this is a problem:
This is from 1992.  Libet's study was published in 1983.  Your life has been absurd  for the past 30 years. (I haven't been able to track down exactly what "Brain Research" Scott Adams was referencing here, but it seems to be similar  to  the Libet experiment.)  From http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/1992-09-13/  
The implications are pretty tremendous- if my conscious mind is just observing a decision that has already been made, and not participating in a decision, how is that decision mine?  How can I be blamed for decisions that I am merely watching?

However, it's hard to scientifically argue that free will is (or isn't) an illusion, unless you know exactly what it is in the first place.  So Jason Shepard and Shane Reuter ran a test to see how folks actually use the phrase 'free will.'  All well and good, that certainly beats just assuming that everyone has the same definition.

But then a sinking feeling emerges- here is an idea that is so precious to us, that we actually start becoming worse people when we hear that it is an illusion.  And yet this authoritative definition is coming to us through majority rule?  Our hero is roused to action, and sets out to find a 'correct' definition, not just a 'popular' one...

Monday, December 10, 2012

Uncovering the Neurocognitive Systems for 'Help This Child'

In their article, “Socioeconomic status and the brain: mechanistic insights from human and animal research,” Daniel A. Hackman, Martha J. Farah, and Michael J. Meaney explore how low socioeconomic status (SES) affects underlying cognitive and affective neural systems. They identify and focus on two sets of factors that determine the relationship between SES and cognitive development: (1) the environmental factors or ‘mechanisms’ that demonstrably mediate SES and brain development; and (2) those neurocognitive systems that are most strongly affected by low SES, including language processing and executive function.  They argue that “these findings provide a unique opportunity for understanding how environmental factors can lead to individual differences in brain development, and for improving the programmes and policies that are designed to alleviate SES-related disparities in mental health and academic achievement” [1].

Neuroscience can tell us how SES may affect her brain.
Can it move us to do something about it?

Theoretically, I have no doubt that neuroscience can make a powerful contribution to early childhood development by determining whether and which neurocognitive systems appear to be more extensively affected by low socioeconomic status.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Neurodiversity and autism: where do we draw the line?

In April 2012, the Emory Neuroethics Program conducted an interview with Steven Hyman, the director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at MIT’s Broad Institute, where he expressed his belief that mental illnesses and developmental disorders should not be thought of as clear and distinct categories. He said that “classifications are, in the end, cognitive schemata that we impose on data in order to organize it and manipulate it…it's really not helpful to act like there's a ‘bright line’ in nature that separates the well from non-well.” Rather, he said, there are spectrums of behaviors, and disorders exist along them with differing degrees of severity.

This idea of spectrum disorders is common in modern psychiatry, with a commonly known example being the autism spectrum. This approach groups similar disorders of varying levels of severity along a spectrum which also includes behaviors and emotions classified as normal. While the spectrum approach is often touted as an improvement over the previous methods of classification, it still does not solve the lingering problem of how to define disorders.

Neurodiversity shirt

This question is one of the biggest issues in modern psychiatry: where along the spectrum is the transition from the normal range to a diagnosable mental disorder? Doctors and therapists rely on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and scientific literature to make decisions, but it is not a perfect system and leaves room for controversy. The unreleased DSM-5 will move more towards the spectrum approach. For example, it will not include Asperger syndrome as a separate disorder, instead incorporating it into autism spectrum disorder (ASD). But despite this, the DSM-5 is being criticized for emphasizing the negative aspects of ASD (more so than the DSM-4) and, more generally, for pathologizing behaviors and mental states that, some feel, should be (and were at one point) considered normal.

The Future of Intelligence Testing


Few people I know actually enjoy standardized tests. Wouldn’t it be great if technology could eliminate the need for bubble-in forms and Scantron sheets? How nice would it be to simply go in and get a snapshot of your brain to find out how smart you are? Imagine walking into the test center, signing on the dotted line, getting a quick scan, and walking out with your scores in hand, helping you gain admittance into a college or land your next job. No brain-racking questions, no tricky analogies, and no obscure vocabulary. Goodbye SAT, hello functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Image from  http://theturingcentenary.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/brain-functions.jpg    

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Staring into the Zombie Abyss

By Guest Contributor Marc Merlin, Director of the Atlanta Science Tavern.

In his excellent review of the recent Zombethics Conference, Ross Gordon covers the central themes discussed during its morning session: a hypothetical neuroanatomy of zombies that would account for their hostile behavior, the possibility of the existence of philosophical zombies, soulless humans walking among us and, finally, the always-vexing question of free will, as it concerns both zombies and us.

Without a doubt these discussions have much to say about neuroscience and the philosophy of mind. What is less clear to me is what they have to say about ethics. They help us think more carefully about zombie behavior, but they offer little additional understanding of own our behavior, which is, after all, the grist for the ethics mill.

The Piano Kill, via Zombieland

Doing Neuroscience, Doing Feminism: Interview with Dr. Sari van Anders


Dr. Sari van Anders
After attending the Neurogenderings Conference in Vienna, where participants debated whether it would be possible to conduct feminist neuroscience research, I decided it would be useful to interview an actual practicing feminist neuroscientist – and I knew just who to talk to. Dr. Sari van Anders is an Assistant Professor in Psychology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. She earned her Ph.D. in Biological & Cognitive Psychology from Simon Fraser University. In her social neuroendocrinology lab at the University of Michigan, she conducts feminist neuroscience research on a variety of topics, with a principle focus on the social modulation of testosterone via sexuality, partnering/pair bonding, and nurturance. She has received grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the American Institute of Bisexuality and has published articles in Hormones and Behavior, Archives of Sexual Behavior, and Psychoneuroendocrinology, among others.

I asked her to talk about what she sees as feminist about her own behavioral neuroscience research, how she has secured support for her work from other behavioral neuroendocrinologists, and what advice she would give to early career scientists who want to incorporate feminist concerns into their research. Read on for Dr. Van Anders’ thoughtful and thought-provoking answers.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Zombie Philosophy: Is It Coming For Your Brain?

When I told my friends I was helping to put together a conference on zombie ethics with the Emory Center for Ethics, I invariably received one of two responses:

1) That’s really cool! Where do I sign up?
2) Sorry, what?

If you’re in category (1) and didn’t manage to make it to the conference, read on to find out what happened. If you’re closer to category (2), keep an open mind. There may be more going on with zombies than initially meets the eye.

Anatomy of a Zombie
Dr. Steven Schlozman, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, delivered the first talk of the morning via Skype. Dr. Schlozman, a zombie fanatic who grew up reading zombie stories and watching movies like Dawn of the Dead, has speculated extensively on what a zombie brain might look like. First, Dr. Schlozman suggests, zombies likely suffer from an underactive frontal lobe that leads to impaired impulse control. Frontal lobe dysfunction might stem from an overactive amygdala, where high levels of activity have been linked to strong feelings of anger and lust. The anterior cingulate cortex, which mediates the signal between the amygdala and the frontal lobe, could also be impaired in a way that eliminates moral restraint. Together, brain dysfunction in these three critical areas could lead to the insatiable bloodlust that characterizes most classical zombies.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Exquisite Corpse: Why a Frighteningly Multifaceted Imaginary Creature can Help Tie Neuroscience to Society

Signs of the times:  candy corn is on clearance, already-cheap makeup and costumes are further discounted in bins at Wal-mart, and you're wondering when the next occasion will be where it is socially acceptable to dress like a sexy Klingon in public.  To add to the post-Halloween zeitgeist, here's a report on a recent zombie-themed neuroethics conference.
AMC's The Walking Dead. Which, if you aren't familiar with it, is about the zombie apocalypse and is watched religiously by all of your friends. From http://blogs.amctv.com

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Teaching Intersex, Teaching Interdisciplinarity: Interview with Sara Freeman


Sara Freeman
Graduate Student
Department of Neuroscience
Emory University
In this post, I would like to highlight the work of another Emory graduate student, Sara Freeman. Just when Cyd Cipolla and I (in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) were coming up with our plan to teach an interdisciplinary course bringing together gender studies and neuroscience, we found out that Sara (in the Neuroscience Graduate Program) was developing her own interdisciplinary course bringing together developmental biology and the sociology of gender.

Sara’s course, which she is teaching this semester, is called “Intersex: Biology & Gender,” and is cross-listed in the departments of Biology, Sociology, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. “Intersex” is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with physical reproductive or sexual characteristics that cannot be easily classified as male or female (for more information, visit the Intersex Society of North America or the American Psychological Association’s page on intersex). FYI: October 26th was Intersex Awareness Day! In Sara’s course, she is teaching about both the developmental biology of intersex in humans and the social, political, legal and ethical issues related to intersex.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Who is to blame when no one is to be praised?

Let’s imagine for a moment that I am extraordinarily brilliant, but my brilliance is not due to my own hard work nor is it due to the wonderful instruction I have received; rather my brilliance is due to the fact that I was born with gene X. Let’s further imagine that the effects of gene X are robust. That is, the effects of gene X (my extraordinary brilliance!) are largely insensitive to environmental variation and developmental course. As long as some minimal conditions of life are met, having gene X guarantees that I will be exactly as brilliant as I in fact turned out to be.

Question: Who is to be praised for my brilliance?

The glasses pair well with the genes.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Zombies and Zombethics! Symposium

Zombies and Zombethics! Walking with the Dead: An Ethics Symposium for the Living on Halloween 2012.



This symposium will feature a Zombie Braains Inspired Panel (among many other exciting panels, see Zombethics Tab for more info) inspired by The Walking Dead Clip Below. This discussion will include a stellar group of virtual and local speakers followed by a moderated discussion.

If you already RSVP'd, lucky you! If you didn't RSVP, see how to get on the waiting list below.  The Zombie Walk at 1130am is open and does not require registration. Contact Alison Kear (akear@emory.edu) for details.

The Walking Dead: Season 1 Episode 6: Test Subject-19 Brain Scan of Transformation



GUEST PANELISTS



Also joining us will be our local friends of the Neuroethics Program:

  • Eddy Nahmias PhD. Neurophilosopher and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgia State University. Dr. Nahmias will discuss the relationship between the brain and free will.


  • Darryl Neill, PhD. Professor of Psychology at Emory.  Darryl Neill will discuss the psychological underpinnings of zombiehood.

The session will be moderated by Emory's Neuroethics Program Director, Dr. Karen Rommelfanger.


This event is hosted by the Center for Ethics and organized by the Neuroethics Program and the Religion and Public Health Ethics Program.


The event is free, but seating is limited and attendance will be by RSVP only! Seating is now by waiting list only. Contact Alison Kear (akear@emory.edu) to be added to the waiting list.




 For full day's events, please click the Zombethics Tab.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Military and Dual Use Neuroscience, Part II

In a previous post, I discussed several promising neuroscience technologies currently under investigation by the military. Simply knowing that such technology exists, however, does not in itself dictate a way forward for neuroscientists and others who are concerned about the possible consequences of military neuroscience research. In part, the complexity of the situation derives from the diversity of possible viewpoints involved: an individual’s beliefs about military neuroscience technology likely stem as much from beliefs about the military in general, or technological advancement in general, as from beliefs about the specific applications of the neuroscientific technologies in question.

Star Trek's Commander Spock was generally ethical in his personal use of directed energy weapons, but not all of us are blessed with a Vulcan’s keen sense of right and wrong (Image).  

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Neurolaw: Brains in the Courtroom


Regular readers of this blog know we often touch on issues about law and neuroscience: whether  it’s about crime, the lie detection seminar Emory hosted last spring, or work on ethics and free will. (Also, spoiler alert, neurolaw is to be the focus of our next journal club meeting- please come!) The field of neurolaw, which is exactly what it sounds like- neuroscience and law, has been growing rapidly over the past decade. Most of the discussions in neurolaw focus on how, and if, new discoveries in neuroscience will affect legal definitions of responsibility and culpability by changing the way we understand how the decision to commit a crime is made. However- in the past year there have been several studies looking at another side of brains the courtroom: that is, the neuroscience of judgment itself. These studies are exploring how people consider evidence and how they balance moral and ethical decisions against empathic and sympathetic reactions. This new work opens up new avenues for interventions from neurolaw and neuroethics around the construction and use of institutions like the judge and the jury.
Science says: Lock 'em up.
(image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Army's on Ecstasy: Marching toward an ethical drug policy

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among American soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan has reached epidemic proportions, affecting between 75,000 to 225,000 veterans. In fact, suicide is now the leading cause of death in the army, with more soldiers dying by suicide than in combat. Frustratingly, existing treatments for PTSD are limited and ineffective for between 25-50% of patients. Last year a clinical trial using MDMA (i.e. Ecstasy) in conjunction with psychotherapy was shown to ameliorate PTSD symptoms far more effectively than any other known treatment. Despite these promising results, it could be ten years or more before MDMA is approved for use in treating PTSD, and even then clinicians will face additional hurdles until our nation’s drug policy is seriously overhauled. Given the public health imperative for effective PTSD treatment, it’s high time to rethink our stance toward illegal drugs and create an ethical drug policy that paves the way for expedient psychedelics research while providing honest education, harm reduction measures, and on-demand treatment for drug addiction.

PTSD is a chronic, debilitating mental illness. People with PTSD are hyperaroused, repeatedly re-experience their trauma in the form of nightmares, panic attacks, and flashbacks, and often suffer from comorbid depression and drug abuse. The army's own research illustrates that trauma is widespread and long-lasting: around 25% of Vietnam veterans remain symptomatic, even decades after the end of their service. The army is fully aware of this growing issue, and has taken many steps over the years to address it, including the formation of the National Center for PTSD within the US Department of Veterans Affairs, which has emerged as the world’s leading research and educational center on PTSD. The Obama administration has also increased funding for mental health services at the VA by 39% since 2009. Despite these and other efforts, the statistics are alarming: about 18 veterans take their lives each day.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Intrepid Grrrl Reporter: A Dispatch from the NeuroGenderings II Conference


Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the NeuroCultures - NeuroGenderings II Conference at the University of Vienna. The conference brought together an international group of scholars to discuss brain research on sex and gender from a feminist perspective. The conference was a treat for me, as I was able to meet a number of leading scholars in the field, including some of the people I have mentioned in previous blogs. I presented a poster on the course, "Feminism, Sexuality, and Neuroethics," which Cyd Cipolla and I co-taught last spring, and also presented a paper reviewing contemporary neuroscience research on transsexuality.

Although it is difficult to summarize two days' worth of keynote speeches, panels, and poster presentations, I would say that two main themes emerged within the conference: the first was a critique of neurosexism both within scientific research on sex, gender, and brain and in how this research is communicated to the public through the media. The second was an attempt to explore whether it would be possible to conduct feminist neuroscience research on sex and gender and, if so, what such research would look like.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Why use Brain Cells in Art?


“Bioart” refers to the manipulation of living cells, tissues, or organisms (or their derivatives) for artistic purposes. While artists and biologists have collaborated for centuries to illustrate biological phenomena (you can see some fantastic modern examples of this tradition here), “Bioart” refers to the practice started in the early 1990’s of artists training in and performing techniques from the biological sciences, such as cell culture, genetic engineering, and surgery.  Artists have used these technologies to create novel living entities (such as a leather jacket grown in vitro) or modify existing living entities (such as Stelarc’s third ear).  These tools provided new options for aesthetic statements (the ability to radically sculpt living tissue to suit particular tastes), ethical statements (if we are growing a small, edible steak in a vat, should we continue to kill cattle for food?) as well as a novel flavor of irony (that “victimless” PETA-endorsed cultured steak required an entire cow’s worth of fetal bovine serum to produce [1]).

Some bio-artworks  incorporate living neurons.  Early works such as Force and Intelligence used neural culture for its aesthetic and, er, cultural significance.  Later however, neural art work began to incorporate the functional aspects of neurons by recording and initiating neural activity.  This bi-directional communication allowed for neural culture to control robotic art installations, giving the biological “brain” a robotic “body”[2].  This embodied neural art is a distinctive subset of bioart much for the same reason that neuroethics is a distinctive subset of bioethics- while similar issues can be addressed (is it alive?), there are a new set of issues that come up (does it feel pain?).  In many ways, embodied neural art is the perfect playground for the “extra-rational” side of the neuroethics discussion. Here, novel neural systems, or novel presentations of natural living systems, can be presented to the public in a manner that encourages both critical thinking and the development of new intuitions.
Peter Gee (center) explains Silent Barrage's processing loop to two museum attendees standing amid the work's robotic "body."  On the wall behind them are shown projections displaying rainbow-colored electrical recordings (left) of the neural activity of the biological "brain" that controls the robots, and the view from the overhead cameras (right) that provide the "sensory input" for the "brain."  Photo by Philip Gamblen.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Who is redefining free will? A Response to Jerry Coyne

Famed evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has recently gained a lot of public attention for his views on free will. As he sees it, we don’t have it. (See here and here for popular press articles from him on the subject. See here, and here for blog posts on his personal blog in which he slan ... um, I mean, debates some of those who do not agree with him.)

According to Coyne, free will, at least ‘free will’ as understood by non-scientists and non-philosophers (AKA “the folk”), requires the unconditional ability to do otherwise. The unconditional ability to do otherwise is the ability to do differently than one in fact did, even if everything up until the moment of doing was exactly the same. The ‘everything’ in that previous clause is meant to be taken literal. LITERALLY EVERYTHING. The unconditional ability to do otherwise requires the ability to do otherwise even if every single molecule in the universe was aligned exactly the same way, even if all your thoughts, desires, beliefs, intentions, etc. were exactly the same, etc., etc., etc.

And, according to Coyne, we do not have this ability; the laws of nature won’t allow such an extraordinary ability. Thus, we don’t have free will.

L
That's right: Embrace your strings! According to Coyne (echoing a point made by Sam Harris), we really are nothing more than puppets. (credit: thenewyorker.com)


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Return of the Pedophilic Brain Tumor: Acquired versus Innate Pedophilia

Last week, Reuters carried a story by Kate Kelland about a pediatrician in Italy, Domenico Mattiello, accused of sexually abusing his patients.[1] His lawyers plan to present evidence that his pedophilic urges are the result of a brain tumor and argue that the judge in the case should be lenient. As the Reuter's story mentions, this case is very similar to a US case I blogged about a few months ago, where a 40 year old man suddenly developed pedophilic urges and had to be removed from his home.  The US case was presented at a medical conference, with very little discussion of criminal charges, while Mattiello's case is presented by Kelland as an extreme example of the sort of challenges neuroscience may bring to our understandings of criminal responsibility. I want to push back against this framing, and argue that a tumor such as this poses an interesting ethical question because it does not simply challenge ideas about criminal responsibility, but also serves as a good example of the different responses to "acquired" pedophilia and "innate" pedophilia.[2] 


Original image from  http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/frankenstein/frank_celluloid.html
A display of criminal brains from the era of biological criminality.

Brain-Boosting or Pulp Fiction?

It comes as no surprise that pulling all-nighters comes with the territory of being an undergraduate. It is the price that most of my peers and I have paid at one time or another for trying to get more work completed before a fast-approaching deadline. The sleepless nights ramp up during finals week while the use of caffeine and energy drinks fuels our self-induced, sleep- deprived zombie states.

                                                We all do it: study zombies 
                                      (Credit: zombiesandtoys.blogspot.com)                                 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Snakes On a Brain, or, Why Care About Comparative Neuroanatomy (Vol.1)

Have you ever seen the movie “Snakes On A Plane”? It might have occurred to you that, in real life, Burmese Pythons and Scarlet Kingsnakes don’t act like the computer-animated cobras from the film. Now imagine how a herpetologist would feel while watching it. I’m sensing some anger, some exasperation, maybe even a little righteous indignation.

Once the herpetologist works through these feelings, s/he might do an interview to capitalize on the movie’s popularity and correct some misconceptions the public has about snakes. Or, I don’t know, teach a class for non-science majors called “Snakes On The Colorado Plains”. Or write a blog post about it. That’s what I’m attempting to do here, but it’s not a movie from 2006 that’s got me thinking about reptiles. What happened was, I heard a RadioLab podcast which used the phrase “reptile brain”.

With one glance at this amazing animated gif that I found on VibeDoc.com, I am able to understand the reptilian brain.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Response to “Society Does Not Make Gender” by Dr. Larry Young and Brian Alexander


"A queer symbol of new gender image"
by Finnish artist Susi Waegelein
At the beginning of August, Ruth Padawer published a piece in the New York Times magazine about gender non-conforming children and parents. Last week, Dr. Larry Young of Emory University and science writer Brian Alexander (who are publishing a book together, The Chemistry Between Us) published a response to the article, in which they argue, essentially, that gender is biologically hardwired into the brains of fetuses by the organizational effects of hormones. They go on to implicitly endorse what has been called the “brain sex theory” of transgender identity/behavior. According to this theory, hormones organize the sex/gender of the brain much later than they organize the sex/gender of the genitals, allowing for a discordance to develop between the two (Bao 2011).

Admirably, Young and Alexander use the brain sex theory to argue for an acceptance of gender non-conforming children. They write, “so rather than seeing threat, we should embrace all shades of gender, whether snips and snails, sugar and spice, or somewhere in between.” However, there are (at least) four major problems with their argument: they essentialize gender; they uncritically embrace human brain organization theory; they uncritically embrace the double-edged sword of essentialism on behalf of transgender people; and they selectively (mis)use evidence about intersex and transgender people to support an ideological claim about the innateness of gender differences.

Experimental Ethics: An Even Greater Challenge to the Doctrine of Double Effect

In his article Neuroethics: A New Way of Doing Ethics, Neil Levy (2011) argues that “experimental results from the sciences of the mind suggest that appeal to [the Doctrine of Double Effect] might be question-begging.” As Levy frames the Doctrine, the Doctrine is a moral principal that is meant to ground the intuitive moral difference between effects that are brought about intentionally versus those that are merely foreseen. More specifically, the Doctrine is supposed to ground the intuition that, when certain conditions are met, it is morally permissible to bring about a bad outcome that is merely foreseen, but, under these same conditions, it would not be morally permissible to bring about a bad outcome intentionally. Or, another way to put this, the Doctrine claims that it takes more to justify causing harm intentionally than it takes to justify causing harm as a merely foreseen side effect (Sinnott-Armstrong, Mallon, McCoy, & Hull, 2008).


The intellectual roots of the Doctrine of Double Effect begin with St. Aquinas and St. Augustine. The Doctrine has since played a central part in moral theorizing within both the Catholic Church and within secular moral theorizing.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Welcome Our Newest Neuroethics Scholar!


It is with great pleasure that the Emory Neuroethics Program announces its newest neuroethics scholar: Riley Zeller-Townson! The Neuroethics Program invited graduate students to create and to join collaborative, interdepartmental faculty teams at Emory and in the Atlanta community to pursue Neuroethics scholarship.  Graduate students were free to propose projects of interest to them. Proposals included innovative ideas in the arena of teaching, empirical research, new media, and beyond. By the completion of their one year appointments, each scholar is expected to co-author a paper and present his or her work.  The selection process was quite competitive. The abstract of Riley’s proposed project and a short bio can be found below.


Riley Zeller-Townson (Neuroethics and Art)
Riley Zeller-Townson

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Finding and Naming (Symptom) Constellations


By Guest Contributor Racheal Borgman, MA  

DSM IV-TR via Wikipedia.org
The rhetorical component of illness is an important extension to the issues raised in last month’s post on the DSM. As Anjana Kallarackal pointed out, there are concerns aplenty when it comes to the DSM and how the committee goes about its categorizing work. But I was especially interested by the very first response to the post, by David Nicholson:

"I wonder if it would be useful to try to put a number to the "negative consequences" of a given addiction… If we could decide how damaging some addiction was, maybe that would tell us how much to medicalize it as well. Insurance companies could decide that they'd cover cognitive behavioral therapy for internet addiction, but nothing beyond that."

It’s an incredibly tempting solution.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Military and Dual Use Neuroscience

If there’s one thing I learned from the most recent installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, it’s this:  if you’re doing interesting research, it probably has a military application.

In the interest of spoiler avoidance, let's just call this Wayne Enterprises invention "dual-use." (http://ixpower.com/2012/07/dark-knight-rises-batman-movie-does-infant-smr-industry-no-favors/)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Comment on: Placebo for Psychogenic Illnesses: Why “It’s all in my head” does and doesn’t matter

*This post was originally posted on the Neuroethics Women (NEW Leaders) Leaders site.

Recently, I composed a piece for Nature Science Soapbox entitled, Placebo for Psychogenic Illnesses: Why "It's all in my head" does and doesn't matter and in the Huffington Post on Placebo. Both pieces work to reframe and deepen our understanding of medicine and illness by utilizing neuroscience. Importantly, this process must include humility for the limitations of neuroscience and our current understanding of the brain while also maintaining an openness to what we don't know, avoiding foreclosing opportunities for richer understanding of the brain's capabilities.



Thursday, August 9, 2012

Brain Connectomes: Your ticket to the future


Science often provides us with thrilling and puzzling scenarios in which our imaginations are forced to conceive the possibilities the future may bring. Life after death is an old concept that is getting a facelift. The Connectome, a very real development in neuroscience, is being used to conceptualize another very interesting piece of science-[fiction]: mind uploading.

Image from http://www.mindcontrol.se/?attachment_id=3021

Fast-forward a few centuries. Bear with me, as this requires imagination. You have just died and are beginning the journey to the next stage of your life. For this trip, you won’t have to pack any bags. If all goes smoothly, you will be back home in time for the evening sitcoms. Your casket was lowered into the Earth this morning and because your driver’s license indicated ‘Continue Life’ you are scheduled for resurrection this afternoon. Suddenly, a message appears.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Case Study in Misunderstanding

The media gets a bad rap for oversimplifying, misrepresenting, and even sensationalizing stories. Stories about science are no exception. But it is also no secret that the scientists themselves are under all sorts of pressures to oversimplify, misrepresent, and even sensationalize the science.

But sometimes even good science and good reporting can lead to inaccuracies in “translation” that may look like (intentional) oversimplification, misrepresentation, or even sensationalization, when in fact these inaccuracies are due to honest, understandable, and avoidable misunderstandings.

One of the sources of this honest misunderstanding comes from cognitive neuroscience’s usage of everyday mental terms. Often the scientists’ usage of mental terms differ in important respects from the everyday understanding of these mental terms, and the particular idiosyncratic (from the everyday-use point of view) ways in which the scientists are employing the terms aren’t always made explicit.[1]

Thursday, July 26, 2012

My Brain Made Me Do It


As a college student deep into my studies, I have developed a dependency on a warm, slightly sweetened morning cup of coffee. I begin each day (or sometimes each afternoon) with a mug full of the deep brown nectar, with its bold, slow roasted flavor. I suppose I could quit any time I want, right? You know, I could put the cup down and be the same. Maybe I would have a harder time getting started in the morning or be less productive at work. It might be a little more challenging to stay awake on my drive to campus. Maybe I’ll go to bed a little earlier and put off my assignments for another day. On second thought, maybe I’ll stick to my coffee. I don’t think I could do much without it.
Original Image from Americannonfiction.com

The Role of Emotions in the Development of Morality

There has been a long-standing debate concerning the role of emotion in our moral psychology. Sentimentalists hold that emotions are the primary basis for moral judgments. In contrasts, rationalists hold that non-affect-laden cognitive processes are the primary basis for moral judgments.

Now this talk of 'the primary basis for' is vague and ill-defined. What role do the emotions have to play in moral judgments in order for that role to be considered 'the primary basis of'? Well, on a more well-defined version of sentimentalism, the emotions play a necessary role in the understanding and use of moral concepts. This 'necessary role' is usually cashed out in terms of the relevant emotions being constitutive of moral judgments. This 'necessary role' could also be cashed out in terms of the emotions being necessary for the causal production of moral judgments. It is important to note that both the 'constitutive' claim and the 'causal production' claim are claims of synchronic necessity. Under these views, strictly speaking, one could not be making a moral judgment without the accompaniment of the appropriate emotion.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Neurosexism and Single-Sex Education (or support your local ACLU)

"N" is for Neurosexism
Twenty or thirty years ago, single-sex education for girls was a feminist clause célèbre. However, beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s, people began to worry that boys were “underperforming” in school and in life (an idea nicknamed “the boys’ crisis” by the popular press). The media framing of the boys’ crisis has been critiqued on a number of fronts – specifically, critics have pointed out that both girls and boys are performing better in school than in the past and that the difference in educational achievement between white and middle-class students and low-income and minority students is far more pronounced than the difference between female and male students (see a 2008 report from the American Association of University Women).

However, despite these critiques, cultural commentators began to advocate for single-sex education in public schools as a solution to the boys’ crisis. Commentators like Michael Gurian (author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently!) and Leonard Sax (founder of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education and author of Why Gender Matters) argued that boys’ and girls’ brains develop differently, so boys and girls should be separated in school and should receive education targeted to their specific neuro-developmental patterns and mental strengths.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Kathinka Evers: On 'Responsible Neuroethics' and Neuro-rubbish


In March 2012, Roger Scruton published an article in The Spectator entitled ‘Brain Drain,’ in which he lamented the fact that traditionally humanistic disciplines are increasingly taking neuroscientific findings into account. He characterized the phenomenon as one of “neuroenvy,” - with humanists simply jumping onto the neuroscience bandwagon - and argued that when scholars in the humanities “add the prefix ‘neuro’ to their studies, we should expect their researches to be nonsense.” [1] My first thought was, ‘Oh, for the love of…’
Actually, we prefer the term 'neuro-rubbish.'

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What’s in a Name?: DSM Criteria and Addiction


“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” This is the famous question posed by Juliet in the immortalized balcony scene.  And while Shakespeare could afford to question the idea, patients with mental disorders, scientists who study the disorders, and the insurance agents that fund the aid have not yet found a way to do without names. In a recent interview, Steven Hyman puts this sentiment in his own words: “Classifications are, in the end, cognitive schemata that we impose on data in order to organize and manipulate it. Many disorders are better represented for scientific purposes, but also for setting rational thresholds for treatments as continuous quantitative dimensions.”
Image of Dr. Hyman: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/12/hyman_release/

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Spotlight on Ethics: Neuroethics--How Neuroscience Challenges our Values


Mind-reading, neuro-marketing, and neurolaw: It seems hardly a day goes by without a discussion of how new studies of the brain are challenging concepts in daily life as we know it. Neuroscience is now influencing how we think about every aspect of our lives from identity, (animal) personhood, and definitions of disease to the law, and marketing of novel commercial products. Dr. Karen Rommelfanger, neuroscientist and Program Director of Emory University's Neuroethics Program, gives insights into the field of neuroethics and the wide-reaching ethical and social implications of neuroscience and neurotechnologies.



--originally featured on Emory University Center for Ethics Blog

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Let's talk about "Precrime"

Last month I blogged a little bit about constitutional protection, lie detection technology, and wildly speculative but totally valid concerns about what happens if someone else could tell what I was thinking. As promised, this month I’m going to follow up with some information about “precrime”: what it is, outside of a science-fiction context, what it could become, and what neuroscientific knowledge contributes to the area.

I just really love the cover and wanted to plug the book, ok?
This is a wonderful book; everyone should go read it.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Man Who Voled the World

Last Monday, Dr.Hasse Walum gave a talk titled "Genetic and Hormonal Influences on Pair Bonding Related Behavior in Humans" at the Center for Translational Social Neuroscience at Emory. I hadn't heard of Walum's work before I saw the e-mail announcement for his talk, but a little googling got me interested. Here's the most titillating version of his findings: Walum found the gene that makes men cheat.

Okay, that is most definitely not what he found, and I got the sense from talking with him briefly that he would be the first one to tell you that. So why am I misrepresenting his results?

Dr. Hasse Walum: hard-hitting Wired reporter  David Ewing Duncan compares him to Kurt Cobain, but my science and rock star senses detect a David Bowie influence

Monday, July 2, 2012

Call for "Late Breaking" Abstracts


*Deadline for abstract submissions: August 13, 2012

Brain Matters 3: 
Values at the Crossroads of Neurology,
Psychiatry and Psychology 
October 24th-25th, 2012

This conference provides a venue for collaboration and learning in the area of neuroethics. The plenary speakers of this conference will address ethical challenges in the treatment and research for conditions with neurological symptomatology but that are without identifiable biological correlates/causes. The complexities of suffering and disability experienced by individuals with these conditions are significant, including exposure to dangerous and futile treatments.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Why Do Voles Fall in Love? Interview with Feminist Science Studies Scholar Angela Willey

Dr. Angela Willey
In May I attended a great conference, the 4th biennial conference of the Association for Feminist Epistemologies, Methodologies, Metaphysics, and Science Studies (FEMMSS). At the conference, I heard a wonderful plenary talk by Dr. Angela Willey and her colleagues. Dr. Willey is one of our own - a recent (2010) graduate of Emory’s doctoral program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. In her work, she examines the cultural assumptions underpinning contemporary neuroscience research on monogamy and the social implications of this research. At the conference, I asked Dr. Willey if she would agree to be interviewed about her work for the Neuroethics Blog, and she graciously agreed. Before sharing what she said, I am just going to give you a little background about Dr. Willey and about the neuroscience research on monogamy that she analyzes.


The [insert adjective] Brain: Implications for Neuroscience in Popular Media

Via amazon.com
The Addicted Brain. The Female Brain. The Male Brain. Chemobrain. Buddha’s Brain. The Winner’s Brain. The Republican Brain. These days, it seems that everybody’s brain is being scanned and their behavior analyzed. In fact, these are all titles of books published in the past decade that communicate the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology research to lay audiences. As a budding neuroscientist, I am excited that science, and neuroscience in particular, has now flooded into popular American culture. Evidence of its expanding domain is everywhere: in magazines (Scientific American’s “MIND”), blogs (Neuroskeptic), radio programs (NPR’s “Radiolab”), podcasts (Nature’s “Neuropod”) and books. For further examination of the reasons for this cultural shift, see the discussion of the phenomenon in the new book “Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Popular Media,” by Davi Johnson Thorton, Southwestern University's Assistant Professor of Communication Studies.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Who Owns My Thoughts?

I attended the excellent Neuroscience, Law, and Ethics of Lie Detection Technologies Symposium in May, and as a consequence, I have spent the last month trying to answer questions I hadn’t even thought to ask before: Who owns the thoughts in my head? Could I be compelled to submit them? Can someone else decide that keeping my ideas to myself is a violation of the law or a threat to my country? If they force me to surrender them, do I lose ownership? So this week, I thought I would share some of the things I learned as I tried to find out answers.

You can actually buy this online. I am considering getting it printed on a hat.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

More or less human: How can a dog brain imaging study and companion animal neuroscience explain my human-ness?

“It was amazing to see the first brain images of a fully awake, unrestrained dog,” Berns said. “As far as we know, no one has been able to do this previously. We hope this opens up a whole new door for understanding canine cognition and inter-species communication. We want to understand the dog-human relationship, from the dog’s perspective.”—Greg Berns, MD, PhD



Recently, the Emory laboratory of Dr. Greg Berns published the first fMRI brain imaging study in unanesthetized dogs.  Popular media reports of the study touting, “What is your dog thinking?” and “Brain Scans Reveal Dogs’ Thoughts” have raised the hackles of the public who ask, “Why conduct a frivolous scientific study on something we already know?”

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Brain Does That? So What?

In a column earlier this year, Psychology Today contributor Nate Kornell wrote about his annoyance with the excitement over findings that "the brain does that." Kornell's response to findings that "the brain does that" is a bit of an intellectual "duh!" Or, closer to his own words, the response is more of an exasperated "Of course it does!"

And I have to admit I share his annoyance ... to a certain degree.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Animal Models and the Future of Psychiatric Research

"Few medicines, in the history of pharmaceuticals, have been greeted with as much exultation as a green-and-white pill containing 20 milligrams of fluoxetine hydrochloride — the chemical we know as Prozac" wrote Columbia University Assistant Professor of Medicine Siddhartha Mukherjee in a recent New York Times editorial on antidepressant efficacy. As Dr. Mukherjee points out, the rise of antidepressants over the past several decades has been swift and staggering. A recent CDC study found that antidepressants are the most commonly prescribed drug for Americans between 18 and 44 years of age, with 11% of Americans over the age of twelve utilizing such medications.
Original image from the Global Information Exchange Network

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Likin' Laken, if he ain't fakin'


Last Friday, Emory held its third annual Neuroethics symposium, focusing this year on the use of fMRI for lie detection and the acceptance of fMRI data as evidence in the courtroom. The symposium featured talks from Stanford law professor Hank Greely, University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist Daniel Langleben, and the CEO of Cephos, Dr. Steven Laken. I wasn’t surprised to learn we’d invited the first two speakers: Greely wrote the seminal articles on law and neuroscience, and Langleben pioneered fMRI studies of lying. It did surprise me to see Laken on the list. His company Cephos is one of the few that have successfully marketed fMRI-based lie detection for the commercial sector. I kind of thought—maybe hoped—that an audience composed largely of neuroscientists would eat him alive.
Dr. Steven Laken, CEO of Cephos

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Gay Brains, Gay Gene, Gay Rights: The Double-Edged Sword of Essentialism


As the semester drew to an end, and Kristina Gupta and I closed out our course on Feminism, Sexuality, and Neuroethics, I have been thinking a lot about the science of sexual identity. Participants in our class set out to consider the ethics of separating human beings into distinct kinds and conducting neuroscientific research into those separations. Along the way, we all thought about what the boundaries of sexuality and gender were, how they are culturally bound, how desire is measured (and mismeasured), both in the contemporary era and throughout history. We considered the use of these differences to create legislation and the effects of both medicalization and pathologization for members of sexual minorities.

I'm sure this is exactly what happens.
(Original image from hyperboleandahalf.com)

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sex (in the) Machine


I have wanted to write about this issue for a few months now and have finally gotten around to it. Science writer Kayt Sukel created a small splash in the blogosphere in January when she wrote a few blog posts (see here and here) about her experiences orgasming in an MRI machine (or, as she puts it, “coming for science”) as part of a study conducted by Barry Komisaruk and Nan Wise at Rutgers University. Sukel’s posts were intended to serve as teasers for her book, Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships (full disclosure, I haven’t read her book yet). For an earlier account of an attempt to “come for science” see science writer Mary Roach’s highly entertaining book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.