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

For my Neuroethics Scholars Program Fellowship, I will be studying, as well as participating in, the interaction between Neuroethics and Art.  This includes documenting and analyzing ethical issues highlighted by artwork that incorporates (or focuses) on neural tissue, as well as developing cost-effective tools to enable artists to integrate electrophysiology into their work. I approach this project from the perspective that art can act as a type of “experimental ethics.”  That is, while written academic ethical discourse can suggest scenarios that highlight the gaps or failings in our moral frameworks, art can bring those scenarios to life and allow audience members to confront them at both an instinctive as well as intellectual level.  

Silent Barrage on display at the National Art Museum of China

Biological art is particularly well-suited to do this, by generating novel living and partially-living systems that fall in between the points already mapped out on the moral landscape.  'Silent Barrage,' a bio-art piece that I have assisted with, provides an example of how the integration of neural tissue into art can raise questions that are of particular importance to Neuroethics.  In 'Silent Barrage' the claim is made that an in vitro culture of neurons is actively sensing and responding to its environment.  Does this imply a degree of mental life that burdens the artists and scientists with responsibility for the piece's well being?  Or is 'well being' meaningless when all notions of pain and suffering are impossible to justify?  Are there any 'qualia' at all that the piece could be said to experience?  Furthermore, could this bio-art project have been created in an ethical manner if it was not part of a scientific collaboration, and served some kind of scientific purpose?

To stoke the fires further (and remove any doubt toward my own biases), I'm going to be building a device that will allow more artists to create these kinds of artwork- -specifically, a cost-effective amplifier designed for extracellular electrophysiology of vertebrate neurons.  The final product will condition neural signals such that they can be recorded using a standard laptop headphone jack (inviting the use of artistic tools already available for manipulation of sound).  This will be very similar to what the 'Backyard Brains' system does for invertebrate neural signals. Both the ethics and the engineering sides of my project will be developed in collaboration with SymbioticA, an internationally renowned center of excellence in bio-art and bioethics within the School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia.

The engineer and the two artists who worked on Silent Barrage (Peter Gee, Philip Gamblen, and Guy Ben-Ary) and Riley standing by the installation 

I'm working on my PhD in Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, in Dr. Steve Potter's lab.  My (neuroscience) research interests include the role of the axon in neural computation, applications of basic neuroscience to artificial intelligence, and open-source electrophysiology tools.   

Neurons growing on a multi-electrode array in Steve Potter's lab

As an engineer whose opinions on bio-art and ethics are heavily influenced by the artists he's worked with, I would greatly appreciate additional perspectives on these issues from all of you artists, scientists, and ethicists out there!


  1. Hey Riley--your project sounds very cool. Nothing makes neuroscience come alive like hearing neurons fire. That's why those old films of Hubel and Wiesel's recordings from cat visual cortex are so powerful, right? I love the kits from Backyard Brains for the same reason, but it did occur to me that part of the reason they're so popular is because most people won't have a problem removing a cockroach leg to record from it (and the cockroaches can just grow another leg, after all). Looking forward to the seeing what you come up with; congrats on becoming a Neuroethics program scholar

  2. Thanks David! I completely agree with the psychological effect of 'sonification' of spikes. One of the electrophysiology systems we use (MEAbench) has a built in function to make a "typewriter" type noise in response to each detected action potential. I'll never forget the feeling of listening to a cultured network go through a population burst (basically an in vitro seizure). Despite having spent a year 'watching' bursts with the visual display, hearing the sound of a small piece of meat going from slowly 'pecking at keys' into several seconds of 'bashing its head against the keyboard' completely changed the experience. I can't say that led to any sort of scientific enlightenment as to nature of neural computation, but it certainly did alter my emotional reaction to what had become a fairly commonplace event.

  3. Congratulations, Riley! This sounds like a very cool project and I think is especially great at a school like Tech with latent interest in music and art but not many avenues for it (no art/music departments). I'm looking forward to seeing where this goes!

  4. Thanks, Allie and Kristina! I agree that Tech has a lot of creative interests in the arts, however those tend to be overshadowed by those in engineering (for instance, we do actually have a School of Music, hiding in the College of Architecture- something I didn't know until my musician brother ordered me to attend one of their awesome events). I'm hoping that the recent creation of the Office and Council of the arts will help to make arts at Tech more visible.


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