Tuesday, December 18, 2012

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


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