Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Pain in a Vat

Previously on this blog I've discussed the case of cultures of living rat neurons, removed from their natural environment (the inside of the skull of a rat), and grown on top of an electrical interface that allows the neurons to communicate with robotic systems - effectively, we remove part of the rat's brain, and then give this reprocessed bit of brain a new, robotic body.  One of the stranger issues that pops up with this system is that it is extraordinarily easy to 'switch' between bodies in this situation. [1] For instance, I could easily write a computer program that creates a brief, pleasant sound reminiscent of raindrops every time the culture increases it's electrical activity.  Alternatively, the same burst of activity could be used to trigger an emotionless, electronic voice to say “Please help me. I am in pain.”

While nociception (the low-level transmission of pain information) and unconscious reactions to pain both occur in the spine and peripheral nervous system, the brain seems to hold the neurons that are responsible for the conscious sensation of pain.  This leads to the interesting suggestion that factory farmed chickens should be grown without their brains to prevent all that unnecessary suffering from occurring.  (And if you remove the feet, the chickens are stackable!) Image from here

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Judging brains with preclinical disease

By Guest Contributor, Jagan Pillai, MD, PhD

Dr. Jagan Pillai is a neurologist at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Cleveland Clinic and works to help people with cognitive changes from neurological disorders and to develop diagnostic and treatment strategies in neurodegenerative diseases. He trained as a medical doctor at the University of Kerala, Trivandrum, India. He obtained a PhD from Northwestern University. He trained in Neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and at the University of California San Diego.


As a neurologist interested in neurodegenerative disorders, I met Phil and a few others with preclinical Huntington’s disease (HD), on a trip to Phoenix, AZ to take in their perspectives. Phil is a self-appointed counselor, caretaker, and community leader of PHDs. He chuckles as he credits his accomplishments to having been born a PHD (in his lingo, Person with Huntington’s disease). HD is a neurodegenerative disorder caused by an expanded number of triplet repeat CAG in the gene encoding the protein Huntingtin. Prevalence is about 4–10 per 100 000 people in the West (1). HD is clinically characterized by motor dysfunction, cognitive decline, and psychiatric disturbance. The age of onset roughly correlates with the number of CAG repeats inherited, with a mean age of onset of 40 years (2).

in Huntington's Disease, image width 250 µm

The clinical diagnosis of HD is based on characteristic motor signs in a person with a positive family history and confirmed by genetic testing for HD. However, there is increasing recognition that disease onset may happen many years before clinical diagnosis. Subtle cognitive, motor, and behavioral symptoms and underlying neuropathlogical changes can now be detected by neuroimaging and neuropsychological tools, among individuals who otherwise appear healthy. These people at risk of developing clinical HD are classified preclinical or presymptomatic or preHD (3). We can detect changes in neural connectivity, degeneration of brain regions and behavioral changes including, impaired control of affect following disrupted emotion processing circuits (4,5,6).

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Violence of Assumed Violence: A Reflection on Reports of Adam Lanza’s Possible Autism

By Guest Contributor Jennifer C. Sarrett, MEd, MA
Doctoral Candidate, Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts
Emory University


On Friday, December 14th 2012, the country learned of the mass shooting of 5- and 6-year-old children and several adults in Newtown, CT. By the end of the day, we learned that Adam Lanza, the perpetrator of the heinous act, may be autistic. Although we now know that this is not the case, it has spurred conversations about the link between autism and violence. This mental illness guessing-game has become the norm in the wake of such tragedies. Jared Loughner and James Holmes may have been schizophrenic; Sueng-Hi Cho may have been depressed, anxious, and also possibly autistic; Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold may have been depressed and/or psychopathic. These speculations are understandable – the public yearns to understand the motives behind such acts and recognizes that good mental health and mass shootings are never coupled–however, the way these representations are presented to the community create stigma and blames others with similar disabilities. 

Adam Lanza
In Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness, psychologist Otto Walh explains that the public does not get its information about mental illness from evidenced-based, professional sources, rather, “[i]t is far more likely that the public’s knowledge of mental illness comes from sources closer to home, sources to which we are all exposed on a daily basis–namely, the mass media.” [1] The media (i.e. news, television, movies, video games, popular literature) often provides these links casually but carefully. Reports may mention Adam Lanza had autism, but don’t make the causal link between this diagnosis and his crimes. Yet in the minds of readers, the association is made.

The link between mental illness and violence has a long history. [2] In addition to the news, popular movies and TV shows contribute by featuring violent characters with a history of mental illness. Films such as Psycho,  the Halloween seriesMisery Silence of the Lambs,  and Natural Born Killers center on violent characters with some kind of mental illness. [4-7] The Law & Order  and Criminal Minds  series both frequently implicate a mentally ill person in some violent and incomprehensible crime. [8-10]  The majority of these representations are of individuals with some sort of undefined psychosis, however, as the country wonders over Adam Lanza’s possible autism diagnosis it is fair to expect autism as the next violent scapegoat.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Scrap or Save? A Triune Brain Theory Account of Moral Improvement


Last month, I wrote a post called “Uncovering the Neurocognitive Systems for 'Help This Child,'” where I suggested that understanding certain facts about our brains is not enough to get us to do the 'right thing.’I argued that we also have to 'outsmart' our least rational tendencies and get ourselves to apply our knowledge to real-life problems. This month, I want to explore a different aspect of the relationship between knowledge and practical action. I want to ask, 'What happens when researchers ground their work in a controversial scientific framework, but use it to introduce a set of ideas that could make a meaningful contribution?' The case I have in mind is Darcia Narvaez and Jenny Vaydich’s use of Paul D. MacLean’s ‘Triune Brain Theory’ to ground work on emotional and ethical ‘expertise development.’

Jenny Vaydich
Darcia Narvaez

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Neuroethics Journal Club: Hooked on Vaccines

Imagine a vaccine that causes our immune system to create antibodies against a drug like cocaine. After being vaccinated, we could snort cocaine and the antibodies would sequester the drug before it could reach our brain. A recent article in Nature Immunology’s Commentary section, “Immune to Addiction”, considers the ethical implications of such vaccines. We discussed the article at December's meeting of the Neuroethics Journal Club, led by Emory Neuroscience graduate student, Jordan Kohn.