Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Hubris and Hope for Engineering Brains

"Living organisms are nothing more than complex biochemical machines." [1]

The above statement, or at least the thought, is something that gets thrown around in biology and especially bioengineering. And it's a very empowering thought: the living thing in front of me is governed by the same physical laws that govern the rest of the universe, including the machines we build.  It doesn't have some sort of supernatural vital force flowing through it, just fats and proteins and DNA and small molecules.  We can use this.  We can fix ourselves when we are sick, we can design new life forms to do our bidding.  It's all very exciting.

We might even go as far as to engineering a brain.  The task would be difficult, but the reward tremendous.  Brains are very good at performing difficult computations that top of the line AI is struggling with, and biological neurons tend to use less resources than their artificial cousins. Building a wet, squishy, thinking machine, designed to perform one specific task and to perform that task very well, would be a great boon to autonomous robots, power grid management, and thousands of other applications. Hey, we've already engineered neural tissue to be part of an art project.

Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts of Symbiotica
However, Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts of the SymbioticA biological art center in Perth, Australia, are quick to bring up the fact that thinking of living systems as machines brings with it a lot of additional baggage. [2] Machines don't get a lot of respect. They are 'tools', 'playthings', to be used without reverence or regard to their own desires or wants.  What could a hammer possibly want?  If somehow it did want something, why should we care?  What could we do to an electrical circuit that could make us feel guilty?  By extension, why should we care about the wants of individual cells, or organs, or even living organisms?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Dare to be different: Defense of the research of sex differences

By Guest Contributor, Emory Neuroscience and Animal Behavior Graduate Student Katy Renfro

In a recent article published in the journal Neuroethics, Dr. Rebecca Jordan-Young and Dr. Raffaella Rumiati argue that current research on sex differences is “both unscientific and far from politically neutral,” and should be abandoned. [6] This article reflects many of the current conversations on the ethical implications of researching sex differences, which have largely focused on how results of these studies can be misappropriated to support sexist agendas. I cannot argue against the legitimacy of these concerns, and as researchers, we must always be careful to present our findings in a balanced and accurate manner so as to better combat misinterpretations and misrepresentations of data. However, we must also keep in mind that just as science has the potential to influence social and political conversations, this is a bidirectional relationship, and politics also have the power to misinform science.

In their paper, Jordan-Young and Rumiati argue that current research on
sex differences is "both unscientific and far from politically neutral." [6]

Monday, March 11, 2013

Life in Death: The Neurobiology of Near-Death Experience

Surely you’ve seen this in film or read something like it in fiction. The victim of a tragic accident is critically wounded and rendered unconscious, let’s say in a motor vehicle crash. Within minutes, an emergency medical team arrives at the scene and drags his limp frame out of the crumpled car. Paramedics surround him, now splayed out the roadside, working frantically to restore his breathing and pulse. Each passing second is precious. With every tick of the clock, his vital organs lose more of their precious oxygen and energy required to function. As the victim’s brain becomes increasingly hypoxic (lacking oxygen), his neurons execute coordinated self-destruct programs, and the chance of restoring his consciousness diminishes. Lacking a heartbeat, respiration, and autonomic reflexes that indicate brainstem function, he meets criteria for clinical death (CD). The medical team continues to toil, and the hope of recovery dims for our fallen protagonist.

Here’s where the story gets predictably paranormal and cinematic. I’ll offer three pop depictions of the dying process, but I’m sure the reader can let her imagination run wild and come up with many others. Option 1: At this point in the scene, a wispy duplicate of the victim separates off and ascends from his physical body, floating a few feet above. The deceased’s perspective is like a detached observer of the physical world. Our hero watches his lifeless body with equanimous curiosity while the medical team down below continues their attempts at resuscitation... Option 2: A slight variation on this would be to have the deceased completely exit normal reality and enter an otherworldly realm of light, visions, and divine beings... Option 3: A montage of past life events ensues, his most egregious failures revisited and relived, decades of experience compressed into minutes. Finally, the vignette concludes when the patient is revived and his disembodied consciousness snaps back into his body.

Neuroethics Journal Club: Imaging Pedophilia

The form of argument is familiar: X is bad, very bad. We can maybe stop X, but in order to do so, we’ll have to compromise our values just slightly. We’re not happy about it, but after all, X is very, very bad.

At this month’s Neuroethics Journal Club led by psychology graduate student Katy Renfro, X was pedophilia, and the topic of discussion was a new technique to decrease pedophilic sexual desire through fMRI-based brain computer interface (BCI). The title of the paper –Renaud et. al’s “Real-time functional magnetic imaging—brain–computer interface and virtual reality: promising tools for the treatment of pedophilia” – immediately raised two questions in my mind (which, as I eventually realized, were probably not the right ones). First, is it going to be possible to Clockwork Orange pedophiles? Second, if so, should it be done?

A treatment for pedophilia?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Live Neurons in Art: Components or Collaborators?

In his opening chapter of the biological art compendium “Signs of Life,” Eduardo Kac makes a particularly suggestive comment about the biological sciences in general.  I think this quote has even more significance to neuroscience specifically:

“The extreme difficulty in dealing with very complex biological interactions leads to the simplified treatment of life processes as quantified data that exhibit statistical patterns.  In turn, this can lead to an objectification of life and a disregard for the subjects and their rights.”[1]
From Zachary Weinersmith's
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal
This claim seems to echo Tom Wolfe's sentiment that scientific progress will lead to the death of the soul [2]: by reducing biological systems down to so many quantities and equations (all accurate within some statistical bounds), have we lost an important intuition about their intrinsic worth?  Is biology really just physical laws, with the same degree of moral importance as the law of gravity?  This reduction of the universe down to scientific law is called “naturalism,” and usually gets brought up during the discussion of free will or in religious contexts.  Here, though, I'd like to discuss naturalism in the context of what it means for the notion of “interests” in general- and consequentially, for ethical systems that are based on “interests.”

Friday, March 1, 2013

When the government can read your mind

We are now at a point where we can scan brain activity with fMRI, decode the patterns, and use the information to “read minds” or predict what a person is experiencing. For example, the Gallant Lab at the University of California, Berkley, published a paper in 20111 showing that by recording subjects watching a set of movies, they can estimate what visual features parts of the brain are encoding. Then, when they show you a new movie, their model can predict what you are seeing based on your brain activity.