Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Neuroethics Journal Club: The Ethical Issues behind Brain-to-Brain Interface (BTBI) Technologies

The first Neuroethics Journal Club of the Fall 2013 semester was a discussion led by graduate student John Trimper on the ethical implications behind brain-to-brain interface (BTBI) technologies. John introduced the topic by presenting the experimental details and results from a recent paper, published by the Nicoleis lab at Duke University (Vieira et al.), where researchers utilized a BTBI to transfer sensorimotor information between two rats. The BTBI technology allowed for a transfer of information from an “encoder” rat to a “decoder” rat, not using typical bodily interactions, but instead through intracortical microstimulation (ICMS).

"Rodent Mind Meld" (Via Wired)

The researchers conducted three experiments that demonstrated an artificial communication channel where cortical sensorimotor signals, coded for a specific behavioral response, were recorded in the encoder rat and transmitted to the decoder rat. Once received from the encoder rat, the decoder rat was instructed by these signals in making behavioral choices.  In the first experiment, a motor task, the encoder rat pressed one of two levels indicated by a LED light. This information was transferred via ICMS to the decoder rat, who would then choose the same lever without the help of the LED light. While the encoder rat performed better than the decoder rat, the decoder rat did perform correctly at levels significantly above chance. In the second experiment, the decoder rat again performed significantly better than chance, but in a tactile discrimination task. The encoder rats were trained to discriminate the size of an aperture with their whiskers; if the aperture were narrow, then the rats would nose poke on the left, while if the aperture were wide, the rats would nose poke on the right. Encoder rats explored the aperture, nose poked the right or the left, and then again, through ICMS, this information was sent to the decoder rat. The decoder rat would then also poke to the right or the left, but without any hint about the size of the aperture. Not only did researchers conduct this experiment with encoder and decoder rats residing in the same Duke laboratory, but impressively the same tactile discrimination task was also completed with an encoder rat in Brazil and a decoder rat at Duke, showing the potential of long-distance BTBI technology.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Tibetan monastics and a neuroscientist: Some lessons learned and others taught

By Guest Contributor Brian Dias, PhD

Imagine your day starting out near the Northern Indian town of Dharamshala with thirty minutes of spiritual chanting and meditation among Tibetan Buddhist monastics. Now you follow that by spending the whole day teaching Neuroscience to these same monastics. “Bliss”, “introspection”, “questioning”, “challenging” and “why” are some of the words that may come to mind. They certainly did for me while I had the privilege of being a Neuroscience faculty member as part of the Emory Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI) this past summer in India. Other faculty members included Dr. Melvin Konner (Evolutionary Anthropology, Emory University), Dr. Ann Kruger (Developmental Psychologist, GSU) and Dr. Carol Worthman (Medical Anthropology, Emory University).

An audience with His Holiness The XIV Dalai Lama,
and teaching monastics in Dharamshala, India.
I intend to use this blog post to shed light on the intersection of Buddhist philosophy and western science as seen through my fifteen days with the monastics (a term used to include both monks and nuns). Started in 2007 with the blessing of His Holiness The XIV Dalai Lama, the ETSI has been administered by The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives and Geshe Lobsang Negi who is a professor in the Department of Religion at Emory University. Over these years, the ETSI has been teaching Math, Physics, Neuroscience and Biology to cohorts of monastics from monasteries across India. After a 5 year science curriculum, this was the second ETSI graduating class. An immediate survey of the monastics revealed a skewed sex-ratio in that the class comprised of 42 monks and only 2 nuns. This inequality of representation is being slowly but surely remedied with the first group of nuns sitting for their Geshe exams that will confer upon them the status of a Buddhist scholar equivalent to the male scholars.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Gearing Up for New Currents in Sports Enhancement


By Anjan Chatterjee, M.D., F.A.A.N

Anjan Chatterjee is a Professor of Neurology at the University of Pennsylvania. His clinical practice focuses on patients with cognitive disorders. His research focuses on spatial cognition and language, attention, neuroethics, and neuroaesthetics. He is President of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics and the Chair of the Society for Behavioral and Cognitive Neurology. He is also a member of the AJOB Neuroscience editorial board.


Alex Rodriguez is the latest in a long list of superstar athletes embroiled in a doping scandal. Lance Armstrong, Tyson Gay, Barry Bonds, Marion Jones, and Mark McGuire, among many others, preceded him. Competition in sports is predicated on athletes following rules; rules that try to codify fairness. Some combination of natural talent and effort is rewarded. Each athlete strives and may the best man and woman win.

Despite this ethos, doping scandals abound. Almost a third of the athletes responding to an anonymous survey about the 2011 World Track and Field competition admitted to using performance enhancing drugs [1]. Such competitions showcase the allure of enhancements that is magnified by winner take all environments. Rewards in sports do not scale linearly. Incremental differences, especially at top levels, deliver disproportionate rewards. Being the twentieth fastest runner in the world may be an extraordinary personal achievement, but it does not garner fame and fortune. Regulation, monitoring, and the possibility of public shame presumably restrain the desire to win by any means necessary when those means include breaking rules.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Consciousness and Ethical Pain

Imagine you find that a beloved uncle has received a terrible injury that leaves him paralyzed, but still totally aware of his environment - a condition known as locked in syndrome. Now imagine that a doctor comes to you with a miracle cure: a new experimental treatment will repair your uncle's damaged brainstem allowing him to regain control of his body. The catch, however, is that this procedure is extremely painful. It actually seems like it might be the most painful experience possible: fMRI scans reveal that all the brain regions that are active during extreme pain are activated during this (imaginary) procedure. And it lasts for hours. However, your uncle won't complain about the procedure because 1) he's paralyzed and thus can't voice his suffering, and 2) the experience of this miracle treatment will mercifully be forgotten once the procedure is over, so your uncle won't raise any complaint afterwards. While many of us would probably sign off on the procedure, we might still feel guilty as we imagine what it must be like to go through that, even if our uncle wouldn't recall it later.

The neural 'signature' of pain, as seen through fMRI [8].  Image from here.

This scenario is meant to illustrate that there seems to be an aspect of the moral weight of pain - its significance in ethical discussion and decision making and guilt - that has to do specifically with what pain feels like. Not the way it makes us act, not the danger it represents, but that first person, qualitative, subjective experience of being in pain, or suffering through pain. The ability to have such qualitative, subjective experiences is called qualitative (or sometimes phenomenal) consciousness. We tend to assume that most humans are conscious, and that this is the primary reason why hurting them is wrong- indirect selfish reasons (like avoiding jail time or losing them as a friend and ally) are seen as being secondary to this primary fact: the evil of pain[1].

For this reason, discussions of pain taking place in unfamiliar creatures (which I'm using to refer to anything that isn't able to explicitly tell you how it feels - including humans with certain neurological conditions, as well as almost all non-human animals, and perhaps even stranger entities) are often intimately tied to the possibility of that creature being conscious. This occurs for instance when deciding whether a patient with Unresponsive Wakefulness Syndrome (formerly called vegetative state) should receive analgesia[2,3], or when debating about the necessary precautions that should be taken when fishing or slaughtering chickens. If it can be demonstrated that something doesn't meet our requirements for consciousness, suddenly we have free range to treat that thing as more of an object than a person[4].  If consciousness is suspected on the other hand, we become much more cautious with our treatment of the entity.  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

2013 Neuroethics Scholar, Jen Sarrett: Autism and the Communication of 'Risk'

The Neuroethics Scholar Program

By Jennifer C. Sarrett
This project is done through The
Neuroethics Scholar Program

As defined in the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is diagnosed in individuals who show differences in social communication—such as a reliance on non-verbal communication techniques or difficulties interpreting social signals—and specific behavioral patterns—such as repetitive vocal or motor behaviors or intense interests in specific items. These characteristics must be evident before the age of 3 in order to quality for an ASD diagnosis1. While there are diagnostic tools that are able to reliably diagnose ASD by the age of 2, most reports show that, on average, children are not diagnosed until school age. These rates vary by several factors, including race and urbanicity2. For many professionals, this delay in diagnosis is concerning because, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention3 and most other autism professionals stress, early identification and diagnosis leads to early intervention which leads to better outcomes for many children and families.

Finding innovative ways to identify autism earlier in life is a goal for many researchers, including a group of professionals at the Marcus Autism Center4. Marcus is a well-known research and clinical facility in Atlanta that is affiliated with Emory University, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and Autism Speaks. In 2010, renowned autism researcher, Dr. Ami Klin, became the new director of Marcus and brought much of his research and clinical team from the Yale Child Study Center along with him. This team has been working on cutting edge technologies to identify autism-associated traits in infants and toddlers. In particular, they are using eye tracking technologies and vocalization software because, as their previous research has shown, very young children who eventually become diagnosed with autism show differences in their looking and vocalization patterns.