Tuesday, December 17, 2013

200th Post! Why is Neurodiversity Useful?

Neurodiversity is a term that was coined by Australian social scientist and autism advocate Judy Singer. In her 1998 thesis, she wrote: “For me, the key significance of the ‘Autistic Spectrum’ lies in its call for and anticipation of a politics of Neurological Diversity, or what I want to call ‘Neurodiversity.’ The ‘Neurologically Different’ represent a new addition to the familiar political categories of class/gender/race and will augment the insights of the social model of disability.”[1] Similar to the way biodiversity is discussed as critical to the stability of the ecosystem, neurodiversity is considered to be critical for human and cultural stability. In other words, Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and other neurological differences should be a part of our community and, thus, neither cured nor subject to intense rehabilitative or normalizing efforts. Before I discuss how neurodiversity is useful to my work and to ASD-related professions, I want to quickly review ASD and my current project for the Neuroethics Scholar Program.
Source: Cafe Press
ASD is traditionally defined as a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a person’s social and communicative style and includes frequent displays of specific behavioral patterns.[2] There is a huge range of autistic expression, from significantly impaired to subtle displays of autistic characteristics. As the Neuroethics Scholar at Emory’s Center for Ethics, I am working on a project at the Marcus Autism Center exploring how to communicate the results of future infant screeners for ASD to parents. This project was described in The Neuroethics Blog on October 1, 2013. A neurodiverse perspective informs my work in two important ways: shaping the language I use to talk about ASD and ensuring I maintain a focus on the quality of life for ASD individuals and their families. I believe that neurodiversity can be similarly important for all professionals working with and studying ASD or related disabilities.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

It's Complicated: Molly Crocket and Patricia Churchland Discuss the Future of the Neuroscience of Morality

Last month, as a recipient of the Emory Neuroethics Program Neuroethics Travel Award, I had the wonderful opportunity of attending the International Neuroethics Society Annual Meeting in San Diego, California. The conference brought together leading neuroethics scholars from around the world and focused on the themes of moral enhancement, disorders of consciousness, and the role of neuroscience in the courtroom. (The conference was structured around three star-studded panels. For a full program, please visit here. For full videos of the panels, please visit here.) There were also five oral presentations and a poster session. As part of the event, I exhibited a poster entitled “Revising Weakness of Will: A Reply to Neil Levy,” where I challenged Levy’s use of the theory of ego depletion as an explanation of weakness of will and provided an alternate, neurocomputational account.

Presenting my poster at INS.
Photo credit: Karen Rommelfanger
As a philosopher interested in the intersection of the computational neurosciences and morality, “The Science and Ethics of Moral Enhancement” session was a particularly enlightening one for me. It brought together three leading women neuroethics scholars, Barbara Sahakian (as Moderator), Molly Crockett, and Patricia Churchland, as well as neuroethicist Julian Savulescu of the Oxford University Center for Neuroethics. It was a remarkable conversation. Throughout their discussions and even in the question period that followed, I was struck by how clearheaded the panelists were about the challenges facing the field. At the same time, and despite their very different perspectives, they evidently shared a real optimism about the future of this area of research. As the session moderator, neuroscientist and neuroethicist Barbara Sahakian of Cambridge University set the tone by explaining that the panelists would tackle, “the science of what’s possible now,” but also look at “what we may be able to do in the future.”

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Bias in the Academy Video Archive of Presymposium Seminars

Neuroethics Symposium December 10, 2013

Bias in the Academy: From Neural Networks to Social Networks


This neuroethics symposia is designed to discuss the complex influence of stereotype/bias on academia and apply advances in the science of stereotype bias to university policies and practices. Through a pre-symposia seminar series and symposia, a white paper will be produced to highlight challenges and to put forth practical solutions to move toward mitigating the detrimental influence of bias and stereotyping in academia.  

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Neuroethics Journal Club: Neural Correlates of Negative Stereotype

Our everyday perceptions of others can potentially be biased by cultural stereotypes. However, research has suggested that an initial, and often negative, stereotype can be downregulated via a highly connected neural network. While this regulatory process has been studied under neutral conditions, for the third journal club of the semester Neuroscience graduate student Kim Lang led a discussion about regulation of this neural network when White individuals are not under neutral conditions, but actually primed for negative African American stereotyping.

A recent paper published by Forbes et al. used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), and the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), three highly interconnected brain regions important for stereotyping and bias. Studies have shown that the amygdala, involved in arousal, is activated immediately when encountering a so-called out-group member. This first response can be downregulated though if an individual is given time for non-biased deliberation, and this is reflected by activation in the PFC. The OFC is the regulator of these two neural regions, especially if initial negative stereotyping is in conflict with an egalitarian view. Prior research has shown this amygdala inhibition by the lateral PFC region with an experiment where White participants were shown Black faces in either rapid succession (30 ms) or at a slower rate (525 ms). When participants did not have time to reflect on the faces during the fast exposure speeds, enhanced amygdala activation was observed reflecting the early arousing response. During the slow exposure time condition though, amygdala activity was not enhanced.  Instead, increased activity was observed in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which correlates with decreased amygdala activation (Cunningham et al.). This study suggests that if given enough time, a biased view reflected in the activation of the amygdala, can be reconsidered.

Adapted from The Jury Expert