Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Bias in the Academy: From Neural Networks to Social Networks Symposium Video Archive

Did you miss our annual neuroethics symposium?  Now you can watch the video archive of the event! Just click below on the link of the title of the session and then click play.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Neuroethics Journal Club Report: "Creating a false memory in the hippocampus" Ramirez et al. Science 2013

Our memory can be unreliable, that comes as no surprise. But beyond forgetting where the car is parked or misremembering a date, a perhaps more interesting phenomenon is that of false memories of events that have never happened, or at least not to us directly. In most cases, the fallibility of memory is benign or occasionally embarrassing, but in the courtroom it can have serious consequences. In the final Neuroethics Journal Club of the semester, Emory University graduate student and AJOB Neuroscience editorial intern, Katie Strong, led a thought-provoking discussion of Ramirez’s 2013 Science paper1 entitled “Creating a false memory in the hippocampus” with a focus on the potential neuroethical implications of this research on the justice system.

The discussion paper comes from 1987 Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa’s lab and is in some ways a sequel to their 2012 paper published in Nature2. In both studies this group utilized an elegantly-designed mouse model with the aim of targeting the cells in the hippocampus constituting the memory engram. The search for the engram, or memory trace in the brain, is not a recent pursuit. Karl Lashley’s seminal mid-20th century work suggested that memories are dispersed throughout the cortex. Lashley’s lesion studies surprisingly indicated that the amount of cortex damaged mattered far more than the location of the lesions3.

More recently the search has moved toward molecular changes in individual cells and at particular synapses4.  It is now thought that Lashley’s findings may have been the result of the complexity of the tasks that his animals performed, which involved multiple brain regions, since emerging evidence suggests that in some circumstances the same particular cells are activated during recall of certain memories5. Conversely, fear conditioning is a relatively simple paradigm that has been widely used because animals rapidly learn to pair an innocuous cue such as a light, tone, or an environment with an aversive stimulus such as a foot shock. Moreover, the neural circuitry controlling these behaviors has been extensively studied6.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Static and dynamic metaphysics of free will: A pragmatic perspective

By Eric Racine, PhD and Victoria Saigle

Dr. Eric Racine is the director of the Neuroethics Research Unit at the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal and holds academic appointments in the Department of Medicine and the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine at Université de Montréal and in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, the Department of Medicine, and the Biomedical Ethics Unit at McGill University. He is also a member of the AJOB Neuroscience Editorial Board.

Victoria Saigle is a research assistant at the Neuroethics Research Unit at the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal.

In the public eye, one of the most striking types of findings neuroscience research claims to unravel concerns how decisions are made and whether these decisions are made “freely”. Unpacking the relationship between what is meant by “freely” and other neighboring notions such as “voluntarily”, “informed”, “conscious”, “undetermined”, “uncoerced”, “autonomous”, “controlled”, “uncaused”, etc., is a matter of serious philosophical debate. Much research, either purely philosophical, neuroscientific, or a mixture of the two in nature, has attempted to tease out the mysteries of free will. In spite of being seemingly committed to addressing these questions scientifically, much of the neuroscientific literature clearly holds presuppositions about the nature of free will that stunts its exploratory power. By this, we mean that many neuroscientific experiments surrounding free will have clung to a static metaphysical notion of its existence and it is only recently that a more dynamic view has emerged. The contrast between these two metaphysical beliefs is the focus of our blog post.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Autism and Well-Being

By Richard Ashcroft, MA, PhD

Professor Richard Ashcroft teaches medical law and ethics at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level in the Department of Law at Queen Mary, University of London. Previously, he was Professor of Biomedical Ethics in the School of Medicine and Dentistry, and before that he worked at Imperial College London, Bristol University and Liverpool University. Professor Ashcroft is Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Incentives in Health, funded by the Wellcome Trust, with partners at Kings College London and the London School of Economics.  He is also working on the role of human rights theory, law and practice in bioethics policy, and on ethical challenges in public health. He has a longstanding interest in biomedical research ethics. 

I am both someone who writes and teaches on bioethics, and father of a son with autism.  He’s a delightful and happy child and he and I have good lives. But like most parents of children with autism I do worry about his future. I worry about social exclusion. I worry about mistreatment by others. I worry about education, employment, housing. I worry about how he’ll manage when I’m gone. I worry about whether he’ll meet someone to love, who will treat him right and value him for who he is. In other words, I worry about him the same way any parent worries about his or her child. His autism just gives me a hook to hang the worries on.

Nonetheless, there is something about autism which challenges our dominant accounts of well-being. There is a common and long-running debate about “stims”, which can crudely be described as repetitive, socially unusual behaviours which autistic people sometimes engage in. Common stims include humming, or spinning, or bouncing on one’s feet or certain kinds of hand gesture. The psychology of stims is related to “sensory issues” which often form part of autism, whereby the autistic person is more or less than usually sensitive to certain kinds of sensory input (light or sound or motion, for instance). Stims can be understood as a sort of self-regulatory behaviour to deal with under- or overstimulation of some sensory mechanism. Stims are just one example of visible autistic difference, in a condition which is sometimes described as an “invisible disability”: a disability where there is no obvious physical impairment which a third party would see with the untutored eye. Most autistic people who stim, if they are able to use verbal communication, say that stims are important to them, either as a coping mechanism, or as something which gives them pleasure – or both. Yet many parents, teachers, and passersby find stims bothersome, irritating, or worse. This is the case even when the stim has no direct impact on them.