Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Overexposed: The role of environmental toxicants on your brain

By Carlie Hoffman

It is often said that we are products of our environment: who we are is shaped by the things, people, and situations with which we surround ourselves. However, whatever we may like to think, we are not in control of every facet of our environment. In fact, we are unknowingly and involuntarily exposed to dozens of man-made environmental chemicals, called toxicants, each day that can negatively alter our bodies and even our very brain matter. In essence, we are becoming literal products of our environment.

Synthetic chemicals and toxicants are ubiquitous within our surroundings. While some toxicants come from obvious sources, like cigarette smoke and car exhaust, other sources of exposure are more subtle. For instance, electrical equipment (like computers and cell phones), beauty products (like makeup and shampoo), mattresses, and furniture all contain flame retardants, chemicals used to reduce flammability [3, 13]. Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, chemicals used to harden plastics, can also be found in dental sealants, cigarette filters, soda bottles, and the linings of canned foods [4, 8, 12]. Additionally, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), a pesticide commonly used in the mid-1900s to combat outbreaks of pests, malaria, and lice, was banned in 1972 in the US and yet is still currently present within both the environment and human tissues [12].

Pesticides not only harm insects, but certain doses can also have harmful effects on the human body.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Unintentional discrimination in clinical research: Why the small decisions matter

by Arthur T. Ryan, M.A. and Elaine F. Walker, Ph.D.

Arthur Ryan is a graduate student in clinical psychology at Emory University. His research focuses on understanding the etiology and neuropathology underlying severe mental illness.

Elaine Walker is a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience in the Department of Psychology at Emory University and is the Director of the Development and Mental Health Research Program, which is supported by the National Institute of Mental Health. Her research is focused on child and adolescent development and the brain changes that are associated with adolescence. She is also a member of the AJOB Neuroscience editorial board.

Arthur Ryan, M.A.
Over the past several decades, there has been a significant effort to minimize bias against individuals based on ethnicity and other demographic factors through the creation of seemingly impartial and objective criteria across a host of domains. For example, when the United States Federal Sentencing Guidelines were created in the 1980’s, one of their primary goals was to alleviate “...unwarranted disparity among offenders with similar characteristics convicted of similar criminal conduct” [1]. Unfortunately, even well-intentioned efforts such as this one can still have a disparate negative impact upon historically marginalized groups, such as the well-documented disproportionate sentencing of black individuals due to differing rules governing offenses committed with crack vs. powdered cocaine [2]. Concerns about such inadvertent bias are not limited to the legal domain. Agencies that fund clinical investigations are paying greater attention to demographic representativeness and access to participation in health-related research.

Ethics and suicide: Are we paying attention to the important issues?

by Victoria Saigle and Eric Racine, Ph.D.

Eric Racine, Ph.D.

Victoria Saigle is a graduate student at the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal's Neuroethics Research Unit. She is a completing her MSc in Experimental Medicine at McGill University through the Biomedical Ethics Unit. 

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.

Discussing suicide can be difficult in clinical, public, and academic settings because many people have strong intuitions about which, when, and whether voluntary death is appropriate. However, discussions about suicide are largely absent from bioethics scholarship. Considering that suicide is among the ten most common causes of death worldwide and the second leading cause of death for individuals aged 15-29 (World Health Organization, 2014), it is surprising that more attention is not devoted to this topic.

Victoria Saigle
Ethical dilemmas related to suicide intersect with important questions in research ethics, clinical ethics, and public health ethics. However, we discovered in recent work that the majority of ethics scholarship on voluntary death focuses either entirely on physician-assisted dying (PAD – a term we are using here to describe many different acts in which a physician helps to hasten death at a patient’s request) or consists of philosophical arguments about the acceptability or rationality of suicide. Though interesting, these topics do little to address the challenges and lived experiences of suicidal individuals, their families, suicide researchers, or health professionals. Below, we will delineate aspects of suicide that deserve more attention.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Is trauma in our genes? Ethical implications of epigenetic findings

by Neil Levy

Neil Levy is professor of philosophy at Macquarie University, Sydney and deputy director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics. He is the author of 7 books, including Neuroethics (2007) and Consciousness and Moral Responsibility (2014), and edits the journal Neuroethics. He is also a member of the AJOB Neuroscience board.

A recent study by Rachel Yehuda et al. in Biological Psychiatry provided further evidence for the genetic transmission of acquired characteristics, by showing that Holocaust survivors passed certain acquired genetic markers to their children. The idea that acquired characteristics can be genetically transmitted is (roughly) equivalent to the doctrine of Lamarckism, and was long considered a heresy in biology. [Editor's note: see also Ryan Purcell's 2014 post for this blog on the relationship between Lamarckism and epigenetics.] According to the Darwinian orthodoxy, traits change because randomly occurring mutations confer a relative fitness advantage on some organisms, not because they change their behaviour, and that change then comes to be encoded in the genes. But the orthodoxy has long been shattered. Scientists now recognize that the story is a lot more complex than that.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Brain devices: Navigating collaborations between industry, government, and researchers

by Paul J. Ford, PhD

Dr. Ford is Director of the NeuroEthics Program at the Cleveland Clinic. He is an active clinical ethicist, and teaches ethics to medical students, residents, and fellows. His publications have appeared in Science, The Hastings Center Report, Neurology, Neuromodulation, and Journal of Medical Ethics. He is also a board member for AJOB Neuroscience.

This spring (June 3-4, 2015) the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as part of the BRAIN Initiative convened an eclectic group of individuals in hopes of encouraging more investigator initiated studies of currently approved neuromodulation and neuro recording devices for new indications (agenda, session videos, and program goals available here). The participants, both on the program and in the audience, specifically included industry, researchers, universities, and governmental agencies. I was delighted to participate in the workshop and was impressed by the number of sincerely interested parties across the spectrum of roles. Within these conversations it was apparent that there existed many shared values and goals as well as complex challenges for protecting particular interests. It beautifully highlighted the complexities of interactions among varied stakeholders.