Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Memory, Obesity, and Free Will

By Carlie Hoffman

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Do you remember the telephone game? One child comes up with a phrase (e.g. “I love to run”) and then whispers that phrase to the child sitting next to her. This child then whispers what she heard to the child sitting next to her, and so on. By the time the phrase reaches the final child, what started out as “I love to run” could have been transformed into “She shoved a nun,” a complete distortion of the initial sentiment. Unfortunately, a similar telephone game can, and often does, occur in the popular news. This phenomenon was showcased by Dr. Marise Parent’s recent publication, which received considerable press coverage. Dr. Parent, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Georgia State University and the speaker at our April Neuroethics and Neuroscience in the News journal club, explained how her data linking consumption of a sucrose meal to formation of a food memory was transformed into media headlines claiming “Sweets can help you stay in shape” and “Don’t skip dessert. It can help you eat healthier.” A perfect grown-up example of the telephone game at work.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Survival Needs and Growth Attenuation Therapy: Do They Signal a Need for a “Dependency Ethics”?

By John Banja, PhD

In 2006, the world learned about a child born with profound and life-long cognitive and physical disabilities who had undergone growth attenuation therapy (GAT) four years previously [1]. Called “Ashley” in media reports, she not only received the GAT—which consisted of administering high doses of estrogen over the span of a few years so as to staunch her physical growth—but she additionally had a hysterectomy, removal of her breast buds and an appendectomy. In response to international outrage that the child suffered these “mutilations” because she was disabled, her parents argued that these interventions would enable them to take better care of her, especially as she aged.

Image courtesy of Pixabay
GAT is back in the news with a New York Times magazine article [2] appearing March 22nd and an empirical study on parental perspectives recently published in the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics [3]. Children who receive GAT have an intellectual capacity that will likely never exceed that of a 1 year old, and they require 24 hour a day care throughout their lives. GAT typically consists in their receiving daily doses of estrogen between ages 3 and 6. The estrogen stimulates the premature closing of the growth plates or cartilaginous structures occurring at the ends of the long bones in their legs and arms, resulting in some reduction in height. About 75 percent of parents who choose GAT for their children do so because they are the child’s primary caregivers, and they justify their treatment decision in light of its facilitating both their and their child’s quality of life [2]. One parent was quoted as saying, “My daughter is trapped in a wheelchair all her life, and she’s more comfortable…We brought her out of her chair and into our laps…She needs to be in our laps for our whole life” [2]. Alternatively, disability rights advocates repudiate GAT as a violation of the child’s bodily inviolability. They insist that these children have an inherent right to grow and thrive into adulthood, and they vigorously condemn GAT as a victimizing and infantilizing intervention [4].

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Cognitive Enrichment on Cognitive Enhancement at the Michigan Undergraduate Philosophy Conference

By Shweta Sahu

Photo Credit: Anne Trelfa
On February 19, the Michigan Undergraduate Philosophy Conference assembled for the 4th annual meeting at the Insight Institute of Neurosurgery and Neuroscience in Flint, Michigan. The program is jointly hosted by the Center for Cognition and Neuroethics and the University of Michigan-Flint Philosophy Department. I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at this incredible event through the generous support of the American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience and the Neuroethics Program at Emory. The goals of the Center for Cognition and Neuroethics are to promote “the exploration of conceptual foundations of neuroscience” and to “study the implications of their advances for society in the legal, political, and ethical realms.” The conference, organized by Cody Hatfield-Myers, a senior at the University of Michigan- Flint, brought together students from multiple states in the US and even a few students from Canada.

The event, directed at undergraduate students, aimed to foster the sharing of students’ diverse papers, all linked by the common themes of cognition and neuroethics. Central topics of discussion included: philosophy of mind, cognitive science, neuroscience, philosophy of action and free will, identity, medical ethics and memory, learning, belief, and knowledge. Common questions that seemed to resurface included: What is self-identity? Can you freely alter your own self-identity? Are there aspects of one’s personal identity that it would be wrong to alter, eliminate or hide? If so, why? What is the proper role of medicine—to eliminate illness or to enhance people (physically, morally, psychologically) to make them “better than well”? What are the limits of parental control over the health and well-being of the body and mind of their child (as was the case with my talk)? Do children have the right to determine whether or not they are subjected to medical or psychological treatments? How are health, life and death, medicine, physical and mental illness portrayed in art, music, and in literature?

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Notes from the field: Critical Juncture at Emory

by Lindsey Grubbs

Early in April, Emory University hosted the third iteration of Critical Juncture. This annual(ish) graduate-student-led conference focuses on intersectionality, examining interconnecting dynamics of systems of oppression including racism, sexism, ableism, and classism. This year’s conference, while maintaining a broader focus on the complexities of identity and oppression, took as its theme “representations of the body”: which bodies are, and perhaps more importantly which are not, represented in science, politics, the arts, and the academy, and what forms do these representations take?

From its beginning, the conference has links to neuroethics at Emory. One of the co-founders of the conference, Jennifer Sarrett, was a past Neuroethics Scholars Program Fellow. This year, I—one-time managing editor of this blog and current intrepid neuroethics blogger—served as one of the co-organizers.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Oxytocin: The Hormone of Hype, Hope, and Healing

By Shweta Sahu

Due to his work interrogating the role of certain chemicals in vole behavior at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Dr. Larry Young has come across the problem of his results being portrayed hyperbolically, as the science sometimes goes to fictional lengths. Yet this work has important implications for mental health. To demonstrate this exaggeration as well as its potential, I am going to address: 1. the buildup of the oxytocin hype, 2. the translation of the research and 3. the ethical implications in humans.

Prairie voles, image courtesy of Flickr user theNerdPatrol
Oxytocin and pair bonding
Dr. Young researches oxytocin (OT), a neuropeptide known to be involved in birthing and associated with maternal bonding, and his lab utilizes voles as an experimental model. Their research was founded upon on the idea that prairie voles are highly social, bi-parental, and monogamous by nature while meadow voles are less social, uniparental, and promiscuous. They investigated differences in oxytocin receptor distribution in the brains of prairie voles and meadow voles and found that in the monogamous prairie voles, there are more oxytocin receptors in the reward system of the brain. Young and colleagues then injected oxytocin antagonists into the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), an area implicated in bonding and reward. They found that prairie voles, whose oxytocin receptors were blocked, would not bond when they mated.