Wednesday, August 30, 2017

What can neuroethicists learn from public attitudes about moral bioenhancement?

By Peter Reiner

Dr. Reiner is Professor and co-founder of the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia where he is a member of the Department of Psychiatry and the Centre for Brain Health. Dr. Reiner began his research career studying the cellular and molecular physiology of the brain, with particular interests in the neurobiology of behavioural states and the molecular underpinnings of neurodegenerative disease. In 1998, Dr. Reiner became President and CEO of Active Pass Pharmaceuticals, a drug discovery company that he founded to tackle the scourge of Alzheimer's disease. Upon returning to academic life in 2004, Dr. Reiner refocused his scholarly work in the area of neuroethics, co-founding the National Core for Neuroethics with Dr. Judy Illes in 2007. Dr. Reiner has championed quantitative analysis of public attitudes towards diverse issues in neuroethics including the propriety of cognitive and moral enhancement, the contours of autonomy in the real world, and the neuroethical implications of Technologies of the Extended Mind.

Moral behavior is fundamental to human society. Wherever one goes on the planet, one finds a set of norms that guide behavior, and following these norms is a basic tenet of peaceful coexistence with one’s fellow humans. Despite abundant evidence that the arc of human history trends towards decreased violence (Pinker, 2011), a proxy for moral behavior, scholars have suggested that society might be better off were we to enhance our moral capacities, and that using biological methods to do so is warranted (Douglas, 2008; Persson and Savulescu, 2008). This has engendered a vigorous debate that goes beyond the usual divide between bioconservatives and technoprogressives (Reiner, 2013a); in this arena, even ardent proponents of enhancement technologies have registered dissent (Harris, 2010).

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A Feminist Neuroethics of Mental Health

By Ann E. Fink

Ann Fink is currently the Wittig Fellow in Feminist Biology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, with an appointment in Gender and Women’s Studies and concurrent affiliations with Psychology and the Center for Healthy Minds. Her research in cellular and behavioral neuroscience has appeared in the Journal of Neuroscience, Journal of Neurophysiology, PNAS and other journals. Ann’s interdisciplinary work addresses the ethics of neuroscience in relation to gender, mental health and social justice. 

Emotionality and gender are tied together in the popular imagination in ways that permeate mental health research. At first glance, gender, emotion, and mental health seem like a simple equation: when populations are divided in two, women show roughly double the incidence of depression, anxiety, and stress-related disorders1-3. Innate biological explanations are easy to produce in the form of genes or hormones. It could be tempting to conclude that being born with XX chromosomes is simply the first step into a life of troubled mood. Yet, buried in the most simplistic formulations of mental illness as chemical imbalance or mis-wiring is the knowledge that human well-being is a shifting, psychosocial phenomenon. Learning and memory research offers a treasure trove of knowledge about how the physical and social environment changes the brain. Feminist scholarship adds to this understanding through critical inquiry into gender as a mode of interaction with the world. This essay explores how a feminist neuroethics framework enriches biological research into mental health. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Politics of Elder Care, Social Care, and the “Dementia Tax”: A View from the United Kingdom

By Richard Ashcroft

Professor Richard Ashcroft, an AJOB Neuroscience Editorial Board member, teaches medical law and ethics at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level in the Department of Law at Queen Mary University of London.

The United Kingdom has recently gone through a General Election. The main reason the election was called by Prime Minister Theresa May was to secure a stronger mandate for the ruling Conservative Party, which was governing with a small overall majority of 19 seats over the Opposition parties. PM May’s argument was that in the negotiations with the other member states of the European Union over the UK’s exit from that Union (Brexit), an increased majority would give her a stronger bargaining position. As the election turned out, the electorate returned the Conservatives with fewer seats, and PM May had to form a minority administration, with a partial agreement to support the Conservative Party made with one of the smaller parties, the Democratic Unionist Party, which only contests seats in Northern Ireland. As a result PM May has a working majority, but one that is more fragile, rather than stronger.

Commentators have suggested a number of reasons for this outcome, but there seems to be general agreement that a turning point in the electoral campaign was the release of the election manifesto of the Conservative Party. While there are many reasons that might explain the downturn in support for PM May, one particular policy announced in the manifesto, deemed the “dementia tax,” attracted widespread criticism. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Neuroethics Blog Series on Black Mirror: The Entire History of You

By Somnath Das

Somnath Das recently graduated from Emory University where he majored in Neuroscience and Chemistry. He will be attending medical school at Thomas Jefferson University starting in the Fall of 2017. The son of two Indian immigrants, he developed an interest in healthcare after observing how his extended family sought help from India's healthcare system to seek relief from chronic illnesses. Somnath’s interest in medicine currently focuses on understanding the social construction of health and healthcare delivery. Studying Neuroethics has allowed him to combine his love for neuroscience, his interest in medicine, and his wish to help others into a multidisciplinary, rewarding practice of scholarship which to this day enriches how he views both developing neurotechnologies and the world around him. 

Humans in the 21st century have an intimate relationship with technology. Much of our lives are spent being informed and entertained by screens. Technological advancements in science and medicine have helped and healed in ways we previously couldn’t dream of. But what unanticipated consequences may be lurking behind our rapid expansion into new technological territory? This question is continually being explored in the British sci-fi TV series Black Mirror, which provides a glimpse into the not-so-distant future and warns us to be mindful of how we treat our technology and how it can affect us in return. This piece is part of a series of posts that will discuss ethical issues surrounding neuro-technologies featured in the show and will compare how similar technologies are impacting us in the real world. 

*SPOILER ALERT* - The following contains plot spoilers for the Netflix television series Black Mirror.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Criminal Law and Neuroscience: Hope or Hype?

By Stephen J. Morse

Stephen J. Morse, J.D., Ph.D., is a lawyer and a psychologist. He is Ferdinand Wakeman Hubbell Professor of Law, Professor of Psychology and Law in Psychiatry, and Associate Director of the Center for Neuroscience & Society at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Morse is also a Diplomate in Forensic Psychology of the American Board of Professional Psychology. He has been working on the relation of neuroscience to law, ethics and social policy for over two decades, has written numerous articles and book chapters on these topics and has edited A Primer on Neuroscience and Criminal Law (Oxford University Press, 2013, with Adina Roskies). He was previously Co-Director of the MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Project and was a member of the MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Research Network. Professor Morse is a recipient of the American Academy of Forensic Psychology’s Distinguished Contribution Award, and a recipient of the American Psychiatric Association’s Isaac Ray Award for distinguished contributions to forensic psychiatry and the psychiatric aspects of jurisprudence. 

The discovery of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in 1991, which permits non-invasive imaging of brain function, and the wide availability of scanners for research starting in about 2000 fueled claims that what we would learn about the brain and behavior would transform and perhaps revolutionize criminal law. Most commonly, many thought that traditional notions of criminal responsibility would be undermined for various reasons, such as demonstrating that people really cannot control themselves as well as we believe, or as indicating that more action was automatic, thoughtless and non-rational than we think. Most radically, the neuroexuberants argued that neuroscience shows that no one is really responsible because we are not agents; rather, we are victims of neuronal circumstances that mechanistically produce our epiphenomenal thoughts and our bodily movements. Similar claims were made when the genome was cracked. The age of cognitive, affective, and social neuroscience (behavioral neuroscience)—the neurosciences most relevant to law—is almost two decades old. What have we learned that is legally relevant and how has it transformed criminal law doctrine and practice?