Tuesday, February 21, 2017

When Neuroethicists Become Labmates

By Timothy Brown and Margaret Thompson

Timothy Brown is a doctoral student and research assistant at the University of Washington (UW). He works with the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering's (CSNE) Neuroethics Trust, where he explores the broader moral and societal implications of neural engineering and neural technology use. Through the CSNE’s support, he is also embedded in the UW's BioRobotics Lab, where he investigates issues of autonomy and agency that arise for people with motor disorders who use next-generation, neurally-controlled deep-brain stimulators to manage their symptoms. 

Margaret Thompson is a doctoral student in the BioRobotics Laboratory in the Electrical Engineering department at University of Washington, Seattle; she is also president of the Student Leadership Council at the CSNE. She received her Master’s in Electrical Engineering from University of Washington in 2016 and her Bachelor’s in Engineering from Harvey Mudd College in 2014. She researches side-effect mitigation methods for deep brain stimulation, as well as how human subjects learn to use brain-computer interfaces over months to years at a time. 


Maggie Thompson and Tim Brown are graduate students at the University of Washington—Maggie studies electrical engineering, and Tim studies philosophy (in particular, neuroethics). They are both members of the Biorobotics Laboratory—a multidisciplinary lab investigating the interface between human bodies and machines. Tim serves as the lab’s “embedded ethicist” through the support of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE).

Together, Maggie and Tim work on projects related to deep brain stimulators (or DBS, where electrodes implanted in key areas of the brain apply enough current to treat various disorders) and brain computer interfaces (or BCI, where changes in the brain are read by sensors and used to control a computer system). Their current study collects patient perspectives in “real-time” while they test the next-generation of deep brain stimulators. Their goal is to see how patients relate to their implant and how this relationship changes with different kinds of control over the implant and its parameters. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Predicting Psychosis: Exploring Pre-Clinical Signs for Mental Illness

By Sunidhi Ramesh

This post is based on the January edition of the “Neuroethics and Neuroscience in the News” series in which Dr. Elaine Walker from Emory University discussed the ethics of assessing risk and treating brain diseases before they can be diagnosed.

This self-portrait is often used to depict the distorted
reality that many schizophrenia patients face.
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
“This calculator,” a 2016 headline states, “can predict your risk of developing psychotic disorders.”

Psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder with psychotic features, are characterized by noticeable deficits in “normal” behavior accompanied by hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, an early onset (the average age of onset is in the late teens or early twenties), and a derailed life course.

Because of its early age at onset, the DALY (disability adjusted life years) value for psychosis is significantly greater than that of other illnesses (1). It’s no surprise, then, that researchers are asking questions. Are there measures that can be taken to keep at-risk populations from enduring a life-hindering disability?

Fifteen years ago, the answer would be no. Today, it (just might be) yes. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Space to grow? Neurological risks of moving to Mars

By Carlie Hoffman

Artistic rendition of a human colony on Mars, image
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Humans have been venturing into space for over 50 years. Starting in 1961 when the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space, by 1969 Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans on the moon, and by 1998 the International Space Station had launched its first module. More recently our exploration of space has started to reach new heights, with 2011 seeing the launch of the Mars One company and its mission to produce the first human colony on Mars by 2033.

Despite our half century of space exploration, scientists have only recently started researching the effects of space travel on the brain. The question of what our brains will look like after spending an extended amount of time in space is increasingly pressing with the impending inception of the Mars colony. The first group of Mars colonists are expected to begin training later this year and will undergo 14 years of training before departing Earth in 2031 and finally landing on Mars in 2032. Though establishing a human colony on Mars will be another giant leap for mankind, will the colonists that travel to and live on Mars have the same brains as when they left Earth?