Tuesday, October 16, 2018

What can neuroscience tell us about ethics?

By Adina L. Roskies

Image courtesy of Bill Sanderson, Wellcome Collection
What can neuroscience tell us about ethics? Some say nothing – ethics is a normative discipline that concerns the way the world should be, while neuroscience is normatively insignificant: it is a descriptive science which tells us about the way the world is. This seems in line with what is sometimes called “Hume’s Law”, the claim that one cannot derive an ought from an is (Cohon, 2018). This claim is contentious and its scope unclear, but it certainly does seem true of demonstrative arguments, at the least. Neuroethics, by its name, however, seems to suggest that neuroscience is relevant for ethical thought, and indeed some have taken it to be a fact that neuroscience has delivered ethical consequences. It seems to me that there is some confusion about this issue, and so here I’d like to clarify the ways in which I think neuroscience can be relevant to ethics.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Ethical Considerations for Emergent Neuroprosthetic Technology

By Emily Sanborn

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
In the 21st century, there is a push towards producing neurotechnology that will make our lives easier. A category of these technologies are neuroprosthetics, devices that can supplement or supplant the input or output of the nervous system to obtain normal function (Leuthardt, Roland, and Ray, 2014). In the emergence of these technologies, there are ethical issues presented and a question is formed: are we fixing what is not broken? (Moses, 2016). 

A recent article from the Smithsonian magazine reported a technology that will allow humans to develop a “sixth sense” (Keller, 2018). David Eagleman, an adjunct professor at Stanford University’s department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, invented a sensory augmentation device called Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer (VEST), which is a vest covered with vibratory motors that is worn on the body. VEST works by receiving auditory signals from speech and the surrounding environment and translating that signal via Bluetooth to vibrations. The vibrations are transmitted to the vest in dynamic patterns that correlate to specific speech and auditory signals. The user is then able to feel the sonic world. In time, they may be able to use this new touch sensation to understand spoken word (Eagleman, 2015). 

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

An injection of RNA may transfer memories?

By Gabriella Caceres

Figure 1. Image by Bédécarrats et al. 2018
Imagine a future in which you could tell your spouse about your day by simply transferring the memory to them, or one in which you could pass your memories on even after your death. These scenarios may seem far ahead in the future, but steps are definitely being taken towards this development. To combat our natural memory inaccuracy and decline due to old age or Alzheimer’s disease, which has been found in 1 out of every 10 people over 65 years old (WHO, 2017), scientists are beginning to investigate the biology of memory and the ways in which the process of making memories can be improved. A recent and controversial article published by Science News reported that RNA may be used to transfer memories from one sea slug to another. Bedecarrats et al. 2018 claimed that they were able to transfer memories from neurons of sea slugs (Aplysia californica) by first sensitizing the slugs with shocks until they had a long-lasting withdrawal response to touch. Then, the researchers extracted the RNA from the sensory neurons of the shocked slugs, and injected that RNA into the sensory neurons of non-sensitized sea slugs (figure 1). The authors postulated that the sensitization occurred because the donor sea slug underwent epigenetic changes, or when a methyl group gets attached to the DNA and modulates gene expression (D’Urso et al. 2014). This whole process resulted in a transfer of sensitization (a form of implicit, or unconscious, memory) to the recipient slug, as it experienced the same long-lasting response to touch that the donor slug did.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

How to be Opportunistic, Not Manipulative

By Nathan Ahlgrim

Opportunistic Research
Government data is often used to
answer key research questions.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau

Opportunistic research has a long and prosperous history across the sciences. Research is classified as
opportunistic when researchers take advantage of a special situation. Quasi-experiments enabled by government programs, unique or isolated populations, and once-in-a-lifetime events can all trigger opportunistic research where no experiments were initially planned. Opportunistic research is not categorically problematic. If anything, it is categorically efficient. Many a study could not be ethically, financially, or logistically performed in the context of a randomized control trial.

Biomedical research is certainly not the only field that utilizes opportunistic research, but it does present additional ethical challenges. In contrast, many questions in social science research can only be ethically tested via opportunistic research, since funding agencies are wary of explicitly withholding resources from a ‘control’ population (Resch et al., 2014). We, as scientists, are indebted to patients who choose to donate their time and bodies to participate in scientific research while inside an inpatient ward; their volunteerism is the only way to perform some types of research.

Almost all information we have about human neurons comes from generous patients. For example, patients with treatment-resistant epilepsy can have tiny wires lowered into their brains, a technique known as intracranial microelectrode recording, enabling physicians to listen in on the neuronal chatter at a resolution normally restricted to animal models (Inman et al., 2017; Chiong et al., 2018). Seizures, caused by runaway excitation of the brain, are best detected by recording electrical signals throughout the brain. By having such fine spatial resolution inside a patient’s brain, surgeons can be incredibly precise in locating the site of the seizure and treating the patient. It’s what else those wires are used for that introduces thorny research ethics.