Environmental Neuroethics: The Crossroads of Environment, Brain, and Mental Health

By Millie Huang

Image by Marianne Bacani via Neuroethics Canada
On June 17, 2021, the Emerging Issues Task Force of the International Neuroethics Society (INS) held the concluding webinar of their series, putting environmental neuroethics back on the map after discussions were first initiated in 2014. This blog post will provide a digest of the event and discuss why it is significant for our field. 

“Environmental neuroethics” describes how 21st century environmental challenges and their impact on neurological and mental health raise a distinct set of considerations at the interface between environmental ethics, brain health, and public policy. A deepening connection between environmental factors like pollution, toxicity, and radiation and their effects on the brain presents long-term epidemiological concerns. An even broader set of environmental stressors can be mapped onto mental health vulnerability and outcomes. With this new knowledge comes an opportunity for public health and environmental science to inform policies that are both practical and ethically sound.  

To discuss these emerging concerns, four guest speakers presented their perspectives and engaged in a panel discussion with a global audience. The presenters were Caleb E. Finch, Laura Y. Cabrera, Louise Harding, and Thomas Albright. The session was moderated by former INS President Judy Illes. The breadth of their expertise created a comprehensive picture of how environmental factors impact biomedical, social, and cross-cultural understandings of brain and mental wellbeing. 

Professor Caleb E. Finch of the University of Southern California is a veteran in the area of environmental effects on neurological health. Over the past few decades, his work has demonstrated an observable link between the pathology of neurodegenerative disease and environmental pollutants, a coupling that is further affected by factors such as socioeconomic status (SES), diet, and exercise. His presentation proposed not only a neuroscientific understanding of the environmental impacts on brain health, but also sociological and demographic interrelationships: “The future of healthy brain aging … has to do with optimizing gene-environment interaction across SES.”  

Professor Laura Y. Cabrera of Pennsylvania State University expanded on the notion of environmental neuroethics as an area that is interested in the physical, natural, social, and behavioral dimensions of the environment as an integrated whole. Dr. Cabrera, a pioneer in bringing together environmental ethics and neuroethical thought, discussed her research linking natural disasters and chemicals including pesticides and heavy metals to common mental effects like depression and mood disorders, irritability, anxiety, and ADHD. She emphasized that nature and green spaces can even be associated with decreased psychiatric risk and positive mental health outcomes. Dr. Cabrera closed with the statement that environmental neuroethics is a social justice issue given its deep-seated implications for human health and wellbeing. 

Image via Max Pixel
Ms. Louise Harding of the University of British Columbia elaborated on the social justice considerations. Her work focuses on culturally meaningful and equitable access to brain technologies and Indigenous perspectives on brain and mind wellness. She provided a critical viewpoint on how understandings of the brain-environment connection are modulated by cultural background. She also discussed how environmental neuroethics can contribute to traditional social justice issues in brain health, including priorities among different demographic groups and geographical gaps in neurotechnology access. Ms. Harding highlighted that environmental neuroethics should be a “neuroethics of diversity,” incorporating a varied range of voices in its scholarship in order to create actionable solutions. 

Professor Thomas Albright of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies described how brain and evidence-based design in built environments can support their intended functions. As the former President of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, his research in the neuroscientific foundations of sensory experience have informed a number of interventions in education, wellness, and healthcare spaces. One such example is the Green Street Academy Charter School in Baltimore, MD, where biophilic classroom design increased academic performance and decreased stress. More broadly, Professor Albright highlighted how the “visual environment, both natural and built, has measurable statistics,” which the brain organizes in a specific manner. This cognitive neuroscience of vision can enlighten the design of contextually-appropriate and performance-enhancing lived environments. 

With environmental change being one of most pressing issues of modern day, it is imperative to consider its effects on brain and mental health, and how novel tools provided by brain science can generate strategies that advance adaptation to associated challenges. One major goal of environmental neuroethics is just this—to facilitate discussion of these questions and promote population-level action and resilience.


Further Reading 

  1. Ailshire, J., & Walsemann, K. M. (2021). Education Differences in the Adverse Impact of PM2.5 on Incident Cognitive Impairment Among U.S. Older Adults. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 79(2), 615–625. https://doi.org/10.3233/JAD-200765 
  2. Barrera, J. (2021, June 13). Lost children: The threat of death was part of life at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. So why is it so hard to determine how many children died there? https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform/kamloops-residential-school-children-dead 
  3. Cabrera, L. Y., Tesluk, J., Chakraborti, M., Matthews, R., & Illes, J. (2016). Brain matters: From environmental ethics to environmental neuroethics. Environmental Health, 15(1), 20, s12940-016-0114–3. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-016-0114-3 
  4. Determan, J., Akers, M. A., Albright, T., Browning, B., Catherine, M.-D., Archibald, P., & Caruolo, V. (2019). The Impact of Biophilic Learning Spaces on Student Success. Building Research Knowledge Database, American Institute of Architecture. 
  5. Finch, C. E., & Kulminski, A. M. (2019). The Alzheimer’s Disease Exposome. Alzheimer’s & Dementia, 15(9), 1123–1132. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jalz.2019.06.3914 
  6. Illes, J., Davidson, J., & Matthews, R. (2014). Environmental neuroethics: Changing the environment—changing the brain Recommendations submitted to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. Journal of Law and the Biosciences, 1(2), 221–223. https://doi.org/10.1093/jlb/lsu015 
  7. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. (2021, February 2). The Interplay Between Environmental Exposures and Mental Health Outcomes—A Workshop. 

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Millie Huang  is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying Neuroscience and Classics. A research assistant at Neuroethics Canada, her interests center on the ethical, social, and policy implications of the brain-environment connection in natural and built contexts. She is currently working on a book chapter about ethical, brain-based architecture for individuals with special neurological needs. 




Want to cite this post?

Huang, M. (2021). Environmental Neuroethics: The Crossroads of Environment, Brain, and Mental Health. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2021/08/environmental-neuroethics-crossroads-of.html. 

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