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International Neuroethics Society: Summary of what you (may have) missed!

Greetings from DC!  The Neuroethics Program is busy hobnobbing with some of world’s most cutting-edge, interdisciplinary group of innovative thinkers at the International Neuroethics Society (INS)!

In case you didn’t get the chance to attend this year, here is a brief summary of what you missed. The full list of events can be seen here and featured events from Day 1 of this year’s meeting can be seen here.

This year INS hosted its annual meeting at the Carnegie Institution for Science. Day 2 of the annual INS meeting was an exciting and inspiring day featuring outstanding sessions. Each session highlighted some of the most pressing topics in the field of neuroethics.

The day opened with a panel on Neuroscience, National Security, and Society. The panel featured Jonathan Moreno, University of Pennsylania; William Casebeer, DARPA; and James Giordano, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. Dr. Moreno is the author of the book Mind Wars. Moreno outlined the past, current, and potential uses of current neuroscience research in National Defense weaving a narrative from ingestion of cognitive-enhancing drugs, to external brain imaging, to more invasive brain-machine interface and beyond. Moreno noted that some experts had testified the science is not “ready” for such applications. However, those whose primary goal was National Defense might be more compelled by the reality that the technology is currently something a 20-year old soldier could learn to use in 20 minutes. Dr. Giordano suggested that conversations about neuroscience and defense have moved beyond whether or not we ought to weaponize neurotechnologies, but what what we should do when neurotechnologies do become weaponized. Giordano suggested that we should limit transparency about efforts to weaponize neurotechnologies to the general public and move forward with prudent communications in order to avoid inducing unwarranted mass public panic. Dr. Casebeer ended on a more optimistic front, stating that while there is peril associated with the use of neurotechnologies for national defense, by taking careful measures to protect human flourishing and autonomy, neurotechnologies hold the promise to help create a new generation of effective modes of neuro-defense.

The next session was led by self-described real life cyborg and author of World Wide Mind, Michael Chorost. Dr. Chorost has cochlear implants that allow him to hear, and in his talk he challenged us to explore how neurotechnology could improve humanity. Chorost noted that there are approximately 2 billion computers being used by 2 billion internet users, but this is no where close to the 100 billion neurons and all their synaptic connections in the human brain. Chorost envisions a future where brain transplants in otherwise healthy people might be used to make more sufficient and meaningful connections between people thereby creating a deeper awareness of those around us. Chorost views the internet as humanity’s evolutionary assistant.

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The third session was a panel on Neuroethics and Novel Treatment in Neuropsychiatry moderated by Barbara Sahakian, Cambridge University. The panel featured Husseini Manji, Johnson and Johnson Pharmaceutical; Helen Mayberg, Emory University; and Jorge Moll, D’Or Institute for Research and Education. Dr. Manji pointed out that, according to studies by the World Health Organization, 30% of the Burden of Disease by 2015 will be attributed to neuropsychiatric disorders, an ominous figure which translates into an enormous loss of society’s most important capital, its cognitive and mental capital. This outlook highlights the importance of refining our techniques for defining and diagnosing prodromal periods for psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, as well as developing novel interventions for the the prodromal period. Helen Mayberg discussed her work using deep brain stimulation (DBS), an experimental intervention involving the surgical implantation of an electrode into the brain and battery pack in the pectoral muscle of patients, to treat intractable major depression. She describes the ethical problem of how physicians are to help patients who continue to need DBS after the pilot stages of experimentation. She also expressed ethical concerns about the evolving responsibility of the patient as their symptoms resolve. Patients may be miraculously improved while on DBS, but will need to continue having their DBS hardware maintained (i.e. battery replacement) to preserve these beneficial effects over time. Or on the flip side, how will patients disengage from the stimulator should they not want the treatment anymore? Grants for this research may cover costs to implant devices, but not to remove them. Finally, Jorge Moll discussed the implications of inferring cognitive and psychological states from neuroimaging such as for diagnosing psychopathy.

Illustration by Jeffrey Decoster

The afternoon closed with a discussion of Real Cases in Law and Neuroscience moderated by Hank Greely, Stanford University.  The panel included two attorneys Steve Greenberg and Houston Gordon, along with Russell Swerdlow, a neurologist at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Greenberg is a criminal defense lawyer who attempted to use brain images to prevent his client, an individual who has repeatedly raped and murdered young girls, from receiving the death penalty. Greenberg argues that brain imaging evidence suggests that psychopaths have brain defects, or birth defects (since they might have been born with these” brain defects”) and asks how we should hold people who engage in criminal behavior accountable for their crimes, especially if they suffer essentially a birth defect. Attorney Houston Gordon has also tried to submit neuroimaging data in criminal cases, but the judge handling his case stated that the science wasn’t ready. Gordon believes, however, that the science is ready, stating that neuroimaging data are the products of an unbiased computer algorithm and multiple, rigorous peer-reviewed studies. Finally, Dr. Swerdlow shared his story of a patient who had acquired pedophilia, which was due to an enormous tumor growing from the base of his skull. When the tumor was removed, the patient’s tendencies toward pedophilia subsided, and his tendency for pedophilia returned when the tumor grew back. Swerdlow posed a number of questions based on this work: How hard wired is decision-making and how free is free will? And given this case as an example, are the current legal standards adequate?

If you missed this year’s annual INS conference, don’t despair.  INS is already planning its next conference so stay tuned and check back at for updates.

For those of you that attend the Society for Neuroscience meeting, please let us know if you’d like to share any work that struck a neuroethics chord in you by commenting below (We are especially interested in events we may have missed from Nov 14-16, but we welcome your notes from previous days at SFN).

Want to cite this post?

Rommelfanger, K. (2011). International Neuroethics Society: Summary of what you (may have) missed! The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
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