Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Insanity, Law, and the Pedophilic Brain Tumor

Given the subject of last month’s Journal Club meeting and the current poll, I wanted to take a moment to talk about issues of volition, cognitive impairment and impulse control in law, especially as they relate to sex offenses, and the way neuroscience research is beginning to impact these relationships. I am going to consider the following as a general question, rather than analyzing the details of the particular case:[1]

If a man is discovered to have committed sex crimes against children due to uncontrollable pedophilic urges, and those urges were proven to be caused by a brain tumor, is he guilty of his crimes?

As I write this, votes on the blog have “not guilty” beating “guilty” by 32 to 25. Honestly, the number of “not guilty” votes surprised me a bit, as there really isn’t a question about whether or not he committed the crimes. As I thought about it, I realized that perhaps for some the question of guilt isn’t whether he did it, but whether or not he should be held responsible, and then, if responsible, whether he should be punished. How we answer those questions depends on, one, our understanding of what it means to be responsible under the law, especially where neurological impairment is involved, two, what the purpose of punishment is, and three, the unique position of sex offenders, particularly pedophilic ones, within the United States. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Is Priming Necessarily a Threat to Autonomy?

As reviewed by David Nicholson in a previous post, I recently had the privilege of discussing Felsen and Reiner’s “How the neuroscience of decision making informs our conception of autonomy” at a recent Neuroethics Program journal club meeting. The discussion was fruitful and insightful, but as mentioned by David in the aforementioned review post, I think there is a lot more to be said. So, here I am hoping to spark another conversation about Felsen and Reiner’s take on autonomy and neuroscience.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Neuroethics Journal Club: Autonomous Linguini

How responsible are people for their decisions? Can neuroscience help us answer that question? If not, can a Pixar movie about a cooking rat help clear things up? If you’re stumped by these questions, you may have missed the most recent meeting of the Emory Neuroethics Program’s journal club. Those of us that were there took part in a discussion led by Jason Shepard, graduate student in the Wolff lab and Neuroethics program scholar. You can thank him for the reference to the Pixar film, Ratatouille. He used the plot of the movie to get us talking about the paper we read, “How the neuroscience of decision making informs our conception of autonomy”, by Gidon Felsen and Peter Reiner. Jason got us talking so much that we kept him from making all the points he wanted to about the paper—look for a blog post from him soon. To introduce the paper, I’ll recap his “Autonomous Linguini” though experiment:



Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Frontiers in Neuroscience, January 27th, 2011: Emory’s Dr. Elaine Walker on “Neurodevelopmental Mechanisms in the Emergence of Psychosis”

Psychotic disorders like schizophrenia affect about 5% of people and often result in life-long disability. Identifying at-risk individuals and predicting disease onset are crucial, and present a challenge to the development of preventative treatments. Understanding the biological mechanisms underlying psychosis are also extremely important in identifying risk factors and designing treatments.

Because psychotic disorders are so disabling and usually irreversible, research interests in this field have shifted toward prevention and early intervention. Subtle pre-clinical deficits in psychosocial and neurocognitive functioning have been reported for many years and are now being extensively studied. Elucidating this pre-illness state, known as the “prodromal” period, is one area of research for Dr. Elaine Walker, the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Emory University. Dr. Walker spoke at the Frontiers in Neuroscience Seminar Series on Friday, January 27th, about her research on prodromal psychosis as a part of the NAPLS (North American Prodrome Longitudinal Study).