Monday, April 30, 2012

Sexuality and “Alternating Gender Incongruity”

In an article from the (somewhat) controversial journal Medical Hypotheses, researchers claim to have found a new neuropsychiatric syndrome called Alternating Gender Incongruity. A reporter from Scientific American commented on the article a few weeks ago, and the blog Neuroskeptic carried a short synopsis of the study the week before that. However, neither has commented on what I think are the two most fascinating (and perhaps troubling) aspects of this study.
Image Credit:
First, we have the way the researchers define sexuality. They say it is comprised of four facets: “gender identity (which sex you categorize yourself or see as others see you), sexual morphology, brain-based “sexual body image,” and sexual orientation (who you are attracted to).”[1] It is clear immediately that the term “sexuality” is used here to describe not sexual practice or identity, as it is generally used in my field, but to describe a large portion of what we call the sex/gender system.[2] What stands out to me, though, is aspect number four: sexual orientation. Once again, it seems to be a case of sexuality researchers relying on the concept of inversion, where it is assumed that sex/gender is linked to sexual orientation through a mixing, or a mistake, of internal sex/ gender identity.  (I commented on this in a previous blog).[3]  The reasoning behind this particular study, however, has the potential to be more nuanced: although the researchers assume that sex/gender identity includes sexual orientation as a matter of course (and at one point say that your sexual orientation might be incongruous with your sex/gender, thus implying that there is a congruent sexual orientation for each sex/gender), the way they phrase the question allows that sexual orientation may be a function of same/difference to self rather than fixed on a specific sexed/gendered object.

Neuroethics Symposium: The Truth About Lies on May 25, 2012

Neuroscience, Law, and Ethics of Lie Detection Technologies 

May 25th School of Medicine Auditorium from 1-5pm.

You Can’t Handle the Truth! The Neuroscience Program, Center for Ethics Neuroethics Program, and the Scholars Program in Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Research (SPINR) are combining forces to hold a symposium on the intersection of neuroscience and law pertaining to the use of fMRI and other lie detection technologies in the courtroom. Drs. Hank Greely, director of the Center for Law and Biosciences at Stanford Law School, Daniel Langleben, a professor of Psychiatry at University of Pennsylvania and pioneer of using fMRI to detect lies, and Steven Laken, founder, president, and CEO of Cephos; a company that markets the use of fMRI for courtroom lie detection will be providing their expertise through a series of talks. Following the talks, Emory’s Carolyn Meltzer, Chair of the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences, will join the speakers answering questions from the audience during a panel discussion moderated by Julie Seaman from Emory Law School. Mark your calendars for 1pm-5pm, May 25th, 2012 for this thought-provoking event. For now, you might want to check out this video by our Neuroethics Creative Team on Neuroscience in the Courtroom.

Want to cite this post?
Rommelfanger, K. (2012). Neuroethics Symposium: The Truth About Lies on May 25, 2012. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

Sunday, April 29, 2012

One Step Closer to the Human Mute Button

It is hard enough to communicate ideas verbally when you feel that language cannot adequately express your thoughts. Now imagine that there is a barrier to the fluency of your speech. For many people who have speech impediments such as stuttering, this frustration is a daily reality. Having a speech impediment can often result in discrimination for children at school and when seeking employment opportunities. According to a recent survey conducted by the National Stuttering Association (NSA), 8 out of 10 children with speech impediments are bullied[i]. Unfortunately, this harassment is likely to continue well into adulthood: it is reported upwards of 40% of people who stutter are denied a job or a promotion (NSA, 2009).

Image Credit: Weinstein Company

It is then no wonder that approximately 90% of adults and teens with stuttering disabilities have sought treatment to overcome stuttering (NSA, 2009). Scientists have recently developed delayed auditory feedback technology that, when coupled with therapy, aids in the fluency of their speech. These devices relay what individuals say back to them at a delayed interval of one-tenth of a second allowing the user to talk more slowly and succinctly. Although this technology does not address the social stigma of stuttering, it can provide relief from the symptoms and over time may help individuals who stutter feel more confident to speak by reducing their stress and anxiety.

Recently, this very same delayed auditory feedback technology has been utilized for distinctly different purposes by researchers Drs. Kuriha and Tsukada of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and the Technology Chuo Dai and Ochanomizu University respectively. They designed the speech jammer gun, a device that uses the same delayed auditory feedback technology used to help people overcome their stuttering when pointed at the speaker’s mouth. Only the effect of delayed auditory feedback on those who do not have a speech disability (when replaying their voice at a delayed interval of one-tenth of a second) temporarily disorients, confuses, and stops the person from talking. There is no physical harm during this period and normal speech can resume afterwards.

Image from (SpeechJammer, 2012)

In their paper “SpeechJammer: A System Utilizing Artificial Speech Disturbance with Delayed Auditory Feedback”[ii], Kuriha and Tsukada delineate instances in which they believe the speech jamming technology could be beneficial for society. Their stated purpose for designing the jammer device is to provide a solution to two generally negative outcomes of verbal communication: unavoidability and occupancy. Unavoidability is defined in their paper as a situation where a listener cannot avoid speech that has been initiated by someone else whereas occupancy is a limitation to speech where multiple people cannot communicate effectively if talking at the same time. While this idea is reasonable, their proposed use of the speech jammer gun as a solution may not be.

The speech jammer gun utilizes the concept of delayed auditory feedback to stop a person from talking, but it only works if the individual does not have impaired speech. In the introduction of their paper, the authors discuss how the speech jammer gun is a civil solution to occupancy. In their “the louder the stronger” hypothetical scenario there is not a productive turn-taking in meetings. Therefore, instead of establishing rules or civil manners as many adults learn to do, the speech jammer would be used to quiet the person in order to resume your point. The authors describe a second scenario, “imagine that you want seek a peaceful means of dealing with a loud person in the library, but you do not want to be too impolite in the process.” In this circumstance you could use the speech jammer gun to quiet the offending speaker.

The speech jammer gun is a large bulky object reminiscent of a traffic gun. How the inventors thought that this device would be a peaceful or passive solution to other’s rudeness is beyond comprehension. The object itself is far from inconspicuous and signifies the idea that you want the other person to stop talking, therefore the act in and of itself can be perceived as a combative or rude gesture. There is nothing passive about the idea. I do not have to guess what my future boyfriend wants to do if he kneels down on one knee and presents a Verragio platinum coutoure-0383 diamond ring to me after a romantic dinner and 2 years and 3 months of dating. Same concept applies to the speech jammer gun; if you are aiming it in my face you want me to cease and desist talking.

Could it be that the Kuriha and Tsukada conceptualized this device as a culturally-bound solution to issues concerning how to be respectful to elders and authority, when placed in uncomfortable situations of occupancy or unavoidability. According to Young People’s Beliefs About Intergenerational Communication: An Initial Cross-Cultural Comparison[iii], in the Eastern countries surveyed, including Japan, young adults reported higher dissatisfaction when communicating with their elders, than their Western counterparts. Even with this conflict with the pervasive ideal of respect for elders and uncomfortable interactions with elders, would this situation warrant the use of the speech jammer gun? If so, this justification may not be as strong in Western societies where there is a higher sense of individualism than collectivism. In a country such as the U.S. where people typically do not mind speaking their mind what is the utility of such a device?

Jason DeCrow/The Associated Press

Sooner or later, noting that the trend in engineering is to taking hulky dinosaur technology and redesigning it to fit nanoparticle dimensions, this prototype, after further development, will probably go unnoticed when used. The implications of that possibility will more than likely lead to malicious usage. For instance, say I do not like chatty Kathy at work. I bring my nanosized speech jammer device to work on a day that she is to give a company-wide presentation. When she then proceeds to speak, I use the device and she begins to feel embarrassed and is therefore passed over for a big promotion. This and countless situations like it can arise, where people, unknowingly on the receiving end of the speech jammer, may feel the need to go to a speech therapist or doctor because they feel as if there is something psychologically or physically wrong with them. The flip side is that as more and more people become aware of the device through greater marketing and availability, people may become more paranoid about speaking at various engagements.

Several other ethical questions arise with this new form of technology. Are there even appropriate uses for such a technology either its present form or if it were to be inconspicuous? With a good marketing team this device could be sold as Godsend for introverts who want to command the attention of others in the room, or parents that want to instill discipline when rearing their children. Another possible unexamined ramification of widespread availability is that children and teenagers could take the device to school and disrupt classes and undermine authority. Who wants to see little kids running around with a mute button at their disposal? All of the aforementioned events are plausible, and the implications are as broad as the imaginations of its users. The inventors of the speech-jamming device intended this device to be a means for peaceful and passive intervention concerning speech, possibly without truly exploring the consequences of their invention. Ultimately, there was no serious discussion about how easily this device could be used as an abuse of power by a privileged few, or how it could be regulated. Although this technology is still in its prototype phase, the ethical implications need to be further examined especially if it threatens to encroach upon our autonomy in having a voice.

–Shezza Shagarabi

Neuroethics Program Intern, NBB Class of 2014

Want to cite this post?
Shagarabi, S. (2012). One Step Closer to the Human Mute Button. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on from

[i] The Experience of People Who Stutter (Rep.). (2009, July). Retrieved April/May, 2012, from The National Stuttering Association website:

[ii] Kurihara, K., & Tsukada, K. (2012). SpeechJammer: A system utilizing artificial speech disturbance. Computing Research Repository, 1202(6106). doi: arXiv:1202.6106v2

[iii] Williams, A., H. Ota, H. Giles, R.D. Pierson, C. Gallois, S.H. Ng, T.S. Lim, E.B. Ryan, L. Somera, J. Maher, D. Cai and J. Harwood ( 1997) ‘Young People’s Beliefs about Intergenerational Communication: An Initial Cross-cultural Comparison’, Communication Research 24: 370-93.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Now accepting applications for the Neuroethics Scholars Program

Are you interested in the ethical and social implications of neuroscience? 

The Neuroethics Program is offering competitive, stipended fellowships in neuroethics. This exciting opportunity is open to graduate students in any discipline.

Important Dates:
  • Information Session: 5/30/2012 Center for Ethics Room 150 @ 130pm
  • Deadline for Applications: 6/15/2012 
  • Duration of Fellowship: 8/30/2012-8/30/2013

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Drug Addiction and Sex Addiction: Are they “real” (brain) diseases?

As Neuroethics Scholars Program Fellows, Cyd Cipolla and I designed an interactive discussion-based undergraduate course “Feminism, Sexuality, and Neuroethics,” which we are currently teaching this semester at Emory. In developing our course, we decided to devote one week to examining neuroscientific research on “sex addiction.” In recent years, neuroscientists have started to use imaging technology to explore the neurobiology of “out of control” sexual behavior (sometimes called sex addiction). In addition, some researchers and mental health professionals have argued that the neurobiology of sex addiction is the same as the neurobiology of drug addiction. However, a number of scholars have critiqued the category of sex addiction, arguing that it is a reflection of our cultural anxieties about high rates of sexual activity (Irvine 1995, Moser 2001). After our in-class discussions, I was still left wondering whether it is appropriate to view “excessive” sexual interest as an addiction (and, specifically, as a “brain disease” or a “mental illness”) or as a socio-cultural construct dependent on sex-negative cultural values.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Brain Matters 3 Conference! Values at the crossroads of Neurology, Psychiatry, and Psychology


*Deadline for abstract submissions: May 15, 2012

Brain Matters 3: 
Values at the Crossroads of Neurology,
Psychiatry and Psychology 
October 24th-25th, 2012

This conference provides a venue for collaboration and learning in the area of neuroethics. The plenary speakers of this conference will address ethical challenges in the treatment and research for conditions with neurological symptomatology but that are without identifiable biological correlates/causes. The complexities of suffering and disability experienced by individuals with these conditions are significant, including exposure to dangerous and futile treatments.

Parallel sessions will include accepted abstracts from a broad range of neuroethics interests.  At this conference, presentations will be given by patients, physicians, neuroscientists, and ethicists and is intended to appeal to a broad audience.  Please see the call for abstracts and conference information at

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Refried serotonin lunch

That title sounds like the prequel to a William Burroughs novel. I wish I'd come up with it myself, but I'm actually plagiarizing almost word for word from Dr. Steven Hyman, Director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Last week, Emory awarded Dr. Hyman this year's Neuroscience and Ethics Award. Dr. Hyman spoke on "Addiction as a Window on Volitional Control", which shouldn't be surprising, given his molecular and genetic studies of the dopaminergic system.

Earlier in the day, Dr. Hyman stopped by the Emory Center for Ethics to have lunch with faculty and students from several schools and programs. He held forth on the state of translational neuropsychiatric research for an hour and a half, while the rest of us prevented him from eating by constantly barraging him with questions. I have a feeling I'm not the only one who found what he had to say both thought-provoking and provocative. He liberally spiced up his comments with colorful phrases like the aforementioned "refried serotonin meal" (which I will put in context at the end of this post).

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

*New Opening* Graduate Internship at American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience

Tell your students and your friends!

A unique opportunity for graduate students to get high-level editorial experience
for the premier neuroethics journal and official journal of the International
Neuroethics Society. Interns will have access to an international community of
renowned neuroethics scholars and innovation in neuroethics scholarship.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Physical vs. Cognitive Alterations: Is All Fair in the World of Anti-Aging Enhancement?

On March 28, Dr. Rommelfanger, Assistant Director of Emory's Neuroethics Program, gave a talk to the Nu Rho Psi group about the ethics of neuroenhancement technologies. These technologies can be anything from Adderall to interventions that raises IQ. This talk got me thinking about how the normal human aging process is critical in the way that a person views themselves and others. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Psychostimulants in preschoolers: Panacea or Pandora’s Box?

Victoria became pregnant at a young age. During her pregnancy, she was unable to consistently make responsible choices for herself and her developing child, often indulging in alcohol and drugs. As a result, her son Brian was born prematurely at 7 months. By the time Brian entered preschool, he became increasingly difficult for Victoria and his teachers to control, his interactions with other children at times violent and aggressive. Desperately trying to manage Brian’s outbursts, Victoria confides in a child psychiatrist who puts Brian on Ritalin. Within a couple of months, Brian’s outbursts subside, and much to everyone’s relief (Brian’s included), he is now able to sit through his preschool classes with limited distraction. He begins to enjoy relating with other kids and no longer receives negative attention at school. Several years later, Brian, now a very diminutive 9 year-old, writes a paper for a class assignment in which he suggests that everyone should have treatment like him to “make them behave,” and that “all kids with broken brains should have them fixed, too.” When Victoria learns of this, she speaks with Brian, who says he is confused why some kids can “be good without pills,” and wonders if people would “still love him if he stopped taking his.”1