Thursday, June 28, 2012

Why Do Voles Fall in Love? Interview with Feminist Science Studies Scholar Angela Willey

Dr. Angela Willey
In May I attended a great conference, the 4th biennial conference of the Association for Feminist Epistemologies, Methodologies, Metaphysics, and Science Studies (FEMMSS). At the conference, I heard a wonderful plenary talk by Dr. Angela Willey and her colleagues. Dr. Willey is one of our own – a recent (2010) graduate of Emory’s doctoral program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. In her work, she examines the cultural assumptions underpinning contemporary neuroscience research on monogamy and the social implications of this research. At the conference, I asked Dr. Willey if she would agree to be interviewed about her work for the Neuroethics Blog, and she graciously agreed. Before sharing what she said, I am just going to give you a little background about Dr. Willey and about the neuroscience research on monogamy that she analyzes.

The [insert adjective] Brain: Implications for Neuroscience in Popular Media

The Addicted Brain. The Female Brain. The Male Brain. Chemobrain. Buddha’s Brain. The Winner’s Brain. The Republican Brain. These days, it seems that everybody’s brain is being scanned and their behavior analyzed. In fact, these are all titles of books published in the past decade that communicate the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology research to lay audiences. As a budding neuroscientist, I am excited that science, and neuroscience in particular, has now flooded into popular American culture. Evidence of its expanding domain is everywhere: in magazines (Scientific American’s “MIND”), blogs (Neuroskeptic), radio programs (NPR’s “Radiolab”), podcasts (Nature’s “Neuropod”) and books. For further examination of the reasons for this cultural shift, see the discussion of the phenomenon in the new book “Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Popular Media,” by Davi Johnson Thorton, Southwestern University's Assistant Professor of Communication Studies.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Who Owns My Thoughts?

I attended the excellent Neuroscience, Law, and Ethics of Lie Detection Technologies Symposium in May, and as a consequence, I have spent the last month trying to answer questions I hadn’t even thought to ask before: Who owns the thoughts in my head? Could I be compelled to submit them? Can someone else decide that keeping my ideas to myself is a violation of the law or a threat to my country? If they force me to surrender them, do I lose ownership? So this week, I thought I would share some of the things I learned as I tried to find out answers.

You can actually buy this online. I am considering getting it printed on a hat.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

More or less human: How can a dog brain imaging study and companion animal neuroscience explain my human-ness?

“It was amazing to see the first brain images of a fully awake, unrestrained dog,” Berns said. “As far as we know, no one has been able to do this previously. We hope this opens up a whole new door for understanding canine cognition and inter-species communication. We want to understand the dog-human relationship, from the dog’s perspective.”—Greg Berns, MD, PhD

Recently, the Emory laboratory of Dr. Greg Berns published the first fMRI brain imaging study in unanesthetized dogs.  Popular media reports of the study touting, “What is your dog thinking?” and “Brain Scans Reveal Dogs’ Thoughts” have raised the hackles of the public who ask, “Why conduct a frivolous scientific study on something we already know?”

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Brain Does That? So What?

In a column earlier this year, Psychology Today contributor Nate Kornell wrote about his annoyance with the excitement over findings that "the brain does that." Kornell's response to findings that "the brain does that" is a bit of an intellectual "duh!" Or, closer to his own words, the response is more of an exasperated "Of course it does!"

And I have to admit I share his annoyance … to a certain degree.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Animal Models and the Future of Psychiatric Research

"Few medicines, in the history of pharmaceuticals, have been greeted with as much exultation as a green-and-white pill containing 20 milligrams of fluoxetine hydrochloride — the chemical we know as Prozac" wrote Columbia University Assistant Professor of Medicine Siddhartha Mukherjee in a recent New York Times editorial on antidepressant efficacy. As Dr. Mukherjee points out, the rise of antidepressants over the past several decades has been swift and staggering. A recent CDC study found that antidepressants are the most commonly prescribed drug for Americans between 18 and 44 years of age, with 11% of Americans over the age of twelve utilizing such medications.
Original image from the Global Information Exchange Network

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Likin’ Laken, if he ain’t fakin’

Last Friday, Emory held its third annual Neuroethics symposium, focusing this year on the use of fMRI for lie detection and the acceptance of fMRI data as evidence in the courtroom. The symposium featured talks from Stanford law professor Hank Greely, University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist Daniel Langleben, and the CEO of Cephos, Dr. Steven Laken. I wasn’t surprised to learn we’d invited the first two speakers: Greely wrote the seminal articles on law and neuroscience, and Langleben pioneered fMRI studies of lying. It did surprise me to see Laken on the list. His company Cephos is one of the few that have successfully marketed fMRI-based lie detection for the commercial sector. I kind of thought—maybe hoped—that an audience composed largely of neuroscientists would eat him alive.
Dr. Steven Laken, CEO of Cephos

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Gay Brains, Gay Gene, Gay Rights: The Double-Edged Sword of Essentialism

As the semester drew to an end, and Kristina Gupta and I closed out our course on Feminism, Sexuality, and Neuroethics, I have been thinking a lot about the science of sexual identity. Participants in our class set out to consider the ethics of separating human beings into distinct kinds and conducting neuroscientific research into those separations. Along the way, we all thought about what the boundaries of sexuality and gender were, how they are culturally bound, how desire is measured (and mismeasured), both in the contemporary era and throughout history. We considered the use of these differences to create legislation and the effects of both medicalization and pathologization for members of sexual minorities.

I'm sure this is exactly what happens.
(Original image from