Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Let’s Put Our Heads Together and Think About This One: A Primer on Ethical Issues Surrounding Brain-to-Brain Interfacing

By John Trimper
Graduate Student, Psychology
Emory University
This post was written as part of the Contemporary Issues in Neuroethics course

Remember the precogs in Minority Report? The ones who could sync up their brains via the pale blue goo to see into the future?
The precogs from the movie Minority Report
Recent findings published in Scientific Reports (Pais-Vieira et al., 2013) suggest that the ability to sync up brains is no longer purely sci-fi fodder, and instead, has moved into the realm of laboratory reality. The relevant set of experiments, conducted primarily at the Nicolelis laboratory at Duke University, demonstrated that neural activity related to performance on a discrimination task could be recorded from one rat (“the encoder”) and transferred into a second rat’s brain (“the decoder”) via electrical stimulation. This brain-to-brain transfer of task-relevant information, provided the encoder rat was performing the task correctly, significantly enhanced the decoder’s ability to perform the task correctly (see Figure 2 for task description). That is, the decoder rat, who received no external clues as to which of two levers would provide a food reward, responded to the brain-to-brain transfer of information as if it cued him to choose the correct, food-rewarding lever. As a further proof of concept, the experimenters demonstrated that it wasn’t necessary for the rats to be hooked up to the same laboratory computer. In fact, it wasn’t even necessary for the rats to be on the same continent. Using the internet, the researchers were able to transfer information from the brain of an encoder rat at Duke University in real time to the brain of a decoder rat located in Brazil. Performance enhancements in this scenario were similar to those noted above (i.e., decoders chose the correct lever more often if brain-to-brain transfer was allowed).

Friday, May 24, 2013

Now Available! Neuroethics Journal Club Video Archives on YouTube

The Neuroethics Journal Club videos are now available on YouTube. Watch each discussion to learn about a variety of neuroethics issues, from treatments for pedophilia to neural plasticity in mice. For each video, one presenter introduced the journal topic and opened discussion to the audience. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The identification of risk for serious mental illnesses: Clinical and ethical challenges

By Elaine Walker, Ph.D., Sandy Goulding, MPH, MA., Arthur Ryan, MA., Carrie Holtzman, MA., Allison MacDonald, MA.

Elaine Walker is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience in the Department of Psychology at Emory University.  She leads a research laboratory that is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health  to study risk factors for major mental illness.  Her research is focused on child and adolescent development and the brain changes that are associated with adolescence.

The identification of risk factors for illness is receiving increased attention in all fields of medicine, especially cardiology, oncology, neurology and psychiatry.  There are three potential benefits to identifying risk factors. The first is to reduce morbidity by reducing risk exposure. The second is to enhance opportunities for targeting preventive treatment toward those who are most likely to benefit. Finally, the identification of risk factors can shed light on pathological mechanisms.

There are, of course, costs as well as benefits involved in this endeavor.  The benefits, in terms of reducing morbidity and mortality, are noncontroversial.  The costs, however, can be very controversial and they have generated discussion among ethicists. Foremost among the costs is the potential discomfort and distress that results from the identification of an individual as being at statistical risk for future illness.  There are also significant concerns about whether treatment should be initiated prior to the manifestation of symptoms that reach clinical threshold.  These concerns are especially salient in the field of psychiatry. In this post, we discuss current efforts to identify risk factors for serious mental illness and the ethical considerations they raise.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Dancing with the Devil

Hysteria usually calls to mind thoughts of the Salem Witch Trials and delirious frenzies from history. However, mass hysteria, or mass psychogenic illness, is not simply an improbable, incomprehensible madness of the past. It has occurred throughout history and into our current generation, taking form as dancing plagues, dissociative possession of nuns, and involuntary twitches of high school girls in New York. Is it something they all ate? Or maybe there is something in the water… How is it that anxiety manifests itself into a dance that spreads among populations?

Fear and distress terrorized populations in Medieval
Europe and made them more prone to psychogenic illness. Certainly it seems there must be more to the story than merely these common denominators, for fear, anguish, stress, and trauma are commonly faced and dealt with sans mass hysteria. But the other factors needed for the exact formula of mass hysteria are difficult to pinpoint. 

Is it the perfect combination of despair, devastation, and distress that manifests itself into a psychosomatic reaction? Does it require a specific threshold of suggestion and susceptibility in our belief and cultural context? The panic and frenzy that overtook groups throughout history is a fascinating and frightening occurrence. Epidemics surged along the Rhine River, taking hundreds as victims to the dancing plague [8].  This affliction of compulsive dancing ran rampant in regions where the population believed dancing to be some sort of sickness or a curse that could be cast upon them. Once they formed the belief that they had caught the dancing disease, or they had been cursed to dance, dance, dance, there was no stopping them. People would dance until muscles were strained; they would even dance to their deaths. In 1374 a plague swept through Germany and France that drove thousands to dance in “agony for days or weeks, screaming of terrible visions and imploring priests and monks to save their souls.” Also, in years to come, people danced for as long as six months, some even dying after breaking “ribs or loins” [7].

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Social and Physical Pain on Common Ground

By Guest Contributor Jacob Billings 
Neuroscience Graduate Student 
Emory University

Societal changes, when they occur, coincide with changing outlooks among the populace. Take for example the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Largely, the motivations corresponding to economic and political enfranchisement for African-Americans and women resulted from changing identities among these groups during the mobilization of all of America’s resources during World War II. Notably, African Americans observed naturally pleasant interactions with European whites during tours of duty in WWII [1]. When returning to the US, it was impossible to allow American racism to continue unchallenged. During that same period, women acquired expertise in a great variety of professions for which they had been refused the opportunity to work [2]. The expectation that women return to a subordinate place in the household was immediately risen against.

In our modern age, the outlooks held by our friends and neighbors are being changed daily by new evidence from neuroscience. Using an arsenal of tools and techniques at colleges and hospitals around the world, including functional magnetic resonance imagers (fMRI) that can peer into our brains as we think and dream [3], the science marshals each facet of lived experience in turn to hold fast to territory mapped onto the physical domains of the central nervous system. The ground acquired during the campaign is that which is lost by ignorance and outmoded tradition.

How should our societies change as a result of new facets of evidence-based understanding, particularly when that evidence grounds lived experience directly to the material and functioning of our nervous systems?