Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Legal Pains

When a friend accidentally burns themselves on a stove-top, their pain is usually very obvious – cursing, gesturing wildly, and even the explicit verbal pronouncement of "I am in pain."  It's also very clear from this display that their pain is viewed as a "bad" thing – they want it to stop, they will be more vigilant in the future to prevent it from happening again, and they very likely either want or even expect you to help out in these endeavors. Pain, while being a survival affirming biological phenomena, is (at least in this simple case here) also inherently ethical.

We can then imagine that this same friend's nervous system might be manipulated (whether through mutation, injury, or pharmacological manipulation) to prevent them from feeling pain.  While we might initially be shocked at such a turn of events, we could be convinced of such a change if our friend stopped responding to usually painful stimuli (such as our villain the stove-top) with the same clear "pained" reaction.  So changing the nervous system clearly changes whether or not the individual can feel pain, leading us to believe that pain is something the brain does.

Pain is something the brain does- but how do we know when it is doing it?  Image from here.  
However, in addition to our verbal friend, there are an untold number of animals, (including other types of humans), plants, virions, rocks, alien beings, artificial intelligences, puppets, and tissue cultures whose internal states aren't as readily apparent. Whether it is that they can't talk (as in the case of the bulk of that list) or we suspect that their speech might not be truthful (as in the case of artificial intelligences or puppets), we must rely on other, perhaps subtler methods of inferring their internal state. Holding off on the very important question of how we should evaluate a creature's pain, let us instead focus on evaluating how we currently determine if a strange being is in pain or not. To simplify the problem significantly, let's focus on how this process occurs in the present day United States. While even in this limited scope we see substantial debate over what counts as pain in non-human animals, there is at least one place where some sort of official, if temporary, compromise is forced into existence: animal cruelty law.  Can US animal cruelty laws provide a formal definition for how Americans think of pain?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Can Human Brain Tissue Make Mice Smarter? Emory Neuroethics Journal Club Review

What makes humans smart?  This was the primary question posed in the final Journal Club of the Spring 2013 semester.  Led by Riley Zeller-Townson, the club discussed Han et al. (2013), a paper that discusses the enhancement of learning in mice after grafting human glial progenitor cells into their brains. Riley began by explaining the paper and the work leading up to it. Most of the roles of glial cells involve supporting and protecting neurons, such as synaptic plasticity, myelination, and maintaining the blood-brain barrier (Barres, 2003). This study focuses on one subtype of glia, called astrocytes, cells that provide nutrients to neurons (Tsacopoulos et al, 1996).

Neurons (shown on left) possess both axons and dendrites and are shaped differently than glial cells (Source).  The glial cell shown on the right is an astrocyte, which is more “star” shaped due to its many branched processes (Han et al 2013).
While people generally think of neurons as being the important type of brain cells, research is beginning to show that the merits of glial cells were previously underestimated. Interestingly, post-mortem analysis of Albert Einstein’s brain showed that he had more glia than the average person (Diamond et al, 1985).  Along the same vein, previous studies have shown that primate glia are larger, more complex, and faster than those of mice (Colombo, 1996; Oberheim et al., 2009). Therefore, is it possible that glial cells are the root of intelligence?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

How do neuroscientists integrate their knowledge of the brain with their religious and spiritual beliefs?

By Kim Lang
Graduate Student, Neuroscience
Emory University 
This post was written as part of the Contemporary Issues in Neuroethics course 

As scientists, we’re generally a skeptical bunch (I’ll leave speculation of whether that is a cause and/or effect of a career in science for the Comments section).  While 95% of the American public believe in a deity or higher power (83% believe in God and 12% believe in a higher power) [1], only 51% of surveyed scientists believe the same (33% believe in God and 18% believe in a universal spirit or higher power) (Figure 1). [2]

According to surveys, this discrepancy is nothing new.  In 1914, sociologist James H. Leuba found that 42% of the polled US scientists believed in God while 58% did not. [1,3]  In 1996, Larry Witham and Edward Larson repeated Leuba’s survey and found that 40% of scientists believe in a personal God while 45% do not4.  While the wording of questions can be critiqued [3], the overall trend remains and is fairly constant across different scientific fields.  According the 2009 Pew Research Center survey, 51% of scientists in biological and medical fields believe in God or a higher power, as well as 55% of those in chemistry, 50% of those in geosciences, and 43% of those in physics and astronomy (Figure 2). [2]

As informative as this survey is, those are frustratingly wide categories of science.  With so much research into the neurological mechanisms of religious experiences and discussion about whether the brain is wired to “produce” or “perceive” God5, I’m curious to know how the neuroscience community would respond to this survey (being part of the neuroscience community also biases my curiosity a bit).  I’d also like to know how those neuroscientists that do believe in God or a higher power integrate this belief with their neuroscience knowledge (the atheist view seems pretty self-explanatory).

Friday, June 7, 2013

International Neuroethics Society Meeting on Nov 7-8, 2013 in San Diego!

The International Neuroethics Society announces its 5th Annual Meeting (a satellite of the Society for Neuroscience Meeting) November 7 & 8 San Diego.

 Abstracts are due June 15, 2013.  For more information and the program see here.

 Listen to INS Member Molly Crockett cordially invite you here.

Bring your friends and family to the open-to-the-public program November 7 on Neurogaming: What’s Neuroscience and Ethics Got to Do with It? Register for the meeting on November 8 here.

The speaker lineup includes Barbara Sahakian & John Pickard, University of Cambridge, Julian Savulescu, University of Oxford, Patricia Churchland, University of California-San Diego, Molly Crockett, University of Zurich, Jens Clausen, University of Tubingen, Lisa Claydon, Bristol Law School, University of the West England, Joe Fins & Niko Schiff, Weill Cornell Medical College, Holly Moore, Columbia University, New York State Psychiatric Institute, Mauricio Delgado, Rutgers University, Catherine Sebastian, Royal Holloway, University of London, J. David Jentsch, University of California – Los Angeles, and Honorable Robert Trentacosta, Presiding Judge of San Diego Superior Court. See you in San Diego!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

NEW OPENING! Graduate Editorial Intern for The American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience

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

As editorial intern, you will be responsible for attending biweekly editorial meetings and contributing intellectually to the editorial responsibility of the journal; organization and transcription of interviews of prominent neuroethicists for publication in the journal; publicity of the journal to the neuroscience community; and maintenance of an internal organizational database. Innovation and initiative is valued and there is some liberty to pursue projects of your own design within the scope of the journal’s mission. Work runs approximately 10-20hrs a week, depending on the editorial cycle. 

Please contact [email protected] for more information. 

Deadline for applications: June 28, 2013 

Eligibility: Must currently be a graduate student, from any discipline, with an interest in neuroethics and editorial work. Must be organized and capable of meeting deadlines. Web management skills an asset. Must be able to attend regular meetings at Emory University. 

How to apply: Send a 1-pg letter of interest, CV, and letter of recommendation to [email protected]

American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience
Emory University
1531 Dickey Drive
Atlanta, GA 30322

A Life With Others…In Your Head?

By Stepheni Uh
Undergraduate Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology Major
Emory University
This post was written as part of the Contemporary Issues in Neuroethics Course

Although decades have passed since the world first heard of Billy Milligan, his predicament and story still cause confusion and wonder. As the field of neuroscience is expanding, more light has been shed upon his condition: an extreme case of dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly known as multiple personality disorder. Advancements in neuroscience (i.e. in research techniques) has led to the investigation of possible neurobiological correlations to the symptoms of DID – yet, due to the rare cases of this disorder, the possible neurobiological basis for DID has not been established. Despite the lack of raw data, per se, neuroscience has fueled new perspectives regarding the nature of DID such as those involving the ideas of culpability, personhood, and individuality.

Billy Milligan
Billy Milligan, whose birth name is William Stanley Milligan, had approximately 24 different personalities that fought to take over his body – Arthur the intelligent Englishman; Philip the Brooklyn criminal; David the eight-year-old “keeper of pain”; Adalana the lesbian and everyone else, including the Teacher who could fuse all of the personalities and help them develop [1,4]. Milligan was involved in robberies and other crimes before he was prosecuted for kidnapping and raping three women from the Ohio State University campus in October 1977 [4]. According to his psychiatric report, Adalana had taken over Milligan and consequently raped the women due to her desire for affection. The other personalities, however, had no recollection of the incident [4]. Billy Milligan was eventually acquitted of his crimes by reason of insanity and sent to the Athens Mental Health Center to “recover.” Experts attempted to treat him by fusing all the personalities into one, which was already established by the Teacher; so they attempted to make the Teacher take over his “consciousness,” which had never happened before. Milligan was finally released in 1988 and then became free from supervision in 1991 [4]. As of today, no one knows what has happened to Billy Milligan and many questions remain unanswered.