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The 2014 International Neuroethics Society Annual Meeting

By Mallory Bowers

On November 14, the International Neuroethics Society convened for its annual meeting at the AAAS building in Washington, D.C. I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at INS through the generous support of the Emory Neuroethics Program. The society is an interdisciplinary group of scholars – including lawyers, clinicians, researchers, and policy makers – and the 2014 agenda reflected this diversity in expertise.

The conference opened with a short talk by Chaka Fattah, the U.S. representative for Pennsylvania’s 2nd congressional district. As a Philadelphia native, I was excited to learn that Congressman Fattah was an architect of the Fattah Neuroscience Initiative, which was an impetus for developing the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative.

Courtesy of Gillian Hue

Discussion of the BRAIN initiative continued through the following panels, “The BRAIN Initiative & the Human Brain Project: an Ethical Focus” and “The Future of Neuroscience Research & Ethical Implications”. Panelist Stephen Hauser spoke about the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, while Henry Markram discussed the Human Brain Project – the European-based research collaboration to establish innovative neurotechnologies and develop a more thorough understanding of the human brain. Representatives of several scientific funding institutions (Dr. Tom Insel – Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. George Koob – Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and Dr. Geoff Ling – Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) discussed the progress of neuroscience research, while emphasizing the need for continued advancement. Although the morning panels were interesting (as a behavioral neuroscientist, seeing Dr. Tom Insel was quite thrilling), I was left with the impression that the scientific “establishment” was only beginning to scratch the surface of the neuroethical implications of the research being conducted by scientists like myself. I wondered if any of the morning panelists attended the later sessions, which discussed more neuroethically hard-hitting issues, such as “Neuroscience in the Courts” and “Neuroscience and Human Rights”.

In the session “Neuroscience in the Courts – International Case Studies”, presenters considered how neuroscience has been used in the courtroom across the globe, specifically, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, and Singapore and Malaysia. In particular, speakers examined the “my brain made me do it” defense used by adolescent defendants in criminal trials. This defense uses research on the developing prefrontal cortex of the adolescent, thought to be responsible for impulse control and executive function in mature adults (Blakemore and Robbins 2012), to explain criminal behavior. In the following session, “Neuroscience and Human Rights”, I was particularly struck by Dr. Mariana Chilton and her work on the neuroscience of food insecurity. While Dr. Chilton uses scientific research to demonstrate the deleterious effects of hunger on mental health, she advocates for an antidote that extends beyond science to include public policy.

The conference concluded with an hour long poster session after oral presentations by INS abstract awardees (our own Ryan Purcell presented on the ethical implications of the brain training program Lumosity). My poster, “Feminist neuroethics: biological determinism, agnotology, and overlooked risk factors for PTSD” examined potential alternative factors, besides “innate” neurobiology, that might explain the difference in prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among men and women (lifetime prevalence of PTSD is approximately 10-14% in women and 5-6% in men in the United States (Breslau, Davis, et al. 1991, Kessler, Sonnega, et al. 1995)). Sociocultural conditioning may be one possibility. Men and women are differentially conditioned according to expected gendered behaviors from birth. Epidemiological data demonstrates sex/gender differences in the prevalence of PTSD according to specific categories of trauma, but not others (Kessler, Sonnega, et al. 1995). This indicates that it is not merely the presence of trauma, but the interpretation of trauma that precipitates development of PTSD. If trauma severity – shaped by an individual’s unique perception/interpretation – influences risk for PTSD, and perception is gendered according to sociocultural conditioning, then researchers need to address whether specific forms of gendered sociocultural conditioning precipitate risk for PTSD. Furthermore, as diagnoses of psychiatric disorders (including PTSD) rely on clinician-defined suites of symptoms catalogued in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) rather than biomarkers, these diagnoses could be influenced by subjective and implicit gender stereotypes. Finally, the stress of microaggressions (Sue 2010) related to gender bias and discrimination could exert long-term ramifications, potentially contributing to rates of psychiatric disease like PTSD, as research demonstrates that pre-trauma risk factors like life stress predict PTSD (Yehuda 2004). I concluded my poster by advocating for an alliance between the sciences and humanities, who can provide a rich knowledge on how sociocultural factors shape conceptions of not only gender, but also illness.

Mallory presenting her poster (Courtesy of Gillian Hue)

Although scholars approaching neuroethics with a feminist lens seemed to be a small contingent at INS, reception to my poster was enthusiastic. Fellow feminist neuroethicist Vanessa Bentley had an especially exciting poster where she examined the evidence in favor of and against a sex/gender differences in size of the corpus callosum. Bentley’s analysis surmised lack of a sex/gender difference in the size of the corpus callosum. Bentley further argued that neurosexism perpetuated a conclusion to the contrary.

My hope is that the area of feminist neuroethics will continue to grow and be represented at forthcoming INS meetings and elsewhere, particularly in light of the recent NIH call to study both male and female experimental subjects. Historically, biomedical studies have not included female animal subjects to avoid the potential confounding variable of the estrous cycle. While a more balanced approach is a step in the right direction towards more comprehensive research, the field should be cautious in the design and interpretation of such studies, in order to avoid blind reinforcement of sex/gender-based biases – in particular, biased notions of how sex/gender may interact with behavior. Feminist empiricists’, bioethicists’, and neuroethicists’ critiques will be instrumental in helping the biomedical field move forward in an ethically and scientifically rigorous way, in light of the recent NIH mandate.

I would like to see feminist neuroscience studies impacting not just the laboratory but also the broader implications of the science as I describe with my work and the impact on clinical care. I would even see it relevant or as a key discussion under the theme of “neuroscience and human rights” at future INS meetings. If neuroscience is used as a tool to underline sex/gender differences in cognition, empathy, sexual behavior, parental investment, etc. – characteristics that have been used to disenfranchise women for centuries – then the work of the human rights field may invaluably inform future discourse. I look forward to participating in future INS events to continue to further my own neuroethical inquiries and to intersect with other sub-disciplines.


Blakemore, SJ and Robbins, TW (2012) Decision-making in the adolescent brain. Nat Neurosci 15: 1184-91.

Breslau, N, Davis, GC, Andreski, P and Peterson, E (1991) Traumatic events and posttraumatic stress disorder in an urban population of young adults. Arch Gen Psychiatry 48: 216-22.

Kessler, RC, Sonnega, A, Bromet, E, Hughes, M and Nelson, CB (1995) Posttraumatic stress disorder in the National Comorbidity Survey. Arch Gen Psychiatry 52: 1048-60.

Yehuda, R (2004) Risk and resilience in posttraumatic stress disorder. J Clin Psychiatry 65 Suppl 1: 29-36.

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