Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Jane’s Brain: Neuroethics and the Intelligence Community

By Jonathan D. Moreno, PhD

Dr. Jonathan D. Moreno is one of 14 Penn Integrates Knowledge university professors at the University of Pennsylvania, holding the David and Lyn Silfen chair. He is also Professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, of History and Sociology of Science, and of Philosophy. Moreno is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC. In 2008-09 he served as a member of President Barack Obama’s transition team. He is also a member of the AJOB Neuroscience Editorial Board.

In September I arrived in Geneva to keynote a conference at the Brocher Foundation on the banks of Lake Geneva, where the ghost of John Calvin still casts a long shadow over the stern ethos of the Swiss. It was a glorious day in that oasis of calm and cleanliness, where the sheer power of holding much of the world’s money in its vaults justifies a muffled smugness. Compulsively, I checked my email as my taxi glided past the Hotel President Wilson, the monument of grateful bankers to the American president whose ill-fated League of Nations nearly made Geneva the official as well as de facto capital of the world. (Its $81,000 a night penthouse suite is said to be the most expensive in the world; I didn't stay there.)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Can Neuroscience Data be Used to Minimize the Effects of Stereotype Threat?

Last December 2013, the neuroscience graduate students at Emory University spearheaded an effort alongside many other sponsors to organize and implement a symposium to explore the neuroscientific basis of race and gender bias. The program, entitled “Bias in the Academy: From Neural Networks to Social Networks,”  awarded the Laney Graduate School New Thinkers/New Leaders fund and support from CMBC and the Center for Ethics, aimed to provide students and faculty alike an overview of the psychological and neuroscientific research on race and gender bias and how this might be used to mitigate harmful effects of stereotype and bias in the academy. After listening to and participating in the symposium, I realized that the symposium speakers and student planners all hoped to answer a similar question regarding the nature of the brain: Is the brain “hard-wired” to categorize people into groups in a way that makes negative stereotyping inevitable or is the brain exquisitely plastic insofar as biases we hold toward groups can be altered via certain interventions? One individual cannot find the answer to this question; rather, multidisciplinary scholarship can work to bridge the gap between disciplines such as neuroscience and social psychological findings that begin to answer this question and real-world issues.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

“Faith, Values and Autism” A Symposium Held by the Marcus Autism Center and the Atlanta Autism Consortium

On December 13, 2013 the Marcus Autism Center and the Atlanta Autism Consortium co-hosted a mini-symposium looking at the role of faith and religion in the lives and well-being of individuals living and working with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Organized by Marcus psychologist Dr. Samuel Fernandez-Carriba and Georgia State professor Dr.  Anne-Pierre Goursaud the event, titled “Faith, Values and Autism,” included a panel of six individuals from a variety of faith perspectives and featured a presentation by Dr. Alfiee M. Breland-Noble on the development and implementation of faith based mental health promotion. This topic has important implications for neuroethics and neurodiversity, the perspective that autism and other neurological disorders are part of natural human neurological diversity that should be neither cured nor normalized.

The religious or faith-based perspective of a family impacts how the presence of autistic traits in a child is framed. Some religions, for example, may connect autistic difference to experiences in a past life, a state of being that is closer or further from God than non-autistic individuals, or a test from God. A non-religious caregiver or autistic individual[1] may be more likely to accept and discuss biological or genetic causal models than those with strong religious doctrines. For example, during my dissertation research, for which I studied perceptions of autism in India, I learned that genetic causal models are more stigmatizing than explanations of evil eye or maternal pre-natal behavior because it is seen as more permanent and transmissible through the family’s ‘bad blood.’ Understanding a family’s or individual’s faith perspective can help professionals understand treatment decisions as well as develop more trusting doctor-patient relationships. Both of these benefits can greatly enhance the efficiency of autism-related interactions, from diagnosis to planning for transition into adulthood. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Neuroethics Journal Club: How early can signs of autism be detected in infants?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex disorder typically characterized by social impairment and communication deficits, and most recently the CDC has estimated that 1 in 88 American children are affected by a form of ASD.1 A reliable diagnosis for autism can be offered at 24 months, but most children are diagnosed later after attending school. For the first Neuroethics journal club of the spring semester, ILA graduate student and Neuroethics Scholar Jennifer Sarrett led a discussion on a new technology that could offer preclinical risk assessment in children as young as 2 months.

Even though children and adults with autism exhibit a wide variety of individual and unique symptoms, a common attribute of those diagnosed with autism is a deficit in the ability to make eye contact. In a paper published in Nature late last year, researchers from the Marcus Autism Center and Emory University School of Medicine used special eye-tracking equipment to measure eye fixation in children only 2 months of age and were able to observe the earliest signs of developing autism ever recorded.2 Infants that were enrolled in the study were measured at 10 different time points between the ages of 2 months and 24 months, and then an autism diagnosis was made at 36 months. Infants were classified as either high-risk for ASD if a full sibling had already been diagnosed with ASD or low-risk if no first, second, or third degree relatives were affected by the disorder. Eye-tracking was analyzed at each of the time points for 36 boy infants, 11 of which were later diagnosed with ASD (10 from the high-risk group and 1 from the low-risk group) and 25 of which were classified as typically developing. At each of these time intervals, infants watched videos of a caregiver behaving in a natural, standard manner, and the amount of time each infant fixated visually on the eyes, mouth, body, and objects in the room was measured. It was hypothesized that in the children later diagnosed with autism, a deficit in the attention given to the caretaker’s eyes would be observed beginning from the earliest time point measured.