Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Autism and looking preferences: The ethics of pre-symptomatic detection

As I have written before, researchers at the Marcus Autism Center are working with eye tracking technologies to identify Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in young children and infants. As Katie Strong described in this blog post, a recent article in Nature, titled “Attention to eyes is present but in decline in 2-6-month-old infants later diagnosed with autism,”[1] presented the Marcus team’s most recent findings related to the early identification of ASD traits. They argue that, although there are many different ‘autisms’ with many likely causal pathways, the developmental pathway to ASD is similar. This work is an effort to capture this pathway by focusing on differences in early looking patterns. In this article, they “propose that in infants later diagnosed with ASD, preferential attention to others’ eyes might be diminished from birth onwards”(p. 427). After a brief refresher on the article’s findings and background, I will provide a deeper discussion on the neuroethical concerns. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Doing Feminist Science/Feminists Doing Science: An interview with Dr. Sari van Anders, Founder of Gap Junction Science Part II

Continued from Part I. In Part II, Dr. van Anders discusses her website, www.gapjunctionscience.org.

How did Gap Junction Science come about? Prior to Gap Junction, how did you find and network with feminist scientists?

I became really interested in the doing of feminist science – it felt very hard for me to figure things out, and there wasn’t that much community of actual feminist scientists. I wanted to develop a place where feminist science could be discussed – both practice and theory. I sometimes hear people talk about the theory as if it is practice. Of course it’s relevant, but you know what they say about theory and practice: in theory, they’re the same, in practice, they’re not. I was lucky that while I was thinking about these things, there was a call for grants at UM from our ADVANCE program for online networks in science that promote diversity. Feminism isn’t necessarily diverse, but the feminist science I envision at its heart attends to diversity. So, I wanted a space where scientists didn’t have to defend their very identity, and where feminist beliefs were a starting point, not a debate. I hoped that Gap Junction Science could be a space where feminist scientists could challenge ourselves, learn more, develop methods, and engage in a shared project. Prior to Gap Junction Science, and still, I do a lot of grassroots networking – emailing, meeting, etc. I like that ‘bottom-up’ approach and I like that now I also have a ‘top-down’ source too.

Via OffWorld Designs

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Doing Feminist Science/Feminists Doing Science: An interview with Dr. Sari van Anders, Founder of Gap Junction Science Part I

Dr. van Anders
*Editor's note. The title of this post is the title of Sari van Anders' talk sponsored by Emory Women in Neuroscience on March 20th. This post is the first of a two-part series.

Mallory Bowers, a 5th year graduate student at Emory University and President of Emory Women in Neuroscience, interviewed Dr. Sari van Anders an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, for the Neuroethics Women Leaders group. Dr. van Anders received her Ph.D. in Biological and Cognitive Psychology from Simon Fraser University. Her current research program focuses on “social neuroendocrinology, intimacy (sexuality/pair bonding, nurturance), evolution, health, gender/sex and sexual diversity, and research and feminist science practice." The interview will be published in a two part presentation. In Part I, she discusses her path to becoming a critical feminist scientist, the pitfalls of research on sex/gender differences, and how her work fits into bioethics.

Can you talk a little bit about your evolution as a feminist scientist – who or what influenced your feminism?

A very brief selected slice: I was reading feminist science studies in undergrad, but there were no courses on it. I was also so feminist-identified that I didn’t understand the value of taking feminist courses (I thought they were to teach feminism in general, and didn’t understand what feminist scholarship was). I knew I was interested in evolution, sex, gender, and socialization, but it seemed to me that you either studied one (sex/evolution) or the other (gender/socialization). This was actually a pretty fair assumption as there were almost no places to get mentoring about how to incorporate the two into one research program. In graduate school I was doing more work on biological determinism of sex, and then moved to social modulation of hormones. It was really hard for me to see how I could bring the reading I was doing on feminist science studies into my actual science practice, and most of the scientists who were interested in feminist scholarship had left science practice, so there were no guidelines about the day-to-day of feminist science (i.e., there was lots on epistemological approaches but almost nothing on epistemic approaches to feminist science). I kept reading and thinking, noticing little things I could do and claiming them for feminist science. In graduate school, I started an interdisciplinary group at my PhD institution to bring together people interested in gender and sex. And, I started teaching courses that brought the topics together (intersexualities; biopsychological approaches to gender/sex). Slowly it came together, with many missteps and much influence from seeing important ideas in feminist science studies, realizing how I could play them out in my work, and so on. I was already doing feminist science when I took my joint position in Psychology and Women’s Studies here at the University of Michigan, but being more immersed in feminist scholarship has been a major boon to my feminist science practice.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The next stage of neuroenhancement? Transcranial direct current stimulation

By Elisabeth Hildt, PhD

Dr. Elisabeth Hildt is a Senior Researcher, Reader, and Head of the Research Group on Neuroethics/Neurophilosophy at the University of Mainz Department of Philosophy. She is also a member of the AJOB Neuroscience Editorial Board.

Recently, non-medical uses of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) which aim at enhancing brain function in healthy individuals have raised public attention (Cohen Kadosh et al. 2012; Fitz & Reiner 2013; Levasseur-Moreau et al. 2013).There are companies selling tDCS devices, and one such company is foc.us, which offers a headset for $249.00 and promotes this headset as an advantage for gaming. With slogans such as: “Use the force: Let the force of electricity excite your neurons into firing faster” or “Stronger, faster, quicker: Excite your prefrontal cortex and get the edge in online gaming”, the headset is portrayed to be a cool and trendy game add-on. However, in first assessments, the benefit of the headset for gaming does not seem obvious. In internet platforms, such as reddit, people exchange detailed instructions on how to assemble and use tDCs devices for self-enhancement. In sum, it seems that there is a community of technophilic individuals who experiment with tDCS devices for self-enhancement or who give instructions for assembling do-it-yourself tDCS devices.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Lumosity: a “personal trainer for your brain”?

Is intelligence more like height or strength? Could high school students improve their IQs in time for the college entrance exams with a few weeks of “brain training” like college students pump up their biceps before spring break? For many years, psychologists believed that intelligence, and particularly fluid intelligence, is for the most part a fixed quantity – somewhat like height. Fluid intelligence, which is thought of as the ability to perceive patterns amongst noise, understand meaningful connections, and analyze information in the moment is a strong predictor of future success yet has been remarkably resistant to training1. In a way, this sounds strikingly similar to what neuroscientists once said about the biology of the brain (i.e. neurons don’t regenerate after injury and they are only lost, not added throughout life). Now we know that the brain is incredibly plastic and that new neurons are produced even into adulthood2. So, why wouldn’t an aspect of intelligence, undoubtedly a product of the dynamic brain, also be mutable? Recently, a lucrative new industry has aimed to capitalize on this notion. Web-based programs such as Lumosity.com have grown rapidly. They aggressively market their services with the assertion that they are backed by neuroscience but with a decidedly fad-diet feel. Who wouldn’t want to “unlock your inner genius”?