Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A review of The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand Enhance, and Empower the Mind

The Future of the Mind, authored by physicist Dr. Michio Kaku, explores how neuroscience might inform questions that philosophers have been debating for centuries: Do we have a soul? What happens after we die? Do we even have to die? And what would it take to produce a robot with human consciousness or emotions? To explore these questions, Dr. Kaku interviewed hundreds of scientists who are actively conducting ground breaking work in labs around the world, and from these conversations he made predictions on how these scientific findings would shape our future. The work that Dr. Kaku discusses, such as the latest advances in brain-computer-interfaces (BCI) for the disabled,1 recording dream images with MRI machines,2 or implanting memories in mice,3,4 makes for a fascinating and engrossing read from start to finish. The Future of the Mind is at its best when taking readers through these areas of research and explaining the long-term significance, however many of the neurophilosophical questions posed are largely left to the readers’ imaginations for resolution.

The Future of the Mind is divided into three parts or books, and each book delves more and more into the technology of the future and the type of society that will exist decades and centuries from now. Book I sets the stage for how important physics is for neuroscience; the revolutionary technologies such as MRI, PET, and DBS have used basic physics knowledge, as Dr. Kaku notes, to promote the explosion of advances in the field of neuroscience. The state of these technologies in current research is introduced, along with how to conceptualize consciousness, and in Book II, he discusses how these technologies will enable us to conduct acts similar to telepathy and telekinesis, manipulate thoughts and memories, and enhance intelligence. Book III revisits the idea of consciousness and explores the possibilities related to mind-altering technologies, and suggests we reframe our understanding of consciousness beyond a single type of consciousness (i.e., dreaming, drug-induced states, and mental illnesses). He also suggests that the future understandings of consciousness may move beyond humans to include robots and aliens. Book III also explores ideas straight out of science fiction such as that one day our physical bodies will be too cumbersome for travel to other galaxies through deep space, so we’ll simply leave them behind.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Translating Preclinical Test Results into “Real World” Consequences

By Jalayne J. Arias, JD, MA

Jalayne J. Arias is the Associate Director of the NeuroEthics Program and Assistant Professional Staff in the Department of Bioethics at the Cleveland Clinic. Ms. Arias’ work incorporates empirical and conceptual projects addressing critical legal and ethical issues inherent in diagnosing, treating, and researching Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions. Most recently, she served as the principal investigator for the study Stakeholders’ Perspectives on Preclinical Alzheimer’s Diagnosis: Patients, Families and Care Givers. Her recent publication, Confidentiality in preclinical Alzheimer disease studies (Neurology), addresses confidentiality concerns relevant to biomarker testing in Alzheimer’s.

In 2007, Dr. Dubois and co-authors introduced the concept of prodromal Alzheimer’s disease in their Lancet article revising diagnostic criteria. In 2011, the National Institutes of Aging and the Alzheimer’s Association supported a series of papers introducing a new paradigm for diagnostic criteria, including Mild Cognitive Impairment and preclinical Alzheimer’s disease. Both papers and new definitions of Alzheimer’s disease incorporate the discovery of Amyloid beta, a biomarker that purports to indicate disease pathology. The concept of using biomarkers, which are detectible years before a patient begins experiencing symptoms, offers the potential for offering preclinical testing in the clinical context. Yet, as researchers continue to validate biomarkers, little is known about how preclinical test results may affect patients and their families.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

When is diminishment a form of enhancement? Another twist to the “enhancement” debate in biomedical ethics

By Brian Earp, MSc

Photo by Rob Judges
Brian Earp is a Research Fellow at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford. He is an interdisciplinary researcher with training in cognitive science, experimental (social) psychology, philosophy, and ethics. With Professor Julian Savulescu, Brian is writing a book on the neuroenhancement of love and marriage, to be completed this year.

There is a big debate going on about “enhancement.” For many years now, people have realized that new technologies, along with discoveries in neuroscience and pharmacology, could be used in ways that seem to go beyond mere “medicine” – the treating of deformity or disease. Instead, to use a phrase popularized by Carl Elliot, they could make us “better than well.” Faster, stronger, smarter, happier. Quicker to learn, slower to forget. It has even been suggested that we could use these new technologies to “enhance” our love and relationships, or make ourselves more moral. 

These kinds of prospects are exciting to some. To others, they are frightening, or at least a cause for concern. As a result, there has been a stream of academic papers—alongside more popular discussions—trying to get a handle on some of the ethics. Is it permissible to take “medicine” even if we aren't “sick”? Should we be worried about “Playing God”? Do some people have an obligation to enhance themselves? And so on.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

(en)Gendering psychiatric disease: what does sex/gender have to do with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Mallory Bowers is a 5th year Neuroscience doctoral candidate working with Dr. Kerry Ressler at Emory University. Prior to graduate school, Mallory received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Pennsylvania. Mallory is interested in behavioral neuroscience, with a particular focus on how neural plasticity contributes to learning. With Dr. Ressler, Mallory is using a mouse model of exposure-based psychotherapy to better understand the neurobiology of learned fear. Specifically, her research focuses on a potential interaction between the cholecystokinin and endogenous cannabinoid systems that may underlie extinction of cued fear. Mallory was on the organizing committee for the 2013 “Bias in the Academy” Conference and is President of Emory Women in Neuroscience (E-WIN).

As I’ve become more entrenched in the PTSD field, I’ve been struck by the prominent sex/gender difference in the prevalence of PTSD (among many other psychiatric disorders) and the categorical use of male animal models. As researchers begin to explore sex differences in animal models of stress, anxiety, and fear, evidence suggests that male animals are more vulnerable to acute and chronic stress, while females appear to be more resilient (Cohen and Yehuda 2011). The results of these animal studies contradict the human epidemiological data, with lifetime prevalence of PTSD at 10-14% in women and 5-6% in men in the United States (Breslau, Davis, et al. 1991, Breslau, Davis, et al. 1997, Kessler, Sonnega, et al. 1995, Resnick, Kilpatrick, et al. 1993). In this post, I’d like to explore the ways in which socio-cultural conditioning genders an individual’s sense of self, influences definitions and language surrounding mental health, and supports frameworks of gender bias (a putative low-grade, chronic stressor) – potentially contributing to sex/gender differences observed in the prevalence of certain psychiatric disorders, specifically PTSD.

Sex and Gender Primer

Sex refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women, including sex chromosomes, gonads, and hormones. The definition of gender is more complicated, but generally refers to socially and culturally endorsed roles, behaviors, and activities for men and women. Gender can describe the relationship between one’s traits and one’s sense of self as male, female, or somewhere in between. Social and cultural influences promote gender scripts from infancy throughout adulthood. For the purposes of this post, I use the term sex/gender to acknowledge the importance of both physical and cultural features, particularly in describing the interpretations of data from human research.
Via BigStockPhoto.com