Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Do prison sentences alter oxytocin levels?

Editor’s Note: Guest post by NEWest Leader, Livia Merrill

Livia Merrill is a recent graduate from Tulane University in New Orleans, LA, where she has received both her B.S. and M.S. in Neuroscience. Her research of 4 years under Dr. Fiona Inglis, PhD, consisted of dendritic morphological changes in the prefrontal cortex of non-human primates after the administration of PCP. Having psychomimetic effects, this model was utilized to contribute to the study of schizophrenia and to provide for more effective anti-psychotics. Her current pursuit is under Dr. Stacy Drury, PhD to examine cortisol levels of pregnant mothers in some of the underprivileged neighborhoods of New Orleans and the epigenetic effects on their offspring. Livia’s future plans consist of research behind deviant behavior and rehabilitating subjects. Ideally, she hopes to contribute to change in the criminal justice system, where punishment can transition to rehabilitation, by demonstrating the negative effects of adverse experiences, including punishment-based systems.

The United States has the largest population of incarcerated individuals in the world; the latest available data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate there are approximately 1.6 million inmates. Such numbers not only reveal the number of imprisoned individuals but also provide an idea of the massive impact on family members, victims, and other members of society. Furthermore, recidivism rates have revealed that one-quarter to two-thirds of released persons from state prisons are rearrested within 3 years.i Personal accounts, governmental reviews, and actions by prison activists and social workers have unveiled the grave conditions of these institutions. Such examples include a 2012 case where Los Angeles deputies were accused of violently beating inmates of the L.A. County Jail Complexii and a case in 2013 where a Mississippi prison for the mentally ill was accused of being understaffed and having deplorable living conditions, such as rat infestations, rampant diseases, sexual assaults, and malnourishment of food and medicinal treatment.iii

An example of a typical cell in Orleans Parish Prison, New Orleans, LA. (Via therightperspective.org)

Health and concerns for these men and women are virtually non-existent, such as one prison in Californiaiv that had an appalling amount of suicides last year. A counterargument for lack of concern for incarcerated individuals might include the lack of finances to support such a cause; however, with shorter sentences and reduced willingness to commit nonviolent offenders, there would be funds available to focus on making prison a less negative and oppressing environment, where proper staff, medical care, and basic human rights are concerns. It is important to note that all prison facilities have varying security levels depending on the crime and how violent the offender is considered, with maximum-security prisons undoubtedly having the most questionable conditions concerning the rights of inmates. Under such conditions, we are arguably creating more antisocial individuals than the ones who were originally sentenced. Such transformation can be explicitly seen through past reviews and experiments, like the Stanford Prison Experiment.v This was designed to mimic prison conditions, where research volunteers played the role as guards or prisoners. The experiment lasted only 6 days, despite its original 14-day plan, due to the anxiety, depression, and overall dehumanizing effects on the “prisoners” and the power and aggressive traits that accompanied the “guards.” This experiment in itself portrays the effects of such drastic hierarchies on human emotion, psychology, and action.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The New Normal: How the definition of disease impacts enhancement

We’ve all been there. It’s exam week of your junior year of college with two papers due the day after a final. You’re a new faculty member with a semester of lectures to prepare and a lab to get started. You’re a tax accountant and it’s early April. There is simply too much to do and not enough hours in the day to get it all done while sleeping enough to keep your brain working like you need it to. In that situation, where do you stand on cognitive enhancement drugs? Most of us wouldn’t hesitate to grab a cup of coffee but what about a caffeine pill, or a friend’s Adderall? Many discussions about cognitive enhancement eventually come down to this question: where do we draw the line? Currently most of the cognitive enhancers that create unease for ethicists and the general public alike are prescription drugs that were originally meant to treat conditions recognized as out of the realm of “normal” such as diseases or deficits. Therefore, a key step in deciding where we should stand on the acceptability of cognitive enhancement is to determine what is normal and what needs to be medically treated. I’ll argue that one reason there is so much gray area in the enhancement debate is that delineating normal from diseased – particularly in the brain – is hardly a black-and-white matter.

Why does the definition of disease matter? Enhancement is typically defined relative to normal abilities. Anjan Chatterjee of the University of Pennsylvania suggested that “Therapy is treating disease, whereas enhancement is improving “normal” abilities. Most people would probably agree that therapy is desirable. By contrast, enhancing normal abilities gives pause to many.”1 However, many neuroethicists have wrestled with clearly defining enhancement2,3. The director of Emory’s Center for Ethics, Paul Root Wolpe argued (2002) that the enhancement debate centers on the ability of substances or therapeutics to directly affect the brain in ways that are not necessary to restore health and, certainly, to date the cognitive enhancement debate has focused primarily on pharmaceuticals, many of which are approved to treat disorders but can have effects on healthy individuals as well. Perhaps the best examples of this are methylphenidate (Ritalin) and modafinil (Provigil) which are prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy respectively, but are increasingly being used by students and professionals to boost cognitive performance at school and in the workplace3-5.

From nytimes.com

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Intellectual Property from Clinical Research on Neuropsychiatric Disorders: What Constitutes Informed Consent?

By Elaine F. Walker, Ph.D. & Arthur T. Ryan, M.A.

Elaine Walker is a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience in the Department of Psychology at Emory University and is the Director of the Development and Mental Health Research Program, which is supported by the National Institute of Mental Health. Her research is focused on child and adolescent development and the brain changes that are associated with adolescence. She is also a member of the AJOB Neuroscience editorial board.

The pace of advances in biomedical research has accelerated in conjunction with new technologies for studying cellular processes. While this progress holds promise for relieving human suffering from a range of illnesses, it also poses significant and thorny questions about the ownership of new knowledge. In June of 2013, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling on the Association for Molecular Pathology v Myriad Genetics, Inc.; all justices agreed that naturally occurring DNA sequences cannot be patented1. This ruling was precipitated by a patent owned by Myriad genetics on the DNA sequences for the human BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which are associated with human variation in susceptibility to cancer. The ruling concluded that genes are products of nature and, therefore, cannot be claimed as the intellectual property (IP) of any individual or commercial entity. Within hours after this ruling, other companies announced that they would offer genetic testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2 at a significantly lower cost than Myriad had been charging for years.

While the Supreme Court's ruling on the patentability of naturally occurring human genetic sequences had broad and immediate implications, it represents only the tip of the iceberg with respect to the contentious issues that will confront intellectual property (IP) rights for future biomedical advances. We can anticipate more ethical and legal debates regarding commercialization in the fields of proteomics (the study of protein structure and function), epigenetics (changes in gene expression mediated by RNA, as opposed to changes in the DNA code), stem cells, and the study of the human connectome (the map of neural connections in the brain). The implications of the pursuit of patents in these areas will extend to all fields of medicine, but they present some particularly complex problems with regard to the brain disorders that are the province of neurology and psychiatry.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Early Intervention and The Schizophrenia Prodrome

On May 7th the Emory University Graduate Students in Psychology and Neuroscience (GSPN) hosted a colloquium talk given by Vijay Mittal, assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In the talk, titled “Translational Clinical Science in the Psychosis Prodrome: From Biomarkers to Early Identification and Intervention,” Dr. Mittal, who received his Ph.D. from Emory, discussed some of his research on the prodrome for schizophrenia.1

Dr. Vijay Mittal
The prodrome for schizophrenia is a collection of neurological and psychological symptoms that can indicate risk for developing schizophrenia (as has been discussed previously on this blog) prior to the development of clinically relevant symptoms. Research on the prodrome is gaining much attention and funding because it could lead to a better understanding of how schizophrenia develops and better ways to intervene prior to its onset.

Mittal began his talk with a background on the schizophrenia prodrome. He explained that, though schizophrenia usually manifests itself during late adolescence, people who develop schizophrenia exhibit atypical characteristics from a young age, during the premorbid and prodromal stages. In the premorbid stage (which occurs during childhood) some minor cognitive and social impairments are present, though they are hard to differentiate from typical development. In the prodromal stage (which starts during puberty) those traits worsen and new ones develop that are similar to (though less frequent and severe than) the main symptoms of schizophrenia (both the positive and negative). Common symptoms of the prodrome include perceptual aberration, paranoia, mild delusions (which can be distinguished from reality2), depression, anhedonia, cognitive decline, and social withdrawal.

The positive, negative, and cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia.
Via dasmaninstitute.org.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

“Pass-thoughts” and non-deliberate physiological computing: When passwords and keyboards become obsolete

Imagine opening your email on your computer not by typing a number code, a password, or even by scanning a finger, but instead by simply thinking of a password. Physical keys and garage door openers could also become artifacts of the past once they are replaced with what could be referred to as pass-thoughts. Just last year, researchers at UC Berkley used EEG signals emitted from subjects as biomarker identifiers to allow access to a computer. The entire system – the headset, the Bluetooth device, and the computer – had an error rate of less than 1%.1 While wearing EEG headsets to open our devices may seem futuristic, this type of scenario could become more prevalent in the future due to advances in physiological computing (PC). Physiological computing is a unique form of human computer interactions because the input device for a computer is any form of real-time physiological data, such as a heart-rate or EEG signal. This is in stark contrast to the peripheral devices that we are familiar with today, such as a keyboard, remote, or mouse.2

The field of physiological computing is still quite new, but research has suggested that different physiological computers require varying degrees of intentionality from the human user, and that the devices can be placed on a spectrum.3

Via physiologicalcomputing.net

On one end of the spectrum are technologies where users can deliberately interact with input devices based on voluntary muscle movement such as electrooculography (EOG) to direct the movement of a cursor (shown in 2 on the spectrum).4 In contrast, brain-computer-interfaces (BCI)­ such as the exoskeleton showcased at the recent first kick for the 2014 World Cup, bypass this step­ since BCIs are often developed for those with diminished movement capacities and disabilities. However, in both cases the general principle is the same: the interface is ultimately translating a neural signal that the user has specifically and deliberately directed to complete a task.5