Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Disease or Diversity: Learning from Autism

by Jillybeth Burgado

The following post is part of a special series emerging from Contemporary Issues in Neuroethics, a graduate-level course out of Emory University’s Center for Ethics. Jillybeth is a senior undergraduate double majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology and religion. She hopes to pursue a PhD in neuroscience after working as a research assistant after graduation.

Chipmunka Publishing 
The idea that variation in behaviors arises through natural differences in our genome was popularized in the 1990s and termed “neurodiversity.” Led in large part by autism spectrum disorder (autism) activists, this movement challenged the established notions of autism as a disease that needed to be eradicated, championing the acceptance of a wide array of neural differences in the population. Rejecting terms such as “normal,” proponents of neurodiversity questioned common messaging and goals of research organizations (e.g. autism is not something that needs to be eradicated or “cured”). In this post, I briefly summarize the neuroethical concerns of ground-breaking neuroscience research, with particular focus on autism diagnostic research. I will then introduce a less well-known movement, Mad Pride, and discuss how we can apply some of the concepts and lessons from the autism and neurodiversity movements to understand and evaluate the claims of those involved with Mad Pride.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Forget the Map; Trust Your Brain: The Role Neuroscience Plays in Free Will

by Fuad Haddad

The following post is part of a special series emerging from Contemporary Issues in Neuroethics, a graduate-level course out of Emory University’s Center for Ethics. Fuad is an undergraduate junior at Emory studying neuroscience and behavioral biology and ethics. He currently performs research at Yerkes National Primate Research Center under Dr. Larry Young, studying the relationship of single nucleotide polymorphism and pair bonding. His other research interests are the relationship between oxytocin and allopatric grooming as a model of empathy. 

Lizzie laughs as we drive down Briarcliff. “What do you mean an adventure?” she chuckles at me. I have a propensity to get lost for fun, an unhealthy and interesting habit. We approach a stop light. “Left, right, straight – pick one!” I say. As we arrive at a consensus, we journey onward until we reach a green highway sign that signals the exit to Athens. Her smile gives her motive away; I think, “Sorry Emory, but I’m going to be a Bull Dog today.” 

Take a moment to fast forward four months. On a September afternoon, I sit in the same car, with the same girl, leaving from the same place. “Left, right, straight?!” I ask again. Like before, we haphazardly trek through the jungle of northeast Atlanta. In the midst of yet another game of “where can we get lost now?” a peculiar phenomenon occurs. Slamming on the brakes, the car comes to a halt. Almost instantaneously we both realize that in this seemingly random choice in direction, our choices lead us back to the same green sign again and even more interestingly, through the same path. 
I guess Robert Frost isn’t going to Athens. From southeastroads.com

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Is Multilingualism a Form of Cognitive Enhancement?

The following post is part of a special series emerging from Contemporary Issues in Neuroethics, a graduate-level course out of Emory University’s Center for Ethics.

People often ask me what language I dream in. I usually tell them that I dream in both languages – Romanian and English – and that it depends on the content of the dream and on the people featured in it. I associate emotional states with my native Romanian, while organized, sequential thinking is easier in English. Most of the time, I am not even aware of the identity of the language I produce and hear in my dreams.

Leaving the mysterious dimension of dreams behind, how does the multilingual brain navigate the world? Faced with an information-dense environment, it is able to switch its language of appraisal at the moment’s need. Consider the increasingly large group of bilingual English-speaking Hispanics in the United States. Most of them use English in their academic and work environments, then effortlessly switch to Spanish when talking to family members and other Spanish speakers. They also retrieve autobiographical memories in the original language of encoding without losing any more details than a monolingual individual. Given a context, multilingual individuals are able to adjust to the linguistic requirements of the situation. The multilingual brain is, therefore, an adaptable brain.

This leads us to the next point of inquiry. How does speaking several languages sculpt the brain? The Brain and Language Laboratory for Neuroimaging led by Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto has been investigating the differential activity in monolingual and bilingual brains during comprehension tasks, and has found that bilinguals show increased activation in the left inferior frontal cortex, an area associated with semantic processing and behavior inhibition. Another group led by Dr. Jubin Abutalebi has found that the brain of bilinguals recruits more areas when processing language than the brain of monolinguals. Finally, a recent study replicated the finding that learning a second language early in life changes the structure of white matter in the brain. This study is of particular interest, because it suggests that learning a second language later in life and using it concurrently with the first has the same effects on the brain.
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Image by Harriet Russell. From www.nytimes.com

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

So You Want to be a “Successful” Psychopath?

The following post is part of a special series emerging from Contemporary Issues in Neuroethics, a graduate-level course out of Emory University’s Center for Ethics.

Within the past two years, the media has followed the recent turn toward exploring the characteristics of a “successful” psychopath. A simple Google search on “successful psychopathy” now renders a slew of attention-grabbing articles ranging from How to Protect Yourself from a Successful Psychopath to Why Psychopaths are More Successful to Is Your Boss a Psychopath? Together, these articles reference some of America’s more fascinating psychopathic fictional characters, such as Dexter, Jordan Belfort from The Wolf of Wall Street, and Frank Underwood from House of Cards, to create a case for an adaptive psychopath. The recent discussion about the successful psychopathic personality in the media most certainly raises questions about the nature of psychopathy and the ethical implications of concluding that some psychopathic tendencies may be adaptive.
From iDigitalTimes