Friday, December 30, 2011

Ethics and Memory-Altering Drugs

In the last several years new research has come out that may indicate that our memories are not set in stone and may perhaps be erasable. In the article Give memory-altering drugs a chance, author Adam Kolber presents many ethical challenges facing research of memory altering drugs. Kolber writes that society is alarmed by the prospect of altering memories fearing a person’s sense of identity may be lost as well as the ability to lead a true and honorable life. However, this fear and excessive debate over the ethics of memory alteration is, at this point, extreme and could delay key research in therapies for people who are debilitated by their memories. I believe that the current research on memory modification is worth pursing and with proper regulations, like any intense therapy, can meet most ethical challenges.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Benefits of Memory-Altering Drugs

Pharmaceutical drugs that dampen memories and/or dissociate memories from physiological reactions have the potential to provide powerful benefits for society. There are widespread wars, natural disasters, and other traumatic events that cause people to suffer from their memories of these events, the most extreme manifestation being PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder has been notoriously difficult to treat with therapy alone and the addition of pharmaceutical drugs to the treatment regimen may speed the healing process and make it more complete. Propanolol, for example, has been shown to reduce physiological responses during mental imagery of a traumatic event (Brunet et al. 2007). In PTSD, strong physiological responses tag memories as important and increase the frequency with which the brain recalls the traumatic memory, thereby driving a positive feedback loop, which is difficult to disrupt. A drug like propanolol that decreases physiological responses associated with a traumatic memory may be a promising way to disrupt the positive feedback loop and pave the way towards a faster and more efficient healing process.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Memory-Altering Drugs, Do We Really Have the Right?

The debate surrounding the use of memory-altering drugs is an important one – mainly because the social implications and the ethical questions raised are huge and varied, and also because there’s a compelling argument to be made for both sides.

The case for the use of such technology – specifically, memory dampening drugs for the treatment of victims of trauma – is fairly straightforward. A number of individuals who have suffered a traumatic experience go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and have to deal with a host of long-term psychological and physiological symptoms that severely affect their day-to-day life. Many of them believe that making that traumatic memory disappear would provide them with much-needed relief, allowing them to live happier lives. If this is truly the case then surely, every effort should be made to restore to these people the quality of life they deserve, unfettered by any emotional scarring caused by a traumatic incident. But of course, we don’t know that it IS true yet, which is where the problems arise. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Give Mind-Altering Drugs a Chance

Recent studies in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) research have identified several pharmacological treatments that promise to lessen the emotional pain associated with memories of traumatic events. These recent advances have sparked early debates surrounding the ethics of pharmaceutically “dampening” memories, fears of unwanted memory manipulations, and misconceptions of full-blown memory erasing in the future. In a recent Nature article, Adam Kobler, a Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, and the editor of the Neuroethics and Law Blog, argues that these fears surrounding pharmaceutical memory manipulation are “overblown” and instead hinder important research that is needed to help individuals cope with and recover from emotionally distressing memories1.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Ethics of Memory-Altering Drugs

Disturbances in memory represent some of the most frightening aspects of several psychiatric and neurological diseases. It gets right to our sense of self as in many ways our memories shape our view of the world and are critical for our ability to function normally in it. We are often surprised, though, to find just how fallible our memories can be, especially for highly stimulating or traumatic events. Kubie took a particularly cynical view of the matter in a 1959 comment suggesting that humans have trouble telling the truth even when they try.[i]

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Fourth Installment: First Year Neuroscience Students at Emory Write about the Ethics of Memory-Altering Drugs

This year, Emory’s First Year Neuroscience Graduate Students were asked to write a blog post for the Neuroethics portion of their Neuroscience and Communications Course.

These posts are delivered in 4 weekly installments, each week featuring a commentary on a different neuroethics piece. This is final installment!

This week, we feature blogs covering the following article:

Neuroethics: Give memory-altering drugs a chance Nature 476, 275-276 (2011)

Want to cite this post?
Rommelfanger, K. (2011). Fourth Installment: First Year Neuroscience Students at Emory Write about the Ethics of Memory-Altering Drugs. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

Friday, December 23, 2011

Sham Surgery: All Options Should be on the Table

The issue of whether or not a sham brain surgery is necessary for the research of Parkinson’s disease is complicated. Following several decades, different treatments for Parkinson’s disease have been developed, such as cell implantation, fetal nerve-cell transplantation or gene therapy. There was some common point that the radical or significant effect on the improvements of motor disability or balance control was found during the phase I trial; however, during the phase II trial, the treatment effect did not precede that in the sham-surgery control group. In an ethical point of view, is it ethical to easily and immaturely shift studies failed in the phase II trial without regard to the potential values to patients? Besides, due to the shortage of funding resource, fewer and fewer research groups could afford the expensive sham-surgery which is also too risky to find enough subjects of the control group to compare with the experimental group. Therefore, increasing numbers of scientists started to argue about whether the sham-surgery is really necessary.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

In Support of Sham Surgery

A control group seems to be an undisputed cornerstone to a strong study. So what happens when people say the control group is muddling the conclusions? This is the opinion dividing researchers who develop surgical treatments for Parkinson’s disease. In the last decade, several interventions that appeared promising in Phase I trials failed to have a significant impact in Phase II (sham-controlled) trials and subsequently were abandoned [1,2,3,4]. Many patients who benefited from the early trials say that the sham controls are obscuring the efficacy of the much-needed treatments. Meanwhile, proponents of the sham controls claim that the controls are necessary to demonstrate the efficacy of a treatment, especially in light of the robust placebo effect in the Parkinson’s population. Katsnelson’s article “Why Fake It?: How ‘Sham’ Brain Surgery Could Be Killing Off Valuable Therapies for Parkinson’s Disease,” presents an interesting discussion of this issue [5]. The ethical concerns of the two groups are as follows:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Questioning Controls in Sham Surgery

The article Why Fake It? How ‘Sham’ brain surgery could be killing off valuable therapies for Parkinson’s disease brought up differing viewpoints on sham surgery. Proponents of sham surgery claim that they are critical about discovering whether new treatments actually work or if the positive outcomes are based solely on placebo. While opponents of sham surgery argue that the sham surgeries are unnecessary and detrimental to advancing therapies.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

In Defense of Sham Treatment

There is an ethical dilemma in neurosurgical trials regarding the use of sham surgeries as placebo controls. There have been countless instances of treatments that showed promise during preliminary trials, but failed to move past phase II clinical trials when the treatments proved ineffective compared to sham controls (Freed et al., 2001 & Olanow et al., 2003). The article “Why Fake It? How ‘Sham’ brain surgery could be killing off valuable therapies for Parkinson’s disease” discusses the issues regarding using shams in neurosurgical studies particularly in Parkinson’s disease.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Ethics of Sham Surgery: Thoughts from a graduate student of neuroscience

I am on my way to become a scientist. In this phase of my life I am finding out how to, as one of our ethics professors puts it, “tease apart the fabric of the universe!” It is an interesting journey! The pursuit of science has taught us much through the millennia: how to build great monuments to the sky, how to heal our sick, what lies beyond the stars, what lies within our minds, etc. Scientists before me have expanded the scope of that which is accomplishable today. More so, they have shifted the views of our selves, of each other, and of the space in which we live. With such an impactful pursuit, it is incumbent upon any who would practice science to perpetually consider the effects of each contribution. Likewise, the public must be mindful of their role in guiding the arm of research—through public opinion, financial support, and the law—and develop thoughtful stances on the topics of the day.

Third Installment: First Year Neuroscience Students at Emory Write about the Neuroethics of Sham Surgeries

This year, Emory’s First Year Neuroscience Graduate Students were asked to write a blog post for the Neuroethics portion of their Neuroscience and Communications Course.

These posts will be delivered in 4 weekly installments, each week featuring a commentary on a different neuroethics piece. This is the third of four installments.

This week, we feature blogs covering the following article:

Experimental therapies for Parkinson’s disease: Why fake it Nature 476, 142-144 (2011)

  Want to cite this post?
Rommelfanger, K. (2011). Third Installment: First Year Neuroscience Students at Emory Write about the Neuroethics of Sham Surgeries. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

Friday, December 16, 2011

Conflicts with Pinker’s Assumptions

Congratulations, citizen of the world! You’ll be pleased to know the world you live in has become remarkably less violent in the past 50-100 years AND on top of all that, it’s all thanks to YOU! You, and absolutely every other fellow human being currently living, are amazingly intelligent, exceedingly compassionate, and astonishingly advanced in your use of logic and reasoning. As a result of these impressive improvements beyond the traits of previous generations you’re responsible for making the world a safer, less violent place. Sound too good to be true? I think it’s a bit audacious myself, but according to a recent article and book by author Steven Pinker this is exactly what has been happening over the course of the past century. Pinker argues that contrary to popular notions, incidences of violence world-wide have been shockingly low compared to other periods in world history, and that this decline stems directly from our capacity for reason. As Pinker states, “the most important psychological contributor to the decline of violence over the long term may.. be reason.”1

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Pinker’s Wishful Thinking

Steven Pinker’s particular brand of wishful thinking reeks of pandering at best, ivory tower blindness at worst. In citing a few convenient “statistics” (evoking the term liberally), sprinkled with a few self-serving platitudes, Pinker deftly paints a caricature of reality and history that converges to his thesis. To say that Pinker isn’t an entertaining artist would be disingenuous.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Rise of Nonviolence

World War I. The Holocaust. The Partition of India. The Khmer Rouge. Rwanda. Darfur. Each is a twentieth century event in which at least 500,000 people were killed based on their race, ethnicity, ideology, or religion. Now what if someone told you that despite these recent atrocities, our world is becoming increasingly nonviolent? That the incidence of major war, homicide, rape, abuse, and intolerance have all precipitously declined since the Middle Ages, and especially within the past 50 years? You might meet that argument with some skepticism. In his latest book, The Better Angles of Our Nature1, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argues exactly that. Pinker illustrates that historical criminology data overwhelmingly indicate the modern world is far less violent than we conventionally realize. According to Pinker, this is a result of our “better angels” of self-control, empathy, morality, and reasoning, triumphing over our “inner demons,” for four reasons: 1) the Leviathan; 2) gentle commerce; 3) the expanding circle; and 4) the escalator of reason.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Pinker: A Correlation Between Ability to Reason and Levels of Violence?

Violence, as Pinker suggests in his article “Taming the devil within us,” is something that has percolated through the eons of mankind when one considers what it is to be human. But—what exactly is violence? When one takes a closer look at what it means to be violent, one will encounter varying definitions even within a given culture. For instance, while some people love to hunt and animal research is ubiquitous in scientific research, there are those that abhor such things and find them extremely violent. Moving between cultures exponentially confounds the issue, as in many cultures it is perfectly acceptable and common practice to beat your spouse—something which those of us in the United States would find quite alarming and violent.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Graduate Student Neuroethics Publishing Opportunity!

**Special Graduate Student Issue**   
Call for Papers 
For the 
American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience 
Seeking short (~3000 words) submissions from graduate students in all disciplines on topics in Neuroethics including:
Addiction agency animal experimentation – attention – awareness – brain damage –  culture – free will –computers –  consciousness –  decision making – deep brain stimulation – brain manipulation – distributed cognition – dualism – ecology – emotion – enhancement – evolution – explanation – extended mind – feelings- brain imaging – genetics – identity – intentionality – introspection – knowledge – language –l earning – memory – metaphysics – military applications – mind-body interaction – moral belief – moral intuition – moral judgment – moral knowledge – moral responsibility – moral theory construction – neural networks – neuroanatomy – neurobiology – neurophilosophy – perception – personhood – pharmacology – philosophy – reason – psychiatric disorders – psychosurgery – psychotherapy – representation – responsibility – self, theory – truth – unconscious mechanisms
Please submit your manuscripts to
By January 31st, 2012
for the summer 2012 issue of AJOB Neuroscience
All submissions will be peer reviewed 

Second Installment: First Year, Neuroscience Students at Emory Write About Neuroethics of the Brain and Violence

This year, Emory’s First Year Neuroscience Graduate Students were asked to write a blog post for the Neuroethics portion of their Neuroscience and Communications Course.

These posts will be delivered in 4 weekly installments, each week featuring a commentary on a different neuroethics piece. This is the second of four installments.

This week, we feature blogs covering the following article:

Decline of violence: Taming the devil within us by Steven Pinker Nature 478, 309-311 (2011)


Want to cite this post?
Rommelfanger, K. (2011). Second Installment: First Year, Neuroscience Students at Emory Write About Neuroethics of the Brain and Violence. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

Flaws in Pinker’s Argument

In his article “Taming the devil within us,” Steven Pinker argues that violence in modern society has decreased over time. He states that there are three main factors propelling this change, empathy, morality, and most importantly, reason.

Pinker begins this discussion by proposing “evidence” to support his claim that violence has decreased over time, especially in the recent years after World War II. He provides anecdotal evidence to support his claims, while never exploring actual statistical numbers or experimental evidence. For example, Pinker states that “If you added up all the homicides…the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes…and… genocides…they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest.” When considering the potential causes behind a behavioral phenomena, one must agree that the phenomena exists to begin with. I do not necessarily disagree with Pinker in his assumptions, but I do not see any substantial evidence to indicate that violence is actually decreasing in human society.

In order to investigate this theory, a systematic review of the history of violence would need to be conducted. This study would necessitate not only the number of times an act of violence occurred at a particular time in human history, but what precipitated the act (for example what the social pressures/circumstances were) in addition to the severity of pain inflicted. Moreover, Pinker never clarifies exactly what he means by the use of the term “violence”. In the general sense of the term, many incidences of “violence” could be included that have risen in the last 50 years, such as weapons being brought onto school campuses (1). Additionally, Pinker never clarifies whether he is referring to violence in adults, children, or even people with physical or psychiatric disorders. In order to examine why there has been a decline in human violence over the course of our existence, one must have to provide evidence to support that this phenomenon is actually occurring in the first place.

After this proposal, Pinker states that this decline has occurred because people are more actively inhibiting their violent tendencies. This inhibition comes about through the increase of empathy, morality, and also reason. To be honest I don’t even know where to begin when addressing the problems I have with these arguments! I am not saying that they have no validity whatsoever, but again, Pinker does not provide any conclusive evidence to support his ideas.

Pinker puts the most emphasis on the third explanation, reason, so that is where I will focus. Specifically, Pinker posits that reasoning people will abstain from violence in order to maintain their own well being. History has shown that people will also engage in violent behavior in order to maintain their own well being. Societies, including countries, will risk and sacrifice the lives of their soldiers in order to prevent “worse” violence and/or violence in their home countries, a prime example for which is the most recent Iraq war. “Reasoning” people will also partake in violent activities based on other motivating factors, including social pressure. A social experiment conducted in a high school in 1967 turned normal sophmore students into “aggressive zealots” in only about one week’s time (2). This experiment was conducted in order to better illustrate to students why and how German citizens sided with Nazis in the second World War. Another example of social pressure’s effect on “reasoning” people were the Milgram experiments which showed that individuals will inflict pain on others simply because an authority figure told them to do so (3).

Pinker provides a very simplistic approach, which needs to be subjected to much more scrutiny and detail than what is provided in this article in order for his argument to be taken more seriously.

–Jodi Godfrey
Neuroscience Graduate Program

Want to cite this post?
Godfrey, J. (2011). Flaws in Pinker’s Argument. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

3.) Behavioral Study of obedience. Milgram, Stanley The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol 67(4), Oct 1963, 371-378. doi: 10.1037/h0040525

Friday, December 9, 2011

Response to “The Making of a Troubled Mind”

Prophylactic medicine is the new medicine. The primary ethical issue brought up by the paper revolves around the notion of diagnostic testing. Everyone wants to try and catch the disease early so that we can come up with treatment options and help them salvage whatever quality of life they have left. The problem arises because these tests are not perfect. They sometimes miss the targets, leading to false negatives. They also sometimes hit targets that aren’t actually targets, leading to false positives. In both cases, there could be catastrophic consequences. It’s usually one or the other though. So when the condition is more dangerous than the treatment, it’s important to minimize the false negatives, such as in the case of cancers. When the treatment is more dangerous than the condition, however, it’s important to minimize the false positives, such as for hypercoagulability. In the case of schizophrenia, it appears that the symptoms of the condition outweigh the commitment and side-effects of treatment.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

“The Making of a Troubled Mind”

David Dobbs describes new developments in schizophrenia research, prodromal schizophrenia, and potential new treatments for the disorder in “The Making of a Troubled Mind”. He cites several recent advancements in researchers’ understanding of the disease and indicates that targeting GABA receptors is a promising pharmacological therapy. Like many psychiatric and medical diseases, schizophrenia presents itself in various subtle ways before it may be clinically recognized and diagnosable. This is because the mechanisms behind the disease—dysfunctional pyramidal and chandelier cell structure and activity, at least in part—are present throughout a person’s life but only start causing significant, noticeable problems in adolescence. Pre-clinical signs of schizophrenia may include paranoia, cognitive impairments, hallucinations or “peculiar” thoughts.

Dobbs mentions a survey to assess a young person’s risk of developing schizophrenia—the Structured Interview for Prodromal Syndrome. It has shown up to an 80% accuracy rate for predicting which young people will go on to have a psychotic episode over the next two-and-a-half years. Diagnosing someone with prodromal schizophrenia could provide the opportunity for them to begin an antipsychotic regimen early, as well as “psychotherapy, cognitive training [and] family therapy”. It seems perfectly benign on the surface, but herein lays the question of ethics: how beneficial is it to administer this survey to adolescents?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

“Dans le doute, mon cher… abstiens-toi”1?

If science has one defining tenet, it would be the pursuit of knowledge. By pushing boundaries and expanding the horizon of the possible, science itself seems antithetical to the old adage "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise."2 But the philosophy of truth and the reality of its application are two very different things. As clinicians’ ability to diagnose conditions earlier and earlier improves, a complex ethical issue arises. Where exactly does one draw the line between the bliss of ignorance and the benefits of knowledge? Such a debate hinges on two questions: What are the inherent ramifications of that knowledge, and what benefits does it grant. The first question is the more complex, as it begs at the very ontology of disease, when knowledge is but an echo of future sorrow, whose ears wish for such a burden. Yet by knowing the future, you can prepare. Thus knowledge, in itself, of a future disease or disorder is a double edged blade. It cuts through the wilds of uncertainty, but not without drawing the blood of its wielder. The second question is less metaphysical. As the science of bio-markers improves and genetic screenings become commonplace, disease may become as predictable as the weather. If this prediction permits valuable treatment that could turn the tide of fate, then aren’t all the difficulties of knowing, suddenly so much less damning? Healthcare as we know it could be transformed. People will no longer get disorders, they will get antidotes. When knowledge offers a way out of doom, only the fool would cover his ears.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ethical Implications of Diagnosing High-risk for Schizophrenia

In the last decade, there has been a push to develop and characterize a diagnosis for adolescents at high-risk for schizophrenia, called prodromal risk syndrome.1 The Personal Assessment and Crisis Evaluation (PACE) clinic in Melbourne, Australia, was first to develop a classification of prodromal syndromes.2 The disease of schizophrenia is most typically diagnosed in early adulthood, when most schizophrenics experience their first psychotic break, therefore, early intervention tactics are aimed at adolescents. This is one of the reasons that the PACE clinic is located in a shopping mall.3

On the other side of the globe, the North American Prodrome Longitudinal Study (NAPLS) has been developing and improving methods to reliably diagnose individuals in the prodrome stage. Once identified, they offer these individuals psychotherapy, family therapy, drugs, or cognitive training to hopefully lessen the progression of symptoms. Their method of assessment scores symptoms including family history of psychosis, unusual or fragmented thoughts, school or social troubles, as well as peculiar emotions, behaviors, and thinking, such as; paranoia. After following the individuals for two years, they developed an algorithm that successfully predicts progression to schizophrenia with an accuracy rate of 80%.1 While this is an impressive rate of accuracy, many ethical implications are raised by both the existence of false positives and true positives. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Risks of Schizophrenia: Is Early Intervention Always Beneficial?

John Forbes Nash Jr. was a brilliant mathematician at Massachusetts Institute of Technology when in 1959 he began to exhibit extreme paranoia and erratic behavior. Later that year, he would check into a mental hospital where he would be diagnosed with schizophrenia. Although over 50 years have passed since that time, schizophrenia has no cure, no well-defined cause, and no means of prevention.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

First Installment: First Year, Neuroscience Students at Emory Write About the Neuroethics of Schizophrenia and the Prodrome

This year, Emory’s First Year Neuroscience Graduate Students were asked to write a blog post for the Neuroethics portion of their Neuroscience and Communications Course.

These posts will be delivered in 4 weekly installments, each week featuring a commentary on a different neuroethics piece.

This week, we feature blogs covering the following article:

Schizophrenia: The making of a troubled mind Nature 468, 154-156 (2010)

Want to cite this post?
Rommelfanger, K. (2011). First Installment: First Year, Neuroscience Students at Emory Write About the Neuroethics of Schizophrenia and the Prodrome. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Welcome Our Inaugural Neuroethics Scholars!

It is with great pleasure that the Emory Neuroethics Program announces its inaugural neuroethics scholars!  The Neuroethics Program invited graduate students to create and to join collaborative, interdepartmental faculty teams at Emory and in the Atlanta community to pursue Neuroethics scholarship.  Graduate students were free to propose projects of interest to them. Proposals included innovative ideas in the arena of teaching, empirical research, new media, and beyond. By the completion of their one year appointments, each scholar is expected to co-author a paper and present his/her work.  The selection process was quite competitive. Abstracts of their proposed projects can be found below.

Cyd Cipolla and Kristina Gupta (Innovative Neuroethics Teaching)

Cyd Cippola and Kristina Gupta

We both work in the field of feminist science studies, a field that has challenged the gender biases of scientific knowledge. In her dissertation research, Cyd examines the role of religious, psychiatric and popular representation in the creation of “violent sex offender” legislation in the United States, and the relationship between this criminal category and sexual identity categories. In her dissertation research, Kristina examines the interplay between scientific and medical approaches to “nonsexuality” and the efforts by some individuals to define “asexuality” as a sexual identity category. Through our research, we both became interested in the role that neuroscientific research plays in defining some types of sexuality as deviant or pathological and in influencing public understandings of certain types of sexuality.

Based on this interest, we applied to the Neuroethics Scholars Program both to increase our own knowledge about the field of Neuroethics and to contribute to this emerging field. As Neuroethics scholars, we will develop and teach a course during the spring of 2012 titled “Feminism, Sexuality, and Neuroethics.” The course is being offered through the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and is cross-listed with the Department of Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology. Students in this class will learn the major topics and themes within the field of Neuroethics through critically examining historical and contemporary scientific research on sexuality and the brain. We will cover a variety of topics, including homosexuality, sex/gender differences in sexuality, violent sexual offenses, sex addiction, sexual desire disorders, and monogamy. Students will read a scientific study or studies on the topic alongside reports about the study in news media outlets, and then follow this by reading critiques of the work from both inside and outside the scientific community. No previous experience with neuroscience research or sexuality research is required to take the class. Our goal is to enable students from all disciplines to understand the scientific research on its own terms, to develop the skills required to analyze the ethical implications of this research, and to develop an understanding of how neuroscientific research is conveyed to the public through media.

In addition to teaching the course, we plan to make our syllabus publicly available and to write an article reflecting on our experiences teaching the course. In this way, we will contribute to the resources available for teaching about Neuroethics. We are very excited about this opportunity and we look forward to sharing our experiences with you. We would also appreciate any feedback, suggestions, or advice you have to offer!

Jason Shepard (Innovative Empirical Neuroethics Research)

Jason Shepard

I am interested in exploring the links between beliefs in free will and pro- and anti-social behaviors. Some neuroscientists and psychologists often claim that data from the brain and behavioral sciences are providing evidence against the existence of free will. These claims range from the more modest (but still controversial) claims that the data is showing that our free will is much more limited than we suppose to the much stronger claims that the data is showing that free will is an illusion. These anti-free-will claims are no longer confined to the pages of academic journals; these claims have also been regularly making their way into the popular media. In a separate line of research, psychologists have experimentally demonstrated that by exposing people to texts that claim that free will is an illusion, people tend to cheat more (Vohs & Schooler, 2008) and they tend to be less willing to help and tend to be more aggressive (Baumeister, et al , 2009). These findings have raised some important ethical questions such as: If exposing people to anti-free-will texts can have deleterious effects on people’s behaviors, might there be harmful social consequences of scientists publically making anti-free-will claims? If there are harmful social consequences of scientists publically making anti-free-will claims, are there any ethical constraints placed on those who might be tempted to publically make anti-free-will claims? Though the current evident suggests that these are questions that deserve serious attention, the current evidence does not yet justify an answer to these questions. From the current studies is not really clear what are the specific mechanisms that lead to reduced beliefs in free will and the behavioral changes, whether the results will generalize beyond the lab , or whether the behavioral effects will persist beyond a single testing session. All of these issues need to be adequately addressed in order to have a clear understanding of what exactly is at stake, whether the stakes warrant any proscriptive advice, and what exactly should be the content of the proscriptive advice. In order to help answer these questions, Jason proposes (1) to explore the specific mechanisms that can lead to reduced beliefs in free will at a finer grain level than previous studies; (2) to try to generalize the results to a wider range of ecologically valid measures of pro- and anti-social behaviors; and (3) to explore the time course of the behavioral effects.

Jason Shepard is a first-year psychology PhD student in the Cognition and Development Program at Emory, where he works in Phillip Wolff’s Cognition and Linguistic Systems Lab. He also holds an MA in philosophy with a concentration in Neurophilosophy from Georgia State University. In addition to studying the behavioral effects of beliefs in free will, Jason also studies intentional action, causal structure, and other related phenomenon.

Want to cite this post?
Rommelfanger, K. (2011). Welcome Our Inaugural Neuroethics Scholars! The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


Baumeister, R., Masicampo, E.J., DeWall, C. N. (2009) Prosocial Benefits of Feeling Free: Disbelief in Free Will Increases Aggression and Reduces Helpfulness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, pp. 260-268

Vohs, K. and Schooler, J. (2008). The value of believing in free will: Encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating. Psychological Sciences, 19, pp 49-54.

Monday, November 28, 2011

“The Ethics of Designer Brains”: Interview with Paul Root Wolpe on Big Think

Director of Emory’s Center for Ethics talks about the ethics of designer brains on Big Think.

“Our values as a society will determine which psychopharmaceuticals and (down the road) which genetic enhancement technologies we choose to develop and how we use them.

That’s what concerns Dr. Paul Root Wolpe, senior Bioethicist at NASA and a pioneer in the field of neuroethics. Peering into his children’s and grandchildren’s future, he sees an America that rewards competitiveness and productivity over relationship-building, and suspects that future generations will face intense pressure to enhance their minds and bodies in unhealthy ways.

The politics of technophilia vs technophobia aside, our power to manipulate our brains and genes is increasing dramatically – and it raises serious ethical questions.”

Neuroethics Journal Club documented by artist Jon Ciliberto

Jon Ciliberto artist and all around jack-of-all-trades documented our last Neuroethics Journal Club on Neurotechnologies and Lie Detection via painting/drawing.  Thanks, Jon!

by Jon Ciliberto

Our next Neuroethics Journal Club
will be on December 14, 2011. We will be discussing the AJOB Neuroscience article, “Deflating the Neuroenhancement Bubble,” and Emory Neuroscience Graduate student David Nicholson will facilitate this session.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Lie Detection and the Jury

Much virtual and actual ink has been spilled of late about the dangers of rushing to bring brain-imaging technologies into the courtroom.  Not only neuroskeptics,[1] but also preeminent neuroscientists,[2] have urged caution when it comes to the prospect of fMRI data being admitted as trial evidence.  And brain-based lie detection, as one of the most alluring areas of imaging research, has in particular come in for a great deal of hand-wringing.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Project Guerrilla Science: Neurobiological Origins of Zombies!

The Neuroethics Program made some new friends at the Society for Neuroscience meeting (SfN). Project Guerrilla Science presents, *ah hem*, research on necroneurology.
From the office of: Bradley Voytek, Ph.D. (Post-doctoral Fellow, University of California, San Francisco) & Timothy Verstynen, Ph.D. (Post-doctoral Research Associate University of Pittsburgh) —- “HUMANS! We appreciate your interest in the zombie sciences. Necroneurology is the most exciting new thing to hit neuroscience since mirror neurons! We look forward to future possible collaborative opportunities. We encourage all scientists to take part in Project Guerrilla Science at next year’s SfN. Be on the lookout for other, fun (maybe even non-zombie!?) research projects in the future. This has been surprisingly fun and successful (and has garnered us way more media attention than our actual research… ::sigh::). Please send any and all brains you may encounter–zombie or otherwise!”

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Neuroethics Blog Post on CNN Blog by Dr. Paul Root Wolpe: No mind-reading allowed!

Director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University, Dr. Paul Root Wolpe puts his foot down on CNN’s Belief Blog.

Dr. Paul Root Wolpe, neuroethics expert

“Throughout human history, the inner workings of our minds were impenetrable, known only to us and, perhaps, to God. No one could see what you were thinking, or know what you were feeling, unless you chose to reveal it to them.”

Read more about it by following the link below.
My Take: Keep government out of mind-reading business

International Neuroethics Society: Summary of what you (may have) missed!

Greetings from DC!  The Neuroethics Program is busy hobnobbing with some of world's most cutting-edge, interdisciplinary group of innovative thinkers at the International Neuroethics Society (INS)!

In case you didn't get the chance to attend this year, here is a brief summary of what you missed. The full list of events can be seen here and featured events from Day 1 of this year's meeting can be seen here.

This year INS hosted its annual meeting at the Carnegie Institution for Science. Day 2 of the annual INS meeting was an exciting and inspiring day featuring outstanding sessions. Each session highlighted some of the most pressing topics in the field of neuroethics.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

International Neuroethics Society: Careers in Neuroethics Session

Greetings from Washington DC! The Neuroethics Program is on the road attending the International Neuroethics Society Meeting and Society for Neuroscience.

Have you been wondering how to begin your journey toward a career in neuroethics?

The 2011 International Neuroethics Society (INS) Meeting featured a Neuroethics Careers Session.  INS meeting organizers, including Emory Neuroethics Program’s Gillian Hue, put together a stellar panel of speakers including Alan Leshner, AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science); Paul Root Wolpe, Emory University; Emily Murphy, Stanford and Hank Greely, Stanford.

“You enter the field almost always obliquely,” Paul Root Wolpe of Emory told the audience. “You get into bioethics through a story.”

To learn more about his story, a summary of this panel discussion can be found on the Dana Foundation’s Blog.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Neuroethics Playlist

We have put together a playlist of songs about neuroethics, the brain, and the mind. Below you will find a Prezi presentation that includes the music and brief descriptions of each of the songs.

Special thanks to the followers on our Facebook page for their helpful suggestions.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Ted Talk: Trust, morality — and oxytocin

“What drives our desire to behave morally? Neuroeconomist Paul Zak shows why he believes oxytocin (he calls it “the moral molecule”) is responsible for trust, empathy and other feelings that help build a stable society.”

For more read our previous blog post “Liquid Trust and Artificial Love” here.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The need for collaborative definitions in neurodegenerative disease research

As the population ages, public concern regarding neurodegenerative diseases is rapidly accelerating. Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is estimated to effect 5.3 million individuals in the United States alone [1], and treatment options for these patients remain limited. The cause of pathogenesis in AD has remained elusive, severely limiting therapeutic developments.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Neuroethics journal club: Right-brained, wrongly reasoned

Who’d believe there’s a liberal professor (he freely acknowledges he belongs to this group) that’s willing to admit that conservatives might be right about something? Don't get too excited; he also thinks the reasoning that many conservatives use to decide what’s right is all wrong. What’s more, he thinks that neuroscience proves the way that many conservatives reason is wrong. The professor, Dr. John Banja, led a discussion of one of his articles last Wednesday at the second meeting of the Neuroethics Journal Club hosted by the Neuroethics Program at the Emory Center for Ethics.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Neuroethics Recommended Awesome Reading (RAWR)!: Neuroethics, Gender and the Response to Difference

The Neuroethics Blog first installment of RAWR (Recommended AWesome Reading) features an article by Emory's own Dr. Deboleena Roy.
Deboleena Roy

Dr. Deboleena Roy is an Associate Professor of Women's Studies and Neuroscience & Behavioral Biology. Dr. Roy's academic interests and background are exquisitely interdisciplinary. Trained as a neuroendocrinologist and molecular biologist, Dr. Roy uses her perspective as a neuroscientist to explore dimensions of feminist theory and feminist ethics.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Prodrome: The Evaluation of Risk for Schizophrenia

How has research on schizophrenia recently changed?
In the past twenty years, schizophrenia research has turned its attention to the symptomatic period preceding a transition to the first episode of psychosis1. In an attempt to prevent or at least dampen the cognitive, social, and psychological deterioration associated with the development of schizophrenia, research has identified a host of symptoms now described as “prodromal symptoms” to schizophrenia2. The prodrome is the period of subclinical symptoms that develop prior to the onset of an illness, such as visual aura leading up to the onset of a migraine. With schizophrenia, these symptoms have a diverse range of manifestations from depression to grandiosity (an unrealistic sense of superiority), have no definite linear progression, and can only be retrospectively identified as prodromal schizophrenia once a transition has occurred. Until the patient develops full onset schizophrenia, symptoms can only be accurately described as putatively prodromal3

"Kaleidoscope Cats": Paintings of cats by artist Louis Wain reflecting the development of his schizophrenia over a period of time. Images from the Bethlem Royal Hospital Archive and

Can clinicians predict a future onset of schizophrenia?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Oxytocin: Liquid Trust and Artificial Love

The website for the company Vero Labs sells a product called Liquid Trust. It is a hormone-based spray that, when applied like a cologne, is supposed to help win the trust of those around you. According to the website, the spray contains “pure human Oxytocin”, a hormone and neuropeptide that is involved in emotions such as trust, social bonding, and even love.  The idea of a commercially available product that can secretly control the behavior of those nearby seems too far-fetched to be possible, and, in fact, it is. But surprisingly, the problem with Liquid Trust is not the ingredients but the dosing.  In a 2005 Boston Globe Article neuroeconomist Paul Zak explained that the amount of oxytocin that would be inhaled by standing next to someone wearing Liquid Trust is not enough to have any behavioral effect and called the product “totally bogus”.

A bottle of Liquid Trust

So then, what can oxytocin do if taken in a high enough dose?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Neuro-rehabilitation: A vision for a new justice system

In the wake of Troy Davis’ execution, we’re reminded to revisit conversations about the efficacy of our current legal system and notions of justice. Often the arguments for or against capital punishment are weighted with broader moral conversations and convictions than conversations about more specific aspects of our legal system and mechanisms of social justice.

Others, like Will Campbell, say it more plainly, “Capital punishment. I just think it’s tacky.”
When we ask ourselves, “Do you believe in capital punishment?” Two simple answers might come to mind:  

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

1 hot brain pic > 1k words?

Pretty pictures of brains with some parts lit up: Do they convince us that scientific results are real? Do they convince us more than text or bar graphs? McCabe and Castel ask these questions in their 2008 article "Seeing is Believing".

(The above is not an actual figure. It was pirated mercilessly from a   paper unrelated to this post by yours truly.)

Last Wednesday, Dr. Karen Rommelfanger presented McCabe and Castel's paper at the first meeting of a new journal club hosted by the Neuroethics Program at the Emory Center for Ethics. Karen began by talking about how pervasive those pretty pictures of brains have become. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) seems to be everywhere (a good introduction to how it works can be found here). Some companies, such as Cephos ("The science behind the truth") and NoLieMRI (who make up for their lack of a snappy slogan with their rhyming name), claim to use fMRI scanners as giant lie detectors, while other companies promise that they can use neuroimaging and related techniques to help with marketing.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Now about this brain business

On the Neurobusiness Group website the text, "Amygdala activation can tell us from first impression whether leaders are profitable or have greater leadership ability," is displayed at the bottom of a picture of a faceless man in a well-tailored business suit. He is standing in a ready position, tie blowing in the wind, in front of a backdrop of expansive monochromatic blue mountains. He is back-lit by sunlight, and a laser beam of light slices through the sky as if to grant him special other-worldly gifts from the heavens. The perspective is set so that you feel you are below looking up to him, as you aspire to be him, from a lower (management) position. And perhaps the most clever detail is that the man's face isn't well-defined sending the message that, "This could be your face. You can be this guy with high amygdala activation foretelling exceptional leadership ability above those with low amygdala activation."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Post-doctoral position in Bioethics/Neuroethics at the University of Geneva

An amazing opportunity to do postdoctoral research in neuroethics in Switzerland!

Post-doctoral position in Bioethics/Neuroethics

The Institute for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Geneva Medical School in Switzerland is opening one post-doctoral position in bioethics. This position is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

9/11 Memories and Neuroscience

As part of the opening 9/11 events at Emory there was an excellent panel discussion on memorialization moderated by the Center for Ethics, Dr. Edward Queen and led by ILA’s Dr. Angelika Bammer, and Psychology’s Dr. Marshall Duke, as well as his brother, Mike Duke, a survivor of the World Trade Center attack.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Announcing the Neuroethics Scholars Program @ Emory University



Are you interested in the ethical and social implications of neuroscience and neurotechnology?


The Neuroethics Program of the Emory Center for Ethics is proud to announce the Neuroethics Scholars Program. The program is open to graduate students in any discipline who want to develop their interests at the intersection of neuroscience and ethics.

Deadline for applications: October 15, 2011

Sponsored by the Emory Center for Ethics and its Neuroethics Program, and funded by the Emory Neurosciences Initiative, the Neuroethics Scholars Program is an unprecedented opportunity for Emory graduate studentsto become active in the national Neuroethics community.

Graduate students are invited to propose collaborative or independent projects of interest to them, which could include areas such as:

  • Developing Neuroethics curricula and co-teaching Neuroethics topics in both academic and public arenas
  • Developing and executing interdisciplinary empirical Neuroethics research projects
  • Developing and implementing New Media projects to promote awareness of Neuroethics topics and public outreach
  • Exploring the application of neurotechnology in political, social, educational, or health arenas.

Applications with new and innovative ideas that challenge the boundaries of Neuroethics are strongly encouraged.


Scholarship support is $4000 per year and can be used to supplement current stipends with the approval of the student’s mentor or Division Graduate Supervisor (DGS).

For more information, please visit our website.