Cruel and Unusual Punishment

“Prison should not actually do things that are knowingly going to make people worse,” replied Hank Greely when asked about the ethical issues of solitary confinement. Greely, who is director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University, pointed out that the United States houses 25 percent of the world’s prison population. “So in that sense,” he quipped, “we’re number one!” Sitting alongside a panel of experts, Greely was one of three speakers to open up the discussion of mental health and safety for prison inmates at the annual International Neuroethics Society (INS) meeting.

From left to right: Hank Greely, Alan Leshner, James Blair, James Giordano. Photo credit: Gillian Hue

From left to right: Hank Greely, Alan Leshner, James Blair, James Giordano. Photo credit: Gillian Hue

The panel addressed prison system policy in the U.S., as well as the world’s growing mental health crisis. Alan Leshner, chief executive officer emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and a Dana Alliance member, introduced the topic as a “criminal-justice issue, a human-rights issue, and a neuroethics issue of the highest order.” The prevalence of mental illness in criminal justice is tremendous, he added, and rhetorically asked if it can be seen as a direct consequence of incarceration.

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Global Mental Health

“The burden of mental disorders is enormous, under-appreciated, and under-resourced, said epidemiologist Hans-Ulrich Wittchen at a panel on global mental health at the International Neuroethics Society (INS) annual meeting yesterday.

Wittchen was joined on the panel by epidemiologist Dana March and in-coming INS president and Dana Alliance member Judy Illes for a discussion that focused on the discrepancy between mental health disease burden and investment in prevention research, and ways to improve treatment research and access to care.

Moderator John Pickard oversees the audience Q&A with panelists Dana March, Judy Illes, and Hans-Ulrich Wittchen. Photo credit: Gillian Hue

Moderator John Pickard oversees the audience Q&A with panelists Dana March, Judy Illes, and Hans-Ulrich Wittchen. Photo credit: Gillian Hue

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SfN Dialogues Lecture: Neuroscience’s Role in the Courts

Photo courtesy of the Society for Neuroscience

Photo courtesy of the Society for Neuroscience

Diagnostic tests for judges to measure bias? Cruel solitary confinement for mentally challenged inmates? Psychological exams for individuals applying for gun permits?

These issues and more were discussed by Senior U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff in “Neuroscience and the Law: Strange Bedfellows,” the Dialogues Between Neuroscience and Society lecture at the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) annual meeting in Chicago. The session, moderated by SfN President and Dana board member Steven Hyman, featured a 30-minute talk and more than an hour of questions from Hyman and an audience of a few thousand in the McCormick Center’s main lecture hall.

Rakoff, a founding member of the MacArthur Foundation Project on Law and Neuroscience, began with a self-deprecating approach: “My science background largely consists of me being an English major in college,” he began. While he was precluded from discussing particular cases, he began with what he called “considerable ambivalence and even skepticism by judges toward neuroscience.”
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Is Professional Football Safe?

“New Data Shows 96% of NFL Players Test Positive for Brain Disease” declares the headline of a recent and alarming article from TIME magazine. Surely, if this is the case, why would anyone want to pursue a career in the sport? Well, it turns out, it may not be the case, said Alvaro Pascual-Leone of Harvard University in last night’s International Neuroethics Society event about safety in professional football.

“Much of the information we have today is based on woefully underpowered studies,” he explained. “If you want to make sound inferences of risk you need about 70 percent of the reachable public,“ which in this case would be 10,000 former NFL players (of the approximately 15,000 alive today). To put things into perspective, the study mentioned above only studied the brains of 91 former players.

INS15

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Neuroethics Seminar Series: Seeing Consciousness

shutterstock_221470261How is new technology helping us gain a better understanding of consciousness in patients with severe brain damage? If a patient is unable to communicate or even blink, does that mean he or she is completely unaware? At what point should the intentions stated in a living will be determined by the patient’s family or surrogate?

These questions were among the issues discussed at Harvard Medical School’s most recent neuroethics seminar, titled “Seeing Consciousness: The Promise and Perils of Brain Imaging in Disorders of Consciousness.” The school’s  Center for Bioethics invited Joseph Giacino, Ph.D., director of Rehabilitation Neuropsychology at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital; Joseph Fins, M.D., chief of the Division of Medical Ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College; and James Bernat, M.D., Louis and Ruth Frank Professor of Neuroscience at The Dartmouth Institute to share the stage and give a brief talk for its Neuroethics Seminar Series.

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