Tomorrow’s World Today: The 2016 International Neuroethics Society Meeting

Guest blog by Moheb Costandi.

am16-square-regearlyIn November, some of the world’s leading bioethicists and neuroscientists will convene in San Diego for the annual meeting of the International Neuroethics Society (INS).

The 2016 meeting marks the tenth anniversary of the INS. In that time, we have seen unprecedented advances in neuroscience and, consequently, a plethora of new technologies developed to further our understanding of the brain, and to fix it when it goes wrong, have emerged.

Even so, our understanding of this complex organ is far from complete. We still know very little about the causes of Alzheimer’s disease, for example, and it is widely believed that the incidence of this debilitating neurodegenerative condition will reach epidemic proportions in the years to come. Similarly, the global burden of mental health issues is expected to grow, and has been projected to affect 15% of the world’s population by the year 2020–disabling more people than AIDS, heart disease, traffic accidents, and wars combined.

Faced with these grim prospects, the U.S., Europe, China, Japan, and other countries have launched, or are set to launch, national large-scale neuroscience initiatives. Leading figures from some of these initiatives will discuss their country’s brain research efforts and the ethical issues they raise in a panel discussion and breakout sessions at the INS meeting.

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Moral Robots: How Close Are We?

world science festival robots
While we have grown accustomed to living and working in a world aided by “smart” devices, there is still a sense of suspicion when we talk about artificial intelligence (AI). Hollywood certainly hasn’t helped, with movies like “The Terminator” and “The Matrix,” but how close are we really to co-existing with autonomous, superintelligent robots?

The robots of today, at least, are not going to take over the world, said cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus one of the panelists at Saturday’s World Science Festival event, “The Moral Math of Robots: Can Life and Death Decisions be Coded?” To assuage any fears right off the bat, he encouraged audience members to watch a bloopers video from a recent DARPA Robotics Challenge. The Terminator, they are not. In fact, their fumbles are kind of endearing.
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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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