Neuroethics Society Meeting: Science Communication

Tali Sharot, Alan Leshner, Joseph Fins, and Ed Yong

Gone are the days when science communication mainly consisted of publishing in peer-reviewed journals. Instead, there’s a “hunger” among scientists, and particularly young scientists, to communicate their work to public, said Alan Leshner, CEO emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives (DABI).

But just because the enthusiasm is there doesn’t mean that communicating science to a lay audience is an easy feat for scientists. “It’s not an innate skill, it’s an acquired skill,” Leshner said during a panel discussion at the International Neuroethics Society annual meeting yesterday in Washington, DC.   Continue reading

Matters of Life and Death

WSFimage

What if life expectancy expanded and we could live into our nineties and beyond in relative good health? That was one of the crucial questions debated in “Engineering Immortality,” a panel discussion at last week’s World Science Festival in New York City.

In introducing the sold-out program at NYU’s Global Center, host and ABC-TV news correspondent Bill Blakemore pointed out that American life expectancy has gone from 47 to 79 years in just a century. “Today’s scientists are growing hearts in the lab, creating organs with 3-D bio-printers, and eliminating cells that shorten life,” he said. “Will this new technology yield another dramatic increase in life expectancy?”

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Brainy Reads for Summer 2016

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Need a book to take with you on your summer vacation? We have six brainy suggestions, all written by members of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives (DABI) or prominent neuroscientists, that are perfect for a sunny day:

The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, by DABI member Frances E. Jensen, M.D., HarperCollins

“Jensen provides her sound scientific expertise and presents experimental brain data, as well as her firsthand practice of parenting through vignettes about her sons’ sometimes questionable behavior—hair dye, a car crash, her response to a son having too much to drink as a college student. Jensen also presents humorous, cliché, and disheartening teen stories and testimonials from parents who have sought her advice.” – Marisa M. Silveri, Ph.D., Cerebrum

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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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Study shows brain activity in patients considered “vegetative,” but with caveats

Imaging research suggesting that some patients thought to be
in vegetative states are actually at least partially conscious has made
headlines the past couple days. Such work is fascinating but comes with many
caveats, as Nicholas Schiff and Joseph Fins, two experts who are quoted in some
coverage, wrote
Dec. 4
in a guest post on this blog, about a similar finding.

In the new study, which appears in the New England Journal of Medicine,
European researchers found that five patients out of 54 showed patterns of
brain activity in response to commands or questions from doctors.

Earlier
work
had shown that one patient expressed brain activity in motor regions
when told to think of hitting a tennis ball and activity in spatial regions
when told to think about being in her house. Now the researchers report taking
that remarkable finding a step further: They told a man to associate thoughts
of tennis with “yes” and thoughts of being in his house with “no.” Then they
asked him a series of yes-or-no questions and looked at images of his brain activity
to see if he answered correctly—which, they say, he did.

Articles by the New York Times,
the Washington
Post
and the Associated
Press
do a good job of pointing out some of the limitations of the
research. For example, all the patients studied had suffered traumatic brain
injury. There is no evidence that the finding would translate to different
kinds of patients, such as Terri Schiavo, who had long-term damage following a
severe lack of oxygen to the brain.

To the Times and
the Post, Fins also relays a
significant ethical concern about what being able to “communicate” with a
patient in a vegetative state might imply. Fins asks: What if the yes/no
question presented to the patient were not “Have you ever been to the U.S.,”
but rather, “Do you want to die?”

“We know they’re responding, but they may not understand the
question,” Fins tells the Times. “Their
answer might be ‘Yes, but’—and we haven’t given them the opportunity to say the
‘but.’ ”

Colin Blakemore, a professor of neuroscience at the
universities of Oxford and Warwick, goes a step further, using this new study
as a springboard to discuss,
in London’s Telegraph, just what
brain imaging can (and cannot) reveal, and what the implications are for
individual privacy. (Blakemore is also a member of the executive committee of
the Dana Alliance for Brain
Initiatives
.)

Clearly, neuroscientists and neuroethicists have plenty of
work ahead of them as they assess and build upon these stirring findings. Stay
tuned to the Dana Foundation, too—we are
working on assigning a Cerebrum article about the
misdiagnosis of minimally conscious states, which we plan to publish later this
year.

—Dan Gordon

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