Neuroethics Society Meeting: Environmental Factors Impacting the Developing Brain

It’s not just genetics, it’s not just diet—many factors contribute to healthy brain development in people, which continues until about 25 years of age. At yesterday’s International Neuroethics Society (INS) panel, “The Brain in Context,” three neuroscientists talked about different aspects of the physical and social environments that can affect the developing brain.

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Even before a baby is born, in utero processes can have long-term effects on brain development. Panelist Moriah Thomason of Wayne State University uses fMRI to study how the different regions of the fetal brain communicate with each other. In a longitudinal, Detroit-based study, she and her colleagues found that babies born pre-term show less brain connectivity than those born full-term. Of particular note, a small area on the left side of the brain associated with language processing showed weaker connectivity with other brain areas.

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What Makes Us Who We Are: Neuroscience and the Self

The idea of the mind is a relatively modern concept. In medieval times, it was believed that people were divided in two parts, the physical body and the spiritual soul. With the emergence of the scientific revolution and thinkers such as John Locke, the mind and secular life became an important topic in discussions about self-awareness. Since then, we have been trying to understand not only what it means to possess a mind, but also the neuroscience behind it.

That was part of the message at “My Neurons, My Self,” a panel discussion at the World Science Festival in New York City. Three eminent neuroscientists and a philosopher provided insight into the “mind-brain” problem, focusing on what defines the self. “What we don’t have yet is a way of bridging mental experience with the brain in a coherent model that allows for mental intention; we still are a ways off from solving the mind-brain problem,” said George Makari, M.D., director of the Institute of the History of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, in introducing the panel.

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Oxytocin: Separating Hype from Hope

These days it seems like claims about the hormone oxytocin are everywhere. A quick Google news search of the word “oxytocin” results in recent articles titled everything from “Why do Men Love Breasts? Titillating Theory Explains Release of Neurochemical Oxytocin,” to “Why God Doesn’t Go Away,” to “Can Oxytocin Treat Autism?” Theories linking oxytocin to a range of pro-social and altruistic behaviors has earned it nicknames such as the “love chemical,” “morale molecule,” and “trust hormone.” But are these names rooted in scientific fact?

The Dana Foundation’s latest briefing paper, “One Molecule for Love, Trust, and Morality?” separates hype from hope by delving into the latest oxytocin research and checking in with experts such as neuroethicist Martha Farah, Ph.D., and neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland, Ph.D., both Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives members.

While Farah and Churchland warn of misperceptions brought on by oversimplified reporting, Farah and others also express cautious enthusiasm about the hormone’s potential applications.

“There is a lot of hype out there,” Farah confers. But she is quick to add: “Oxytocin research does deserve the attention it’s been getting, because it represents a beautiful example of how neuroscience can illuminate important aspects of psychology and even what one might call the ‘human experience.’”

Farah is not alone in her cautious enthusiasm about oxytocin. As research on oxytocin has exploded–more than 40 clinical trials are underway investigating oxytocin as a potential treatment for a range of behavioral and psychiatric disorders–some scientists are ringing a warning bell about how little is really known about the brain chemical everyone suddenly seems to love.

Read the briefing paper here.

–Ann L. Whitman

International Neuroethics Society 2012 Annual Meeting

Paul Root Wolpe, Ph.D., is the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Bioethics and the director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University. He is also the program committee chair of the International Neuroethics Society.

It is my great pleasure to invite you to join us at the 2012 International Neuroethics Society (INS) Annual Meeting in New Orleans, October 11th and 12th, right before the Society for Neuroscience Meeting. The INS is a society dedicated to exploring the ethical, social, and legal implications of neurotechnology and clinical neuroscience. Our website can tell you more about the society, and about the agenda of our program and how to register.

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Links Between Poverty and Brain Development Raise Key Policy Issues

On June 26, more than 100 people–congressional staff, federal scientists, and journalists–gathered on Capitol Hill to listen to neuroscience experts talk about the links between poverty and brain development. The 90-minute briefing was part of a series organized by AAAS and supported by the Dana Foundation, designed to educate members of Congress and their staffs about topical issues in neuroscience.

The experts, including Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives members Martha Farah, Ph.D., and Alan Leshner, Ph.D., were on hand to explain brain development and the negative effects of stress on children, and to raise important questions about education, health, social welfare, and juvenile justice.

“The science is fascinating,” said Farah, “I think it can engage people with the awesomeness of brain development…and how it emerges from the interplay of genes and environment. It can renew people’s interest in finding solutions.”

AAAS recently published a detailed article about the event, which includes links to some of the slideshows presented.

–Ann L. Whitman

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