Neuroethics and the BRAIN Initiative

brain-initiative-neuroethicsNeuroscience “is the science that is going to change the way people live, die, and think about themselves,” said Stanford Law professor Hank Greely during the third annual BRAIN Initiative investigators meeting, held in Bethesda, Md., last week. Research into the workings of the brain raises many ethical questions, some common to bioethics and others—such as questions of agency, consciousness, and identity—that are unique to the brain and central nervous system.

Neuroethics has been mentioned from the first public announcement of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative in 2013; a BRAINI workgroup is devoted to the topic. It is one of nine BRAIN Initiative priority funding areas for the coming fiscal year (grant info). At this meeting, a regular session was devoted to the topic, featuring five of the members of the workgroup, and it also came up in other sessions.

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Ethics in Practice: DBS for Depression

new-ins-logo“When I am depressed, everything—standing, stepping, speaking, moving, pursuing a train of thought—gets hung up on that loop…that ends up feeling like paralysis. I can’t. I want to. I can’t. If I finally do break free, my sense of self gets left behind. It’s as if momentum comes at the cost of identity.”

Neuroscientist Helen Mayberg gave this quote, from an anonymous patient trying to describe what life was like before her depression was treated with deep brain stimulation (DBS), at the final session of the 2016 International Neuroethics Society (INS) meeting, in San Diego on Friday. Mayberg was one of three panelists offering the audience different perspectives of using the experimental and invasive implantation (it requires surgery deep into the brain) for depression. Philosopher Sarah Goering spoke about the ethical concerns from patients who utilize DBS devices, and neuroscience writer Mo Costandi discussed how DBS is represented in mass media.

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Competing Perspectives in Neuroethics

new-ins-logoThe Friday morning panel at the International Neuroethics Society (INS) annual meeting invited four speakers from four backgrounds–medicine, law, social sciences, and philosophy–to discuss the competing perspectives in neuroethics. Each panelist gave a short presentation on how their discipline approaches neuroethics, but the heart of the discussion came in the question and answer session with the audience where they delved into the opportunities and pitfalls of having such a highly diverse field.

Because it’s a relatively new field with impressive disciplinary diversity, there is no defined career path for a neuroethicist. A graduate student looking to pursue a neuroethics career earnestly asked the panel how he should do so, since many established in the field had rather circuitous paths to the profession.

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The Ethics of Emerging Technologies

Large crowd for the event, which was open to the public.

Large crowd for the event, which was open to the public.

At last night’s International Neuroethics Society public program, we heard from eight speakers on the ethics of emerging technologies, addressing the potential benefits and risks they raise when applied to health care.

Kate Darling, a specialist in human-robot interaction at MIT, talked about her experience with robots and her hopes and concerns for mainstream integration. She opened her presentation with a personal story from 2007, when she became the owner of a baby dinosaur robot, the size of a small cat, that responded to touch. She would often show it off to friends, demonstrating how it cried when she held it upside down. After a while, though, Darling began to notice that it upset her to hear it cry.

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From the Archives: Encouraging Brain Literacy

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Image courtesy of the University of California, Davis, Center for Neuroscience

In 2010, we invited Michaela Labriole, then a science instructor at the New York Hall of Science, to share ways to promote brain-science literacy in schools. Firstly, she writes in her essay for Cerebrum, why limit learning about the brain to science classes?

Teachers can utilize the strong connection between neuroscience and other subject areas to boost scientific literacy. Some students find certain topics in neuroscience, such as neurotransmitters, very abstract. By tying in other subject areas, especially through hands-on techniques, educators can improve student understanding. They can easily turn neurons into an art project by using pipe cleaners and other materials to model different structures, or into an exercise in physical education by asking students to use their arms as axons and dendrites to pass a ball that serves as a neurotransmitter…

Students routinely learn that they must wear bicycle helmets, stay away from drugs, and eat properly, but they are not always taught how helmets, drugs, and nutrition can affect brain function. By making clearer connections to material already being taught, educators can increase students’ understanding of the brain. For older students, presenting brain scans from people who have used drugs or suffered brain trauma make the brain-health connection more evident. For younger students, creating brain hats can help illustrate both the importance of protecting the brain and fundamental ideas such as cortical localization of function. This basic concept states that while some structures may have roles that overlap, and some structures may do multiple jobs, in general there is a division of labor in the brain. Understanding this basic idea primes students for deeper exploration of neuroanatomy. There are many brain-hat templates available on the Internet; educators can create paper hats that students label with the various parts or functions of the brain. For young learners, one could simply put a picture of an eye in the back of the brain hat rather than use words like occipital lobe or visual-processing center. By having students label the hats this way and then wear them, an educator can ask students to consider what would happen if they fell off their bikes and hit their heads in different areas.

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