Transforming Ourselves: NYAS Panel Examines Human Enhancement

Guest post by science writer Carl Sherman

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Image: Shutterstock

This was the premise of a public symposium at New York Academy of Sciences, presented by the Aspen Brain Institute, the Hastings Center, and the Academy.

While the prospect demands sound scientific policy, its associated moral, social, and political issues require a broader base of expertise. The symposium accordingly brought together a genetics researcher, a futurist and author, and experts on bioethics and artificial intelligence to explore the promise and perils of human enhancement.

“All the technologies we need to fundamentally transform our species already exist,” said futurist and sci-fi novelist Jamie Metzl. “With the mapping of the genome, we could read the code of life; with gene editing technology, we can write it.”

Genomic advances are making reproductive technology transformative, he said. With preimplantation embryo screening, parents can select, among a dozen IVF embryos, one free of certain genetic diseases and with preferred eye color and gender. As personal genotyping spreads, accumulating data will clarify genetic patterns underlying personality, intelligence, physical prowess, appearance, and other traits to give parents a broader spectrum of options.

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Public Event: Managing Neuropsychiatric Symptoms in Neurodegenerative Disease

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Neuropsychiatric symptoms such as agitation, aggression and psychosis are frequently found in patients with neurodegenerative disorders. These symptoms increase the already significant burden of neurodegenerative diseases and complicate diagnosis and disease management, yet effective diagnostics and treatments are lacking.

Towards the goal of reducing this burden, this symposium will review state-of-the-art methods in the diagnosis and behavioral and pharmaceutical management of neuropsychiatric symptoms across a spectrum of neurodegenerative diseases. Speakers will address the challenges of defining neuropsychiatric symptoms in the context of neurodegenerative diseases, present findings regarding emerging diagnostic biomarkers and novel therapies, and discuss current estimates of associated societal and economic costs. A closing panel discussion will identify strategies to reduce these costs for patients, caregivers, and society.

Call for Abstracts

Abstract submissions are invited for a poster session. For complete submission instructions, please visit this online portal. The deadline for abstract submission is Friday, April 27, 2018.

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Social and Emotional Learning

Formal education often does not address the social and emotional backgrounds of children and their ability to learn, according to Ingrid Wickelgren, moderator at a recent New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) event titled Social and Emotional Learning: Preparing our Children to Excel. She argued that parents and other caregivers send children to school, assuming that the teacher will pour math, reading, and science into their tiny little brains. Bam! Done! In reality, learning is infinitely more complicated—some students are better-behaved, pay closer attention, complete homework assignments, and others don’t. The level of learning, she pointed out, is due to differences in executive functions such as attention, memory, planning skills, problem solving, and task switching in the brain. While being presented with new information and skills, children should also be given better ways such as mindfulness and other mental training to absorb and learn that information.

One of the event’s speakers, Amishi Jha, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami, focused on the concept of mindfulness, defining it as “a mental mode characterized by attention to present moment experience without conceptual elaboration or emotional reactivity.” At first, I wondered: Is she suggesting that we don’t use our brains to think? Am I “mindful”? Jha said mindfulness can train our brains to function more efficiently and calmly, without analyzing or thinking about the past or future. Most importantly, it can improve attention and other executive functions.

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Ebenezer Scrooge and the Missing Oxytocin

Christmas trees are up, menorahs are lit, and “Jingle Bells” and other holiday song favorites will be on an uninterrupted loop on radio stations ’till December 25th–the holiday season is in full throttle. It’s a time of year associated with kindness and generosity, where gifts are given to family and friends, and charitable donations increase dramatically. However, for some, like the notorious miser Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, their greedy ways are unwavering. The lecture I attended last night at the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) with Paul Zak, Ph.D., “Greed: Willing to Do Anything,” suggested there could be a neurochemical explanation for Mr. Scrooge’s miserly ways.

Scrooge
Ebenezer Scrooge (http://www.wpclipart.com/fictional_characters/scrooge.png.html)

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NYAS Event: Human Consciousness

What do you get when a neuroscientist, a psychologist, an expert in primate cognition, and a philosopher come together to talk about consciousness? A lot of questions. Can we truly ever reach an acceptable definition of consciousness? Is consciousness purely subjective? Is consciousness solely a human trait? Can neuroscience alone explain consciousness? Can a robot be conscious? Every topic relevant to consciousness, except maybe The Matrix movies, was discussed last night at the New York Academy of Sciences lecture, “The Thinking Ape: The Enigma of Human Consciousness.”

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