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Paul Root Wolpe

Brain enhancement: can and should we do it?

The Emory Center for Ethics and Emory’s Neuroscience Graduate Program recently co-hosted a symposium discussing the ethics of brain-enhancing technologies, both electronic and pharmacological.

Georgia Tech biomedical engineer Steve Potter explained his work harnessing the behavior of neurons grown on a grid of electrodes. The neurons, isolated from rats, produce bursts of electrical signals in various patterns, which can be “tuned” by the inputs they receive.

“The cells want to form circuits and wire themselves up,” he said.

As for future opportunities, he cited the technique of deep brain stimulation as well as clinical trials in progress, including one testing technology developed by the company Neuropace that monitors the brain’s electrical activity for the purpose of suppressing epileptic seizures. Similar technology is being developed to help control prosthetic limbs and could also promote recovery from brain injury or stroke, he said. Eventually, electrical stimulation that is not modulated according to feedback from the brain will be seen as an overly blunt instrument, even “barbaric,” he said.

Mike Kuhar, a neuroscientist at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, introduced the topic of cognitive enhancers or “smart drugs.” He described one particular class of proposed cognitive enhancers, called ampakines, which appear to improve functioning on certain tasks without stimulating signals throughout the brain. Kuhar questioned whether “smart drugs” pose unique challenges, compared to other types of drugs. From a pharmacology perspective, he said there is less distinction between therapy and enhancement, compared to a perspective imposed by regulators or insurance companies. He described three basic concerns: safety (avoiding toxicity or unacceptable side effects), freedom (lack of coercion from governments or employers) and fairness.

“Every drug has side effects,” he said. “There has to be a balance between the benefits versus the risks, and regulation plays an important role in that.”

He identified antidepressants and treatments for attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder or the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease as already raising similar issues. The FDA has designated mild cognitive impairment associated with aging as an open area for pharmaceutical development, he noted.

James Hughes, a sociologist from Trinity College and executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, welcomed new technologies that he said could not only treat disease, but also enhance human capabilities and address social challenges such as criminal rehabilitation. However, he did identify potential “Ulysses problems”, where users of new technologies would need to exercise control and judgment.

In contrast, historian and Judaic scholar Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, from Arizona State University, decried an “overly mechanistic and not culturally-based understanding of what it means to be human.” She described transhumanism as a utopian extension of 19th century utilitarianism as expounded by thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham.

“Is the brain simply a computational machine?” she asked.

The use of military metaphors – such as “the war on cancer” – in the context of mental illness creates the false impression that everything is correctable or even perfectable, she said.

Emory neuroscience program director Yoland Smith said he wants ethics to become a strong component of Emory’s neuroscience program, with similar discussions and debates to come in future years.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

Renowned Scientist Recipient of Emory’s First Annual Neuroscience and Ethics Award

Michael Gazzaniga, PhD

Michael Gazzaniga, PhD, will deliver the lecture “Determinism, Consciousness and Free Will.”

Emory University Center for Ethics, Yerkes National Primate Research Center and The Neuroscience Initiative will present the First Annual Neuroscience and Ethics Award Lecture, “Determinism, Consciousness and Free Will” on January 18 at 4 pm at Emory’s Harland Cinema at the Dobbs University Center.

The guest speaker, and first to be recognized with this award, is Michael Gazzaniga, PhD, a scientist and author considered one of the pioneers in the emerging field of cognitive neuroscience.

“Dr. Gazzaniga is a world renowned scientists who, in addition to his other accomplishments, pioneered the study of split-brained patients and so revealed how the different hemispheres of our brains function,” says Paul Root Wolpe, PhD, director of the Emory University Center for Ethics.

“He has won our First Annual Emory Neuroscience and Ethics Award because, throughout his career, he has tried to apply his scientific understandings to improve the human condition, including serving on President Bush’s Bioethics Commission and publications such as his book The Ethical Brain.  I can think of no finer choice to be the first recipient of this Award.”

Gazzaniga founded and presides over the Cognitive Neuroscience Institute and is editor-in-chief emeritus of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, which he also founded.  In addition, he is the one of the co-founders of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, which was named in the late 1970’s.

In 1997, Gazzaniga was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.  He is the past-president of the Association for Psychological Science, served on the President’s Council on Bioethics and, in 2005, was elected to the National Academies Institute of Medicine. In 2009, he presented the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh.

Gazzaniga’s book The Ethical Brain describes in laymen’s language how the brain develops a value system, and the ethical dilemmas facing society as our comprehension of the brain expands.

For more information, contact Jamila Garrett-Bell.

Posted on by Wendy Darling in Uncategorized Leave a comment
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