Malcolm Dando thinks we neuroethicists are not talking enough about the problem of dual-use: the simultaneous application of advances in (neuro)science to both improving society as a whole and to assist military capabilities. I think he is right. In an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Dando tells us that,
“in regard to the question of dual-use the advances in neuroscience have already seen application in the Russian use of some form of fentanyl, a powerful painkiller, as a novel incapacitating chemical agent to break the 2002 Moscow theater siege. Moreover, Russia is unlikely to be the only state interested in the development of such new agents, given the changing nature of modern warfare. One can only hope that neuroethicists will begin to pay some attention to the clear and present danger that the hostile misuse of modern neuroscience could lead to the erosion of the prohibition of chemical weapons embodied in the Chemical Weapons Convention and make a valuable contribution to the discussion of this problem in the run up to the 3rd Five Year Review Conference of the convention in 2013. For example, the peaceful purpose defined in Article II.9 (d) as “Law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes” could be read to mean that ordinary domestic riot control agents are a sub-category of a larger group of chemical agents that can be used legally. On this reading, novel so-called non-lethal chemical incapacitating agents based on advances in modern civil neuroscience could be developed and used. Yet all the evidence is that use of such agents would be very difficult to distinguish from the use of lethal agents; recall that more than 120 of the hostages in the Moscow theater siege were killed by the chemical agent. Such developments by states could undermine the whole prohibition and lead to a downward spiral of misuse. Therefore, this issue of dual-use should be of great concern to neuroscientists, and particularly neuroethicists, who wish to help protect civil neuroscience from such dreadful distortion of its intended purpose.”
The truth is that other than Jonathan Moreno, few neuroethicists have applied serious scholarship to the issue of dual use. Of course, it is a simple matter to just say no: neuroscience should only be used for improving the quality of human life. But frankly, that is too simplistic. One can take a rather strong position against the use of neurobiological tools for torture and killing, but there are some very challenging grey zones as well. The one that springs to mind most readily is the idea of developing ‘calmants’, agents that might incapacitate an enemy briefly, allowing them to be captured without any loss of life. As recounted in Dando’s piece, the Russians used fentanyl as an incapacitating agent to end the 2002 siege at a Moscow theatre; the consequences were disastrous, with more than 120 people killed. Of course, fentanyl is a very potent fast acting narcotic that has been around since the 1060′s. Worrying about fentanyl’s use as a ‘calmant’ is in some ways akin to worrying about methylphenidate as a cognitive enhancer: both agents have been around for a while, and while some people (college students and the Russian government come to mind) might think they are useful in one arena or another, they are really crude tools. But if a better agent were to be developed, would such incapacitation be unacceptable? Would allowing some forms of chemical warfare (there is really no other word for it) open the door to a whole new armamentarium that emerges from neuroscience laboratories? The only thing that I know for certain is that this is an area worthy of further debate.
Link to Malcolm Dando’s article
Image Credit: Nature
Cory Doctorow has a nifty little story over at Subterranean Press called Ghosts In My Head. The story is quite good, but made even better by his vision of the future of neuromarketing.
Link to Ghosts in My Head.
Image Credit Propagando o Marketing
It’s often said that metaphors for the brain reflect the technological innovations of the day; from Descartes’ pneumatic system of hydraulic neural plumbing to the mechanical models of the Industrial Revolution, and marching on through signal-processing metaphors to the computer-brain of the late 20th century. More recently, a focus on dynamic networks in the brain has a metaphorical correlate in the ever-expanding complexity and interactivity of the World Wide Web. Although some computer programmers have taken inspiration from research on neural networks, this technological traffic has tended not to go in the other direction. But when it comes to conceptions of human nature, personhood, and responsibility, scientific views of the mind both reflect, and are reflected in, our culture and ‘folk’ thinking.
The grammatically cautious amongst you might notice that I’ve been careful to use ‘correlate’, ‘reflects’, and ‘accompanied’ – as historians often remind us, these kind of narratives are only one, linear thread in a complex weft of circumstance. Where you unpick the fabric affects how it unravels. So for example, recent interest in functional imaging of the adolescent brain to explore behavioural characteristics such as risk-taking, empathising, and impulsiveness has been cited in policy discussion, but also takes place against a background of increasing angst about a supposedly violent, disaffected youth.
This dialogue between different elements of our leaky scientific world and its cultural contexts has been studied in many different ways. I’m particularly interested in what studying popular culture might reveal about how we’re absorbing, integrating, or challenging ‘neuroconcepts’. In a recent analysis of how functional brain images are represented in the media, I found many examples of a brain map being used as an iconic tool for mapping out different components of a particular domain. For example, a flyer for a book prize had one half of the brain flagged “fiction”, and the other flagged “non-fiction”, and an advert for Shell used a graphic in which different ‘brain regions’ represent different green technologies.
Daniel Buchman at the National Core for Neuroethics recently pointed out the example shown here – an advert for UBC’s Celebrate Research Week that features a simplified line-drawing of a brain, different anatomical regions flagged with various research domains. Entitled “What’s on your mind?”, and featuring the UBC motto “a place of mind” at the bottom, it seems to make a materialist statement: your mind = your brain. Continue reading
The tension is mounting between research, medicine and patient communities whose lives are affected by multiple sclerosis (MS).
Fuelled by media coverage of individual success stories of a still-unproven treatment and testimonials on social networking sites on the Internet, the methodological pace of science necessary to ensure safe and effective cures is being challenged by the need for speed for the 55,000 to 75,000 Canadians who suffer from this devastating disease.
The need is real, but the proof is still lacking.
The problem has become acute in the face of a recent pilot study carried out by Dr. Paolo Zamboni and his team in Italy. Continue reading
Imagine a brain manipulation which gives children greater mental focus, improves empathy, and increases optimism. And the cost is about $5 per child. If you think this is a fantasy, you would be wrong. The MindUP™ program, developed by actress Goldie Hawn and neurologist Judy Willis uses short bouts of mindfulness training to help elementary school children learn to regulate their own brains. Supported by the Hawn Foundation for Mindful Education, the MindUP™ program is reaping great rewards for schoolchildren in Vancouver and beyond. I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours on an airplane yesterday speaking with UBC Associate Professor Kim Schonert-Reich, one of the lead researchers on the efficacy of the MindUP™ curriculum on schoolchildren. What she told me was nothing less than astonishing.
Three times a day, kids are given three minutes of a version of mindfulness training which, in aggregate, takes them through four 30 minute lessons: (1) Quieting the mind; (2) Our senses; (3) Practical Applications; (4) Mindfulness and ourselves in the world. Because each session of the program is brief, children are not only able to manage it but love it, telling their friends & families about their experiences on a regular basis.
Kim is in the process of carrying out a proper experiment on the MindUP™ program, with some classes receive no training, others receiving sham training, and other getting the full MindUP™ curriculum. The results are not yet published, but even the non-quantitative results are compelling. When teachers who are not using the program see what a powerful positive effect it is having on kids in other classes, they clamour for having the curriculum included in their daily lesson plans. High school teachers are starting to ask for a version of the program for their students. It has turned into a full-fledged meme, spreading like wildfire in the absence of marketing. As an added benefit, MindUP™ is also making kids budding neurobiologists – each lesson is accompanied by a description of what goes on in the brain when one practices mindfulness, and kids apparently go home to their families and tell them about their brains. Continue reading
Day 2 of the conference got off to an early start, beginning with several special interest group meetings, followed by a full day of concurrent sessions, including two from our own group.
CBS Neuroethics Interest Group
This year the Neuroethics Interest group welcomed its new chair, Dr. Barbara Russell, bioethicist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and member of the Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto in Toronto, Ontario. The group spoke on the CBS Executive decision on the status of the Canadian Neuroethics Interest Group, governance of the group, and the development of a tab on the (currently under re-development) CBS website for the Group. Representatives from the three main neuroethics research groups in Canada gave updates on current happenings at their respective facilities. Syd Johnson reported from the Novel Tech Ethics at Dalhousie University; Lucie Wade reported from the Neuroethics Research cohort at the IRCM in Montreal; and I reviewed the current research activities of the Neuroethics group at the University of British Columbia. The whole interest group spoke to a need for a clinical neuroethics community to discuss cases that come up in front-line work. Those who were calling for case-based discussion were not only clinicians, but bioethicists as well. Next steps include plans for thinking about a special journal issue which includes a clinical neuroethics case, followed by invited follow-up.
It seems that everywhere I look nowadays, I’m seeing images of, or reading descriptions of, the brain in some shape or form. Sometimes the brain itself is the main focus of a book, movie, advertisement, public health campaign, blog, or news headline. For example, I’ve noticed the brain – or related terms such as ‘neuro’ or ‘mind’ – as the subject of interest in places such as Marco Roth’s piece on The Rise of the Neuronovel, films such as Minority Report and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, covers of popular public interest magazines, the purpose of computer games (‘train your brain!’), and the emergence and convergence of disciplines such as neuro-economics, neuro-ethics, neuro-anthropology, neuro-aesthetics, neuro-law, neuro-philosophy, and those which do not even start with ‘neuro’ (but nonetheless contain the word) such as socio-cognitive-neuroscience and psycho-neuro-endocrinology. Indeed, the field of neuroscience itself could be thought of as a set of disciplines devoted to the study of the mind/brain for years, which converged approximately mid-way through the 20th century. Continue reading
Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) – Canada’s largest addiction and mental health research and treatment facility – recently announced that come July 2010, three of its principle sites will be entirely smoke free. This announcement appears to be the next step from CAMH’s 2005 non-smoking policy, in which smoking was prohibited in all buildings and in the designated smoking rooms on inpatient units. Clients, staff and visitors were still able to smoke in designated areas on the grounds.
Justification for the new policy is based on the following argument:
“This is first and foremost part of CAMH’s commitment to transform care for our clients…we should not accept a lower quality of life for people with mental vs physical illness. This decision is equally motivated by health and safety – CAMH has a legal and ethical obligation to provide a safe, hazard-free treatment setting and workplace for our clients, staff, volunteers and visitors. In 2009 the primary cause of death in mental health and addictions populations was tobacco-related medical illness…”
People have all sorts of reasons to both hope and worry about the presumptive singularity – that moment when computers magically develop so much computational power that they will begin outwit us in meaningful ways. A score of science fiction stories have fed both dreams (“The answer is out there, Neo, and it’s looking for you, and it will find you if you want it to.”) and fears (“Dave. What are you doing Dave?”). My mother-in-law recently sent me a link to a short graphic presentation that captures it pretty well. Enjoy.
There have been a raft of lists of “10 books that have influenced me most” going around lately. The meme was initiated by Tyler Cowen, and picked up by quite a few other regular bloggers, mostly in the economic and political spheres. The idea is to spend some time thinking about the books that have led you to have the worldview that you presently hold. I thought it would be useful for those thinking about science and society to get in on the act. Here are mine.
- The Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin. The Big Daddy of them all. I may not have read it in its entirety, but there is little question that it has been the single most influential book on my worldview. And, IMHO, on the worldview of, well, the world.
- The Integrative Action of the Nervous System by Charles Scott Sherrington. There was much about modern neuroscience of which Sherrington was not aware, but his anticipation of synapses and the integration that goes on in nervous tissue remains highly influential.
- Principles of Psychology by William James. It is hard to imagine writing a book in 1890 that still gets cited regularly by students of the brain 120 years later. But he did it.
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Tied with 1984 as the two most influential dystopias going. BNW gets top billing only for sentimental reasons – Aldous was the grandson of my personal hero Thomas Henry Huxley, famous for being Darwin’s bulldog, winner of the infamous smackdown debate with Samuel Wilberforce and originator of the intellectually honest position of agnosticism.
- 1984 by George Orwell. See #2.
- Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Turned the dystopias of Huxley and Orwell into “Oh Oh” moments for us all. It turns out that humans really can misuse technology, to their own detriment. Introduced the concept of blowback to the general public decades before the word entered common parlance.
- The Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller. Darwin is best known for the theory of evolution via natural selection, but Miller has singlehandedly put Darwin’s other important intellectual contribution, evolution via sexual selection, on the map.
- The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. The nitty gritty of the sociology of scientific advances doesn’t get any better than this.
- Neuromancer by William Gibson. Not only did the book anticipate the concept of cyberspace, and have much to say about one potential future vision of brains, but it opened my eyes to the idea that the world might one day be ruled as much by multinationals as by nation states. Current events seem to once again corroborate Bill’s vision.
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Sweeping novel with sensitive treatments of culture, genetics, and, at its core, personal identity.
By all means, suggest your own in the comments.
Image credit: Boing Boing