You are not your brain scan!

Natasha Mitchell, host of the ever interesting All in the Mind series from ABC Radio, gave a talk this past July at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas entitled, “You are not your brain scan!“.  From the liner notes on the Slow TV website:

“The study of the brain has attracted extraordinary public interest in recent years, partly driven by major scientific breakthroughs in understanding the brain’s workings. To rely on brain scans, however, risks simplifying the science and equating our brain scans with destiny, much like the early years of genetics and reporting on genetics.  In this very entertaining and insightful talk at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas, Natasha Mitchell of ABC Radio (All in the Mind) introduces a healthy note of sense and caution to the discourse about what we can learn from studying brain scans.”

Unless you have been living in a cave somewhere (and maybe even if you have), you will have noticed that images of brain scans have suffused popular culture of late.  Natasha takes us through the pitfalls of believing that the brain scans tell us what we so desperately want to know, and along the way gives a pretty good overview of  The Neuro Meme, as well as the ways that not only the public but scientists have become seduced by the power of the image of the living brain.   [One of my favorite lines: “It’s become a game of pin the thought on the neuron.” ]   Natasha’s main point is that scientists might be making claims beyond what is technically or conceptually reasonable, and I, for one, stand up and enthusiastically applaud her for taking the imagers to task over the veracity of their claims. One need not even invoke the infamous dead fish fMRI to know that there has been a bit of hyperbole out there.

[Postscript:  I would have liked Natasha’s presentation on its merits alone, but the fact that she pokes fun at the growth of neuro-everything, but then applauds neuroethics as one new subfield that is on the money, biased me even more.  I wonder if that is one of those brain things…]

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Tweeting the brain

Much is made at neuroethics conferences and in scientific journals of the broad societal implications lurking in the discoveries of neuroscience — implications for our understanding of those eternal big questions of autonomy, responsibility, identity, and just about any other topic of passionate dinner conversation.

As a few moments pause reveals, though, none of the big answers neuroethicists come up with will have those broad implications we hear about if they don’t make it to the eyes and ears of the people they’re supposed to affect — the public. And therein lies one of the less talked about issues in neuroethics: How does one communicate the neuroscientific view of the soul or of free will to a public unschooled to the ways of the BOLD response or the action potential?

In January’s issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15 science journalists, media specialists and neuroethicists — including Core director Judy Illes and intern Kevin Sauvé — lay out a proposal to improve the communication of neuroscience research by cultivating a band of media-savvy scientists to engage the public in “neurotalk.” Continue reading

Neurocapitalism

Eurozine has generously published a translation of Ewa Hess & Hennric Jokeit’s article in Merkur entitled Neurocapitalism. You can get a pretty good sense of what the authors are going off about from the first two paragraphs:

Today, the phenomenology of the mind is stepping indignantly aside for a host of hyphenated disciplines such as neuro-anthropology, neuro-pedagogy, neuro-theology, neuro-aesthetics and neuro-economics. Their self-assurance reveals the neurosciences’ usurpatory tendency to become not only the humanities of science, but the leading science of the twenty-first century. The legitimacy, impetus and promise of this claim derive from the maxim that all human behaviour is determined by the laws governing neuronal activity and the way it is organised in the brain.

Whether or not one accepts the universal validity of this maxim, it is fair to assume that a science that aggressively seeks to establish hermeneutic supremacy will change everyday capitalist reality via its discoveries and products. Or, to put it more cautiously, that its triumph is legitimated, if not enabled, by a significant shift in the capitalist world order.

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On communicating neuroethics

sciencejournalismCommunicating science to the public, as we try to do on this blog, is difficult.  The challenges are many, but none so great as to find the right level at which to pitch the story.  We try not to get too mired in details lest we lose our readers, but those of us who come from a background steeped in scientific investigation are often tempted to do so simply because of the seductive elegance of the science.

Over at Atlantic Correspondents, David Shenk speaks directly to this point with a piece entitled “On the Art of Nonfiction” – essentially the text of a speech that he recently gave at the “Great Nonfiction Writers Lecture Series” at Brown University. Continue reading

The neuro-meme

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It seems as if the neuro-meme has arrived.

Over at Nature Reviews Neuroscience, there is an article by Giovanni Frazzetto, Research Fellow at the BIOS Centre of the London School of Economics and Suzanne Anker, Chair of the Fine Arts Department at the School of Visual Arts in New York, entitled Neuroculture.

“Neuroscience addresses questions that, if resolved, will reveal aspects of our individuality. Therefore neuroscientific knowledge is not solely constrained within laboratories, but readily captures the attention of the public at large. Ideas, concepts and images in neuroscience widely circulate in culture and are portrayed in literature, film, works of art, the mass media and commercial products, therefore shaping social values and consumer practices. The interaction between art and science offers an opportunity to make the scientific community and the public aware of the social and ethical implications of the scientific advances in neuroscience.”

In the same week, over at the literary magazine N+1 editor Marco Roth has a great article entitled The Rise of the Neuronovel.  Here is the opening gambit:

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Neuroblogging at SfN 2009

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Neuroethics at the Core has been chosen to blog (or rather, neuro-blog as they say) at this year’s meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago, IL. We will be posting daily from October 17-21st about our activities, events, and experiences related to Neuroscience 2009. Kate Tairyan, Carole Federico, and myself will all be presenting neuroethics posters at SfN. If you are going to be at the meeting, please come and introduce yourself.

Anxiety about science journalism

04cover-395This past weekend, the science writer Robin Henig had a fascinating article in the New York Times Magazine on the propensity of different individuals to be more or less anxious, and how research in Jerome Kagan’s laboratory has shown that such traits can be identified early in infancy.

There.  I think that I have summarized the article fairly, without hyperbole, without an overload of geek-speak, and without any obvious untruths.  The problem is that the article itself, as interesting as it might be, is guilty of hyperbole at a minimum, potentially of untruths, and in an effort to reach out to a mass (if educated audience) or completely avoiding geek-speak.  David Shenk over at Atlantic Correspondents has begun a very useful debate with Henig about the proper role of science writing, using the article of anxiety as an example of what is proper and what is not (part II is yet to come).  It is both refreshing and healthy that Henig and Shenk are having this debate publicly; scientists, journalists and (most of all) editors should take note.  Here are a couple of relevant snippets.

Robin says:

I know that your own particular beef, David, is the language we use to describe the gene-environment interaction, which makes words like “innate” and “inborn” especially loaded.   But I’d argue that what these words mean is just “present at birth” – an observation, not a presumption about provenance.  Maybe it’s time for you and me to go back to the article itself, and see the full sentences in which I used the words that bother you — and if a casual reader would have made the same assumptions you did.  I’d also like to hear how you would have me re-write those sentences in a way that makes it clearer that neither I nor the scientists are biological determinists.

To which David replies:

I completely agree that this is a very difficult task, to distill very complex science and ideas into easily-understood and hopefully memorable phrases. And it’s that much harder to do on deadline, which you had to worry about and which I effectively didn’t when I was writing my book. I also think you and I are swimming upstream here: we’re working to dispel long-held notions, using tools (specific words) that come loaded with fixed meanings in the public mind.

And so it goes, back and forth, with the two of them spending some valuable time trying to arrive at some reasonable conclusion of how to balance the pressures that science writers face with the insistence of scientists upon not overstating the case.  But before scientists criticize science writers for such sins, perhaps we should look in our own backyard.  As it turns out, scientists (and the associated scientific publishing establishment) are hardly blame free.

A recent Letter to the Editor of the journal Molecular Psychiatry has the title of  “The human serotonin transporter gene explains why some populations are more optimistic.”  The letter goes on to describe two observations: (1) that Brazilians are “highly motivated and enthusiastic”; and (2) that one particular polymorphism in the serotonin transporter gene is 2.5 times more prevalent in the Brazilian population than in the UK.  From this, they conclude that

the association of this variant with personality traits should be validated in other population studies, it would provide an interesting biological explanation for being more or less optimistic.

Really?  I am hardly an expert in population genetics, but even a cursory examination of the data reveals that the authors have overstated their case by a fairly wide margin.  OK, so scientists are people too, and perhaps one could argue that they have a natural desire to draw the most important conclusion possible from their data (meagre as it may be).  But what about the editors of the journal Molecular Psychiatry?  Don’t they have discretionary control over which letters get published and which do not?  Isn’t this what editors are supposed to do?  After all, Molecular Psychiatry is the premiere journal dealing with issues of genetic variation and behaviour.  Shouldn’t they know better?  Methinks the answer is self-evident.

Sadly, hyperbole in scientific journals is not a rarity.  An even more egregious example arose recently in a news item (OK, it is not a scientific study in and of itself) by Cassandra Willyard in Science with the title “Early risers are Mutants.”  The article is based upon a scientific report in the same issue of the journal Science with the admittedly geek-speaky title, “The Transcriptional Repressor DEC2 Regulates Sleep Length in Mammals.”  It turns out that the authors found a point mutation in the human gene hDEC2 in two affected individuals in one family, and these individuals were regularly early risers (full disclosure: I am an early riser).  They then generated transgenic animals (both mice and fruit flies) with the relevant mutations, and found that the resultant animals also had a short sleep phenotypes.  The science is elegant, the approach thoughtful, and the conclusions given by the scientists couched in appropriate language.

Our results demonstrate that DEC2 plays an important role in regulating daily total sleep time in mammals and that the control of sleep-like behavior may be conserved and regulated in a similar manner as far back in evolution as invertebrates.

Notice that the scientists did not suggest that early risers such as myself harbour a DEC2 mutation.  Why?  Because they know that the data in humans is based on only 2 individuals.  But the headline of Willyard’s news article suggests something completely different.  It is both sensational and misleading (even if it turns out to be correct in future studies).  Again, the journal Science is one of the most influential scientific journals on this planet, and the editors seemed to have abdicated responsibility for responsible reporting by allowing this headline to go forward.

The sad conclusion from these examples is that scientists and scientific journals (and in particular their editors) are sometimes guilty of allowing hyperbole to invade the scientific enterprise.  I have no data to suggest that findings regarding the brain are more subject to being overstated than other fields, but it is worth remembering Deena Weisberg’s paper, “The Seductive Allure of Neuroscientific Explanations” in which they found that,

Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation.

The data from the Weisberg paper suggests that individuals with expert training are less susceptible to such pitfalls; perhaps it is worth probing the extent to which science writers (and editors), working in the real world, are falling under the sway of such seductions.

Don’t throw the evolutionary psychology baby out with the bathwater

Evolutionary psychology is under attack again.  Leading the charge is Sharon Begley who has an incendiary piece in Newsweek entitled, “Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around?”.  Sharon is a very insightful science writer, but her arguments seem to be driven as much by outrage as by data.

It has always been a weakness of the field of evolutionary psychology that the bulk of the research has consisted of hypotheses (some would say just-so stories) rather than data.  More controversially, some of the conclusions which followed have been politically uncomfortable to consider. But the real question is not whether they are uncomfortable but whether they reveal something meaningful about the human condition.  The proper way to arrive at that conclusion is to sharpen our thinking and carry out experiments to test these hypotheses.  Indeed, in recent years the field has moved to more rigorous forms of inquiry and data is beginning to emerge which serves to test some of the hypotheses that have been put forward.  As with any field of science, some of the hypotheses that have been put forward have been found wanting.  There is nothing really new about that.  What makes Sharon’s piece newsworthy (but at the same time a bit slanted) is that at least some of the hypotheses that have fallen were those very ones that were viewed as uncomfortable.

But frankly, these are arguments over details, the sort of thing that scientists hash out in the Q&A sessions that are the staple of scientific meetings. The bigger criticism for evolutionary psychology (evident in Sharon’s piece but much more so in the commentary by David Brooks in the New York Times) is that our brains do not consist of pre-programmed modules that were set in stone during the Pleistocene. Rather, it seems that the adaptation which has allowed us to flourish as a species is the fluidity with which we use our neural apparatus to the task at hand, whatever it may be.  This plasticity is why my brain, whose genetic programming most certainly derives from my evolutionary history, is able to master such a modern task as typing. By presenting the brain as a series of modules with fixed functions, evolutionary psychology painted itself into a corner.  The challenge for the field is really to understand something much more nuanced: how plasticity interacts with innate neural networks to produce modern behavior.

[For those interested in further commentary, some of it quite detailed with respect to the individual arguments put forward by Begley, I recommend you go hereand here and here.]

Cognitive Enhancement in The Independent

The U.K. publication The Independent has a story out today on the recent debate over cognitive enhancement, with a particular focus on using stimulants like methlyphenidate and modafinil off-label by university students.

The piece fields sound-bytes from cognitive enhancement proponents, such as John Harris, editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics, and Anjan Chattergee from the University of Pennsylvania, one of cognitive enhancements more vocal opponents.

Here’s a couple quotes from the article:

David Green, a student at the University of Harvard, told The Washington Post: “In all honesty, I haven’t written a paper without Ritalin since my junior year in high school.”

Matt, a business finance student at the University of Florida, claimed a similar drug, Adderall, had helped him improve his grades. “It’s a miracle drug,” he told The Boston Globe. “It is unbelievable how my concentration boosts when I use it.”

and then,

Some experts have condemned the trend and accused students of gaining an “unfair advantage” by doping, without explaining why it is any more unfair than hiring a private tutor or paying for exam coaching.

What I found additionally interesting was the picture of the big, bright and colourful brain that accompanied the article that, aside from its pure aesthetic appeal, has absolutely nothing to do with cognitive enhancement or really, anything related to the article at all. The presence of brain images accompanying articles summarizing cognitive neuroscience research – whether the brain image was relevant or not – may have an impact on judgements of scientific reasoning.