Tag: experimental subjects

Bioethics Blogs

Neuroscience hasn’t been weaponized – it’s been a tool of war from the start

A discipline neither good nor evil. Saturday Evening Post/Harris A. Ewing

What could once only be imagined in science fiction is now increasingly coming to fruition: Drones can be flown by human brains’ thoughts. Pharmaceuticals can help soldiers forget traumatic experiences or produce feelings of trust to encourage confession in interrogation. DARPA-funded research is working on everything from implanting brain chips to “neural dust” in an effort to alleviate the effects of traumatic experience in war. Invisible microwave beams produced by military contractors and tested on U.S. prisoners can produce the sensation of burning at a distance.

What all these techniques and technologies have in common is that they’re recent neuroscientific breakthroughs propelled by military research within a broader context of rapid neuroscientific development, driven by massive government-funded projects in both America and the European Union. Even while much about the brain remains mysterious, this research has contributed to the rapid and startling development of neuroscientific technology.

And while we might marvel at these developments, it is also undeniably true that this state of affairs raises significant ethical questions. What is the proper role – if any – of neuroscience in national defense or war efforts? My research addresses these questions in the broader context of looking at how international relations, and specifically warfare, are shaped by scientific and medical expertise and technology.

An Air Force video about military research on the human brain.

Weaponization of a peaceable science?

To understand the relationship between science and war, academic bioethicists, journalists and policy advisors alike typically rely on the framework of “dual use.”

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

Tobias Rees’s Plastic Reason: An Anthropology of Brain Science in Embryogenetic Terms by Nima Bassiri

Plastic Reason: An Anthropology of Brain Science in Embryogenetic Terms

by Tobias Rees

University of California Press, 2016, 352 pages

 

In the prefatory pages of Plastic Reason, Tobias Rees explains that his ethnographic study of the lab of French biologist Alain Prochiantz — one of the earliest proponents, technicians, and conceptual architects of neuronal plasticity — is ultimately “about the emergence of possibilities where before there were none” (xiii). If we are to appreciate the conceptual transformation in neuronal research that took place in France and specifically in Prochiantz’s lab in the late 1990s, Rees insists that we must view this development not only as the formation of a new style of neuroscientific thinking but also as the emergence of an entirely new object. Rees writes, “Within the roughly one hundred years I cover here (from the 1890s to the 1990s), what the brain is changed many times over. […] Conceptually speaking, each one of these changes mutated what the brain is, and each mutation changed, however slightly, the analytic focus of the neuronal sciences” (89). Plastic Reason, then, has a double focus: on the one hand to narrate and rationalize the emergence of Prochiantz’s specific doctrine of neuronal plasticity and, on the other hand, to take stock of the very object that emerged, “the enactment of a brain that is neither a fixed chemical machine nor an already wired computer, but instead a living organ characterized by ceaseless cellular becoming” (195).

Central for Rees is the claim that Prochiantz’s specific conception of plasticity — namely, neuro-cellular embryogenesis that continues into adulthood — was radically different from, and effectively sought to dethrone, the preceding dominant view of plasticity defined by synaptic rewiring.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

Linguist condemns "moral depravity of ethics protocols"

George van Driem, Professor of Historical Linguistics at the University of Bern, minces no words in condemning the “moral depravity of ethics protocols.” He argues that human subjects rules primarily serve to cover the asses of Western universities while hampering linguists in the field and insulting the people they encounter. Paraphrasing couldn’t do justice to this marvelous essay, so enjoy the block quotations. Better still, read the whole thing.

[George van Driem, “Endangered Language Research and the Moral Depravity of Ethics Protocols,” Language Documentation & Conservation 10 (2016): 243–252, http://hdl.handle.net/10125/24693].

To illustrate the problem, Van Driem offers this horror story:

One American researcher followed the dictates of the ethics protocol of the University of Oregon because the penalty for non-compliance for her would have been nothing less than to forfeit the right to earn a doctoral degree, even though, in the particular case in question, this involved just 400 Bhutanese ’ngütram, which at the time of the affair was less than US$10. The researcher was compelled to go back to a particular Bhutanese village and get a signature from a particular language informant on a receipt for this sum of money. The researcher in question did as she was told in good faith, and consequently the community ostracized her, shunning her on each subsequent visit because she had made them sign a legal document. The people of the language community later explained through intermediaries that they both felt insulted and were also genuinely afraid for having been made to sign a legal document, especially after all the assistance and hospitality which they had extended to the researcher.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics News

Sanitizing the language of clinical trials

Which would you rather participate in: a medical study or a medical experiment? Almost everyone prefers a “study”.

Since perceptions are so important for successful clinical trials, in 1995 the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments asked people what they associated with an “experiment”. “I envision all kinds of weird things done to the body, and I assume that’s not true, but also I envision a medical experiment maybe… done in a laboratory sealed up somewhere where no one even knows what [is] going on,” replied one person.

Drug companies need volunteers to test products, so the image of medical research is crucial. In 2008, Eli Lilly funded a campaign to rebadge “guinea pigs” as “medical heroes”.

In a provocative essay in The Hastings Center Report, Carl Elliott, a bioethics gadfly, asks hard questions about the ever-more sanitised language of clinical trials. He points out that in the 1960s, bioethicists used language like “experimental subjects,” “human experimentation,” and “experimentation in man.” But nowadays, the word experimentation has disappeared even from key bioethics protocols such as the Helsinki Declaration.

Yet the clinical trials are experiments and sometimes disaster strikes. Earlier this year, for instance, one man died and four others were hospitalised in France in a trial of a drug called BIA 10-2474, which had been created by the Portuguese pharma company Bial.

Even bioethicists have been affected by the slow shift away from the language of risk to the language of altruism. Elliott writes:

The choice to abandon the word “experiment” is emblematic of a larger movement beginning in the 1990s, in which many bioethics scholars moved from being critics of the research enterprise to being its champions.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

How I Learned Bioethics in Medical School

The director of the medical intensive care unit did not like the idea of having a bioethicist around. But she agreed to the request, and there he was on rounds, most mornings for several months. The year was 1986.

I was an intern at the time and my four-week medical intensive care unit rotation at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center overlapped with part of the bioethicist’s research. In reality, Robert Zussman was not a bioethicist but a sociologist who, like so many other scholars during the 1980s, had become fascinated with the new discipline of bioethics and how decisions were made in the clinical setting.

I had the occasion to revisit these events as I researched my new book, The Good Doctor: A Father, a Son and the Evolution of Medical Ethics, which examines and contrasts the medical career of my father, an infectious diseases physician who firmly believed in paternalism, with my own, which took place in an era dominated by informed consent and patient autonomy. The problems that Zussman examined–how aggressive to be with gravely ill patients and who should decide–persist today.

As a first-year medical student at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1982 and 1983, I spent a lot of time at the Center for the Study of Society and Medicine, run by Bernard Schoenberg Professor of Social Medicine David J. Rothman, a historian from Columbia University who had just been recruited to the medical center. I first met Zussman at the center, where he was based during his time at Physicians and Surgeons.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.