Tag: neurosciences

Bioethics News

Criminal Law and Neuroscience: Hope or Hype?

August 1, 2017

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Most commonly, many thought that traditional notions of criminal responsibility would be undermined for various reasons, such as demonstrating that people really cannot control themselves as well as we believe, or as indicating that more action was automatic, thoughtless and non-rational than we think. Most radically, the neuroexuberants argued that neuroscience shows that no one is really responsible because we are not agents; rather, we are victims of neuronal circumstances that mechanistically produce our epiphenomenal thoughts and our bodily movements. Similar claims were made when the genome was cracked. The age of cognitive, affective, and social neuroscience (behavioral neuroscience)—the neurosciences most relevant to law—is almost two decades old. What have we learned that is legally relevant and how has it transformed criminal law doctrine and practice?

Despite the astonishing advances in neuroscience, most of what we know is not legally relevant, has not transformed doctrine in the slightest and has had scant influence on practice except in death penalty proceedings. The reasons are conceptual, scientific, and practical. The first and most basic conceptual problem is that we have no idea how the brain enables the mind and action, although we know that it does. If your brain is dead, you have no mental states and do not act. The brain/mind/action connection is one of the hardest problems in science and neuroscience is not about to crack it anytime soon, if ever.

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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

Criminal Law and Neuroscience: Hope or Hype?

By Stephen J. Morse

Stephen J. Morse, J.D., Ph.D., is a lawyer and a psychologist. He is Ferdinand Wakeman Hubbell Professor of Law, Professor of Psychology and Law in Psychiatry, and Associate Director of the Center for Neuroscience & Society at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Morse is also a Diplomate in Forensic Psychology of the American Board of Professional Psychology. He has been working on the relation of neuroscience to law, ethics and social policy for over two decades, has written numerous articles and book chapters on these topics and has edited A Primer on Neuroscience and Criminal Law (Oxford University Press, 2013, with Adina Roskies). He was previously Co-Director of the MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Project and was a member of the MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Research Network. Professor Morse is a recipient of the American Academy of Forensic Psychology’s Distinguished Contribution Award, and a recipient of the American Psychiatric Association’s Isaac Ray Award for distinguished contributions to forensic psychiatry and the psychiatric aspects of jurisprudence. 

The discovery of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in 1991, which permits non-invasive imaging of brain function, and the wide availability of scanners for research starting in about 2000 fueled claims that what we would learn about the brain and behavior would transform and perhaps revolutionize criminal law. Most commonly, many thought that traditional notions of criminal responsibility would be undermined for various reasons, such as demonstrating that people really cannot control themselves as well as we believe, or as indicating that more action was automatic, thoughtless and non-rational than we think.

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

What is Feminist Neuroethics About?

By Ben Wills

Ben Wills studied Cognitive Science at Vassar College, where his thesis examined cognitive neuroscience research on the self. He is currently a legal assistant at a Portland, Oregon law firm, where he continues to hone his interests at the intersections of brain, law, and society.
As the boundaries of what may be considered “neuroethics” extend with the development of new kinds of technologies and the evolving interests of scholars, its branches encounter substantial structures of adjacent scholarship. “Feminist neuroethics” is a multidimensional construct and a name that can be afforded both to approaches that fall within the bounds of mainstream neuroethics and metatheoretical challenges to the scope and lines of debate within neuroethics. While acknowledging that scholarship at the intersections of academic feminism/gender studies, feminist science studies, ethics, and neuroscience is much more substantial and diverse than I’m considering here, my modest aim in this post is to highlight how the label “feminist neuroethics” has been used to look at what scholars consider important for neuroethics. In so doing we can see what scholars in these fields see as worth highlighting when identifying their work as such.

The phrase “feminist neuroethics” is young, first used (to my knowledge) in peer-reviewed literature by philosopher Peggy DesAutels in her 2010 article on “Sex differences and neuroethics,” published in Philosophical Psychology (though see Chalfin, Murphy, & Karkazis, 2008 for a close antecedent). She writes that, having found herself considering the ethics of neuroscience, the neuroscience of ethics, and sex/gender differences, her “overlapping approach could neatly be summarized as feminist neuroethics” (p.

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

Prescription of psychotropic drugs doubles for US retirees

The number of US retirees taking three or more psychotropic drugs has doubled between 2004 and 2013, according to a new paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study, lead by researchers from the University of Michigan and Columbia University, found that doctors were approximately 150% more likely to prescribe psychiatric, sleep, or pain medications to patients over the age of 65.

The researchers reviewed annual government surveys of office-based doctors, and focused on the prescription of at three three of a list of psychiatric, sleep and pain medications like Valium, Prozac, OxyContin and Ambien.

“Between 2004 and 2013, annual polypharmacy visits by adults 65 years or older increased from 1.50 million…to 3.68 million”, the researchers state.

“The biggest jump was in rural areas,” Dr. Mark Olfson, one of the principal authors of the paper, told the New York Times. “[This] suggests to me that the increases partly reflect doctors and patients falling back on medications when they have little access to other options”, he said.

Experts expressed concern at the findings, saying that polypharmacy — the prescribing of three or more psychiatric drugs — can bring dangerous side-effects.

“I was stunned to see … that despite all the talk about how polypharmacy is bad for older people, this rate has doubled,” Dr. Dilip Jeste, a professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego, told the New York Times.

The researchers found that nearly half — almost 46 percent — of people with at least three prescriptions had no diagnosis of mood, chronic pain or sleep problems.

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

Residency Opportunity: Brocher Foundation

Residency Opportunity: Brocher Foundation

November 29, 2016

The Brocher Foundation is located on the shores of the Geneva Lake, in Hermance (Geneva – Switzerland). The Brocher Foundation residencies last between one and four months. They give researchers the opportunity to work at the Brocher Centre on projects on the ethical, legal and social implications for humankind of recent medical research and new technologies. Every month a dozen of visiting researchers live and concentrate on their research project at the Foundation.

WHY APPLY?

  • Write a book, articles, an essay, a monograph or your PhD thesis in a peaceful environment
  • Have the opportunity to meet other researchers from different disciplines and countries
  • Have the opportunity to meet experts from numerous International Organizations & Non- Governmental Organizations based in Geneva (WHO, WTO, WIPO, UNHCR, ILO, WMA, ICRC, … )

The Brocher Foundation offers to successful applicants an accommodation in the domain of the Brocher Foundation and work space with all facilities.
Developing a research project involving cooperation with a Swiss university, a European university, a governmental or non- governmental will be considered as an asset.

A researcher can apply with other researchers to work on a collaborative project.

Topics of the Year 2018:

Among the following disciplines: Bioethics, Medical Anthropology, Health Economics, Health Policy, Health Law, Philosophy of Medicine and Health, Medical Humanities, Social Science Perspectives on Health, Medical Ethics, History of medicine.

Proposals of the following topics are notably welcomed: Equitable access to medical care, Biobanks, Biosecurity and Dual Use Dilemmas, Clinical Trials and Research on Human Subjects, Genetic testing and screening, Health Care Reform, Nanotechnology, Neglected diseases, Pandemic planning, Reproductive technology, Stem Cells and Cell Therapy, Organ transplantation, Cyber Health, Neurosciences, Synthetic Biology.

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

Ethically Sound Episode 5: Gray Matters

The fifth episode of the Bioethics Commission’s podcast series Ethically Sound, “Gray Matters,” is now available. The Bioethics Commission has released 10 reports on a variety of ethically challenging topics. Ethical issues in neuroscience were the focus of the reports Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society (Volume 1), and Gray Matters: Topics at the Intersection of Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society (Volume 2).

The two Gray Matters reports responded to a charge from President Barack Obama, in conjunction with the announcement of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a White House Grand Challenge. President Obama asked the Commission to “consider the potential implications of the discoveries that we expect will flow from studies of the brain.” In Gray Matters Volume 1, the Bioethics Commission recommended early and explicit integration of ethics into neuroscience research. In Gray Matters Volume 2, the Commission focused on three “cauldrons of controversy” in neuroscience: cognitive enhancement, research involving participants with impaired consent capacity, and the use of neuroscience in the legal system.

This episode of Ethically Sound opens with a narrative from Dr. Stephen Morse, Associate Director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Morse discussed a case where neuroscience was used as the basis of an insanity defense in a murder trial, as the defendant had a cyst in his left frontal lobe that the defendant’s legal counsel argued had impaired his judgment. When discussing the two positions taken by the prosecution and the defense, Dr.

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

Law and Reality Half-Arrives in the Supreme Court’s Abortion Jurisprudence

(This blog post was originally published by Stanford Law School on June 27, 2016)

On June 27, in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the Supreme Court, by a five to three vote, reversed the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and reinstated the decision of the district court invalidating two aspects of Texas’s restrictive abortion statute, H.B. 2.   Those provisions required all physicians at the clinic to have admitting privileges at an acute care hospital within 30 miles and further required that all abortion clinics meet all the requirements for outpatient (“ambulatory”) surgical centers.

The majority, in an opinion written by Justice Breyer (a Stanford graduate though he went somewhere back East for law school) refused to apply the standard used by the Court of Appeals, a look at whether there was an undue burden on women’s right to an abortion based almost entirely on unexamined assertions by the State’s lawyers. (The legislature made no findings, so these were not even “facts” allegedly found by it.) With this emphasis on “Law and Reality,” the majority had no difficulty finding that the statutes unduly burdened the abortion right, as the (non-existent) benefits of the legislature were vastly outweighed by its (substantial) costs.

I applaud this decision and wait, confidently, for its application to many of the other TRAP laws (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) adopted by states as part of an anti-abortion strategy of “death by a thousand laws”. At the same time, I do wish the Court had been willing to take the next step toward Law and Reality.

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

Notes from the field: Critical Juncture at Emory

by Lindsey Grubbs
Early in April, Emory University hosted the third iteration of Critical Juncture. This annual(ish) graduate-student-led conference focuses on intersectionality, examining interconnecting dynamics of systems of oppression including racism, sexism, ableism, and classism. This year’s conference, while maintaining a broader focus on the complexities of identity and oppression, took as its theme “representations of the body”: which bodies are, and perhaps more importantly which are not, represented in science, politics, the arts, and the academy, and what forms do these representations take?
From its beginning, the conference has links to neuroethics at Emory. One of the co-founders of the conference, Jennifer Sarrett, was a past Neuroethics Scholars Program Fellow. This year, I—one-time managing editor of this blog and current intrepid neuroethics blogger—served as one of the co-organizers.


The focus at this year’s conference was on increasing opportunities for interdisciplinary engagement. The disciplinary backgrounds of our organizational team made this possible: we had one doctoral student in English and bioethics (me), one in public health (Ilana Raskind), a third in microbiology and molecular genetics (Kellie Vinal), and (now Dr.) Jennifer Sarrett stepped in as faculty mentor from the Center for the Study of Human Health. We arranged for a variety of presentation and conversation formats in the hopes of inspiring more cross-talk and examination: seminars with established thinkers at Emory, a poster reception with flash talks (and plenty of food and drink), and interdisciplinary panels arranged, when possible, with an eye to disciplinary diversity. For example, one panel brought together speakers from the medical school, English, history, and Behavioral Science & Health Education to tackle intersections of race, gender, and medicine.

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

Sex/Gender: Part II: What’s Fixed, Changeable, Changing? by Constance Cummings

A Critical Moment: Sex/Gender Research at the Intersections of Culture, Brain, and Behavior

FPR-UCLA 2016 Conference Summary

Part 2 of the FPR-UCLA conference on sex/gender, which was chaired by cultural anthropologist Gilbert Herdt, explored aspects of brain and behavior that are “fixed” by evolution and biology and other aspects that create, reflect, and respond to human social and cultural environments. Speakers in the first session addressed, in Darwin’s phrase, the “entangled bank” of biological, evolutionary, and cultural contexts of sex/gender differences in brain and behavior, while the second session offered a closer examination of “intimacies”– partnerships, marriage, sexual orientations, desires, and practices. A common theme throughout was the instability of the sex/gender binary or, as Carol Worthman observed, the “loss of easy dichotomies” more generally. Perspectives varied widely depending on level of analysis, but there was a general willingness to “work with and speak across difference” (Worthman).

For neurobiologist Donald Pfaff, who presented experimental research focusing on autism, sex is a biological category/variable. Other speakers were more willing to extrapolate from biology, and in so doing, challenge what Sarah Richardson referred as our “essentialist” understandings. For social neuroendocrinologist Sari van Anders, even a “quintessential” male hormone like testosterone can be deconstructed (van Anders, 2013). Another common theme was gender-role and sexual fluidity, addressed from evolutionary (Fessler), hormonal (Rilling, van Anders), and situational/contextual (Diamond) perspectives. Finally, field research by anthropologists (Borgerhoff Mulder and Boellstorff) in non-Western and virtual settings underscored human flexibility and adaptiveness.

The talks revealed significant advances in our understanding of the underlying mechanisms and dynamic aspects of sex/gender-related behavior and their exquisite attunement to historically and culturally specific environments.

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

Human sexual dimorphism. Do men and women also have different brain structures?

There are differences in the brain structure between men and women. The brains of adult males are 14% larger than female brains, with larger ventricles and a higher ratio of white grey matter; however, no differences were found in the hippocampus

Some time ago, we discussed an article by Martínez-Morga, Felipe Navarro and Salvador Martínez, from the UMH-CSIC Institute of Neurosciences in Alicante (Spain), in which the structural differences in the brain of men and women were confirmed, stating that: “The brain is the most complex organ in the body, on which mental functions and behaviour depend. It is evident that the differences that characterise the behaviour of males and females in vertebrates are due to the existence of structural differences in the brain. Today, a fair amount is known about the molecular and cellular bases that underlie the development and maintenance of these differences, and therefore, of the neurobiological bases of the differential behaviour between males and females of the same species”.

“It has been shown that the production of gonadal hormones during development acts on specific receptors that regulate processes that are essential in genital development during the early stage of development, and on the central nervous system during the perinatal stage. In the embryonic brain, the action of these hormones regulates neurogenesis and cell death in localised regions. The neurons and neural circuits in these regions are fundamentally implicated in the control of autonomic responses and motor reflexes with clear sexual dimorphism, as well as in more complex brain functions that determine the identity and sexual behaviour of the individual.

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.