The P300, Neurotechnology and the Military

Here’s a thoughtful piece from the Chronicle on the connections between neurotechnology, neuroethics and the military. Prominently mentioned is the so-called P300 (EEG positive deflection at 300 milliseconds) that correlates well with brain recognition of a rare visual stimulus (think seeing your grandmother’s face in the middle of 500 sequential presentations of face images).

The P300 is an evoked potential the jumps out of averaged EEG recordings time locked to the delivery of stimuli. Of greater interest to me as a neuroscientist is the un-averaged EEG activity–much more difficult to interpret, but far richer in neural information.

Summer Short Courses

Next summer (2011) we have some major academic plans on the table. We’re going to be offering summer short courses at the Fairfax Campus of George Mason. The topics are still in flux, but they will bring top-flight faculty from around the world to Mason’s brand new Hotel and Conference Center, the Mason Inn. Generally we’ll be teaching week long short courses in our areas of expertise: social complexity, neuroethics and policy, and possibly agent based modeling. The courses will leverage the newly expanded Institute Facility (by next summer we’ll be around 60,000 square feet) and the University’s close proximity to the Nation’s capital. Stay tuned!

Tripping Hazards In Neuroethics: An Opinion

No doubt many readers are familiar with debates about the role of neuroscience in seeking to enhance (or augment) cognition, and possible policy implications, recently featured in Nature. Diverse contributions to science policy discussion help highlight important considerations for policy makers, including potential “tripping hazards” along the path to feasible policy, as illustrated in the recent commentary from Greely et al (2008). By “tripping hazards,” we mean papered-over or simply overlooked value fault-lines in policy formation that are likely to erupt in problems of feasibility or public acceptance. The authors’ recommendations about the use of cognitive enhancing drugs in healthy persons include concerns about safety, coercion, and fairness (meanwhile dismissing others as lacking substance). Their discussion of safety relies upon selectively stretching the idea of effectiveness and purpose for medication, while calling for safety standards to be held the same as for medicines treating illnesses. The “evidence-based evaluation” for which they call would thus be stretched over the values they’ve selected for inclusion and exclusion, and would be more likely to set up a “stretched line tripping hazard” for policy making than it would be to resolve controversy. The “thin ice tripping hazard,” on the other hand, emerges from their discussions of coercion and fairness, where the recommendations cannot support the weight of the problem. One sign of thin ice ahead is contradiction among recommendations, partially acknowledged but not here addressed, that we protect freedom by discouraging even indirect coercion to take enhancement drugs such as in schools, and protect fairness by providing them to all test-takers in a competitive examination. We commend the authors for contributing to the ongoing public debate but note that much remains to be done.

Jim Olds and Lee L. Zwanziger

Lee works at the FDA and therefore notes that the findings and conclusions in this letter have not been formally disseminated by the Food and Drug Administration and should not be construed to represent any Agency determination or policy.)

Greely H, Sahakian B, Harris J, Kessler RC, Gazzaniga M, Campbell P, Farah MJ.”Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy.” Nature. 2008 Dec 11;456(7223):702-5.

Live blogging from the First Annual Neuroethics Society meeting

We’re at AAA headquarters here in Washington DC. This is an incredibly eclectic group that ranges from hard-core neurophysiologists to lawyers. In the last session we heard from the CEO of one of the two private lie-detecting companies that purport to have successfully deployed fMRI–I’m pretty skeptical (as was a lot of the audience).

Here’s an interesting piece of data to come out of the meeting: the general public (think juries) tend to trust statements which include “neuroscience jargon” in contrast to those which don’t. So testimony with a neuroscience provenance could actually act to reduce the critical thinking of a jury.
Pretty worrisome.

Neuroethics and fMRI

Here’s a sociologist worrying that we’ll be classifying kids on the basis of their fMRI:

At the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in 1968, the social activist Martin Nicolaus leveled a blistering critique at traditional criminologists and sociologists. He said — and I am paraphrasing here because it was a panel discussion, not a paper — you people have your eyes down and your hands up, while you should have your eyes up and your hands down.

He was speaking language that social scientists of the era would have easily understood. “Eyes down” meant that almost all the research on deviance and crime was focused on the poor and their behavior, while “hands up” meant that the support for such research was coming from the rich and powerful — from foundations, the government, and corporations. Conversely, of course, “eyes up” meant turning one’s research focus to the study of the pathological behavior of the elite and privileged, and “hands down” meant giving more of a helping hand to the excluded, impoverished, and disenfranchised. What was true of the social scientists’ almost monomaniacal attention to the deviance of the poor in the 1960s is even truer of the neuroscientists of the last decade’s vanguard research.

A common tactic is to do brain scans on people who have already displayed violent or aggressive behavior. While this will net the adolescent boys in juvenile correctional facilities, it will surely miss the spawning white-collar bandits in energy markets or subprime home loans.

This is from the Chronicle of Higher Education. You can see where this is going can’t you? Let’s brain scan Hank Paulson. Somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen.


My take on the neuroethics of the "Decade" project

I write about Decade of the Mind project in today’s Sunday Washington Times….

Selected quote:

As a neuroscientist, I urge Americans to embrace the neuroscience revolution but soberly discuss the ethical and legal implications of what these changes might mean. We can do this by urging Congress and the new administration to endorse the National Decade of the Mind Project and the concomitant investment into a healthier and more prosperous nation

Three weeks into the Semester

I’ve been preparing a set of slides for a talk I’m giving on Monday about my vision for my second term as institute director. The process got me thinking about “institutes for advanced studies” in general and the one in Princeton in particular. The Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study is someone different from the platonic model in that it’s an integral part of a university. But in other aspects, the model is appropriate, I think.

I also gave a guest lecture yesterday for a grad class on the “state of American science”. It’s something I know a bit about–I’m afraid I was a bit too pessimistic for the cohort of first year students–funding for American science is getting squeezed by non-discretionary funding in the Federal Budget, and that’s a structural problem.

Most enjoyable, I got to sit down with my co-author, Lee Zwanziger, on the neuroethics book project that we’re hatching. I think it’s got great potential and we came up with a structure that I think is going to work.