Archive for January, 2006

The insights from brain science has the potential to alter the making and practice of law. But how and why? What is so special about brain science that gives it this potent source of change?

Let’s reverse that question by asking: what is so good about our current models about human thought, motivation and behaviour that makes us certain that our laws reflect the most correct view of human behaviour? I thought so; I don’t feel the slightest confident that our current models of the mind are merely good enough (by our scientific standards).

Luckily, our models are improving — from day to day, some would say. It’s definitely not a linear progress, IOW that each new publication makes an added improvement to our understanding. The battle of theories are still dominating the field, so whether you choose to go with Damasio or Rolls on the issue of decision making, it will have an influence on the laws you make. But whatever use we make of such models, be it law systems, educational practices or child rearing, we should use the most up to date and most supported models.

This is suggested in a thorough and comprehensive (and very long) article by Owen Jones and Timothy Goldsmith. Jones and Goldsmith argue that better understanding of the biology of behaviour makes better laws. I won’t brag with reading the entire document, but I will do. If I stumble across anything especially important (which is likely) I’ll drop a note.

Here is the abstract. Get the full article here (PDF).
See also a story in Medical News Today

Owen D. Jones & Timothy H. Goldsmith

Society uses law to encourage people to behave differently than they would behave in the absence of law. This fundamental purpose makes law highly dependent on sound understandings of the multiple causes of human behavior. The better those understandings, the better law can achieve social goals with legal tools.

In this Article, Professors Jones and Goldsmith argue that many long-held understandings about where behavior comes from are rapidly obsolescing as a consequence of developments in the various fields constituting behavioral biology. By helping to refine law’s understandings of behavior’s causes, they argue, behavioral biology can help to improve law’s effectiveness and efficiency.

Part I examines how and why law and behavioral biology are connected.
Part II provides an introduction to key concepts in behavioral biology.
Part III identifies, explores, and illustrates a wide variety of contexts in which behavioral biology can be useful to law.
Part IV addresses concerns that sometimes arise when considering biological influences on human behavior.

Read Full Post »

If you downloaded the radio programme on neuroprosthetics that Thomas mentions in a post below, you’ll want to also hear the January 13 version of BBC’s excellent radio show Science Frontier. Here’s the presentation of the programme, to be found at Radio 4’s web-site:

People with nerve or limb injuries may one day be able to command wheelchairs, prosthetics and even paralysed arms and legs by “thinking them through” the motions.

As researchers overcome the technical and biological hurdles to begin the first human trials, Peter Evans examines how capturing brain output could allow fully paralysed patients to interact with the world.

The idea behind the research is to insert a computer between pathways in the brain and the world outside, which have been broken due to neurological injuries or diseases.

At Duke University’s Center for Neuroengineering in North Carolina, Professor Miguel Nicolelis has created an artificial bypass to carry brain signals to an activator, which produces the movement the person is thinking about.

Thanks to a tiny implant in the motor cortex, monkeys have been able to control a robotic arm, just by thinking about making the movement.

Researchers at Brown University in Rhode Island have taken things a step further by working with a tetraplegic man.

They have found that the patient’s motor cortex still transmits the same electrical signals a non-paralysed person uses to control their muscles, even though the connections themselves are broken.

The research team has captured these signals using microelectrodes, and built the technology to allow him to carry out basic tasks by moving a cursor around a computer screen.

For the patient, carrying out these simple activities represents a significant improvement in the quality of his life.

You can find a stream of the programme here.

Read Full Post »

Throughout 2005 126 EU citizens participated in something called the “Meeting of Minds”, learning about neuroscience and debating what to do with our ever increasing knowledge about the brain. Here is how the project is described on its web-page www.meetingmindseurope.org:

Meeting of Minds. European Citizens’ Deliberation on Brain Science is a two-year pilot project led by a European panel of 126 citizens. A partner consortium of technology assessment bodies, science museums, academic institutions and public foundations from nine European countries launched this initiative in 2004 with the support of the European Commission.

The initiative will give European citizens a unique opportunity to learn more about the impact of brain research on their daily lives and society as a whole, to discuss their questions and ideas with leading European researchers, experts and policy-makers, put them in touch with fellow citizens from other European countries and make a personal contribution to a report detailing what the people of Europe believe to be possible and desirable in the area of brain science and what they recommend policy-makers and researchers to be aware of for future developments in this field.

Through this approach, the Meeting of Minds initiative wishes to meet EU calls for greater public involvement in the debate on future research, technological decision-making and governance.

The results of their deliberation is now out in the form of a report which can be downloaded here. The 126, now neuro-wize, citizens recommend 36 policy initiatives concerning the practical use of our knowledge about the brain. The majority of these suggestions are pretty dissapointing, merely reflecting various general medical concerns. They do, however, raise two brain-specific issues. (1) First, they suggest that it should be illegal for police, courts, and other official institutions, to use brain scans as information about citizens. (2) Second, they argue for a more public discussion as to what exactly constitutes normal behaviour, and what counts as a mental decease. Both excellent problems that we will certainly return to here at Brainethics in coming posts.

But why, oh why, hasn’t this report received more press, at least in the European media?

Read Full Post »

Apparently the Dalai Lama is a science buff. For some years now he has lend out munks to Richard Davidson, an expert on emotion, who is currently studying what happens when these monks meditate. In 2004 Davidson and his colleagues published a paper in PNAS showing a difference in neural activity in buddhist monks compared to a control group when measured with EEG. Personally, I don’t see this as very surprising. Tons of evidence is pointing to the fact that ekspertise in some field correlate with some change to the brain. The big question is: Exactly what kind of change are we talking about? More neurons, different connections, an elevated influx of neurotransmitters, or something else? Unfortunately, EEG can’t tell us anything about what is different about the monks’ brains. Also, registrering a difference in brain activity doesn’t tell us much about putative functional differences. Buddhists claim that they have been able to evolve a more compasionate attittude towards other people through their meditating. Maybe. But it is surely somewhat premature to conclude that meditation actually have such power to make us all more compassionate. Although, of course, it may turn out to be true.

On it’s website Wired has a story about the relation between the Lama and Davidson. It also reports on the furore surrounding the Dalai Lama’s visit to the Society for Neuroscience conference in November. Get it here.


Geirland, J. (2006): Buddha on the Brain. Wired. Issue 14.02.

Lutz, A. et al. (2004). Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude synchrony during mental practice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101, 16369-16373.

Ekman, P., Davidson, R.J., Ricard, M. & Wallace, B. Alan. Buddhist and psychological perspectives on emotions and well-Being. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 59-63.

Read Full Post »

One of the important basic discussions in congitive neuroscience is that of the fusiform face area (FFA). The FFA has been suggested as a part of the fusiform gyrus that is solely dedicated to face perception. The rationale is that faces have been evolutionary special and selected for, and that the FFA is an evolved module specifically dealing with faces.

As the story goes, researchers such as Isabel Gauthier and her colleagues have demonstrated that the FFA is also active when study participants are asked to discriminate between different types of birds and cars and even when participants become expert at distinguishing computer generated nonsense shapes known as greebles. These activations were not as profound as those seen when subjects perceived faces, but they still demonstrate a less clear-cut role of the FFA. At the Human Brain Mapping 2005 in Toronto , Canada, we saw Gauthier and Nancy Kanwisher battle it out, and it is clear that this is by no means a settled issue. The selectivity and encapsulation of neuro-cognitive modules is one of the hot topics in modern cognitive neuroscience, though even in its infancy it was a much debated issue. Just take John Hughlings Jackson’s (1882/1932) famous and excellent quote:

“I am neither a universalizer nor a localizer…In consequence I have been attacked as a universalizer and also as a localizer. But I do not remember that the view I really hold as to localization has ever been referred to. If it is, it will very likely be supposed to be a fusion of, or a compromise of recent doctrines”

In a recent study reported in Neuropsychologia by Steeves et al., the FFA does not seem to be sufficient to produce face recognition. Well, that does not come as such a surprise maybe, since we do know that face perception is the result of processes starting in the retina. But the whole idea is that the FFA is something special for face processing. But Steeves et al.s study show that the FFA is part of a larger network, and that face processing consists of many different steps and subprocesses. Their patient study of D.F., combined with fMRI studies demonstrate that

  1. For gross detection of face-nonface decitions, the FFA does not seem necessary although it can be activated. For this, the occipital face area (OFA) seems to do the work.
  2. For face identification — i.e. recognising a familiar face — the FFA is involved, but still involves a network of different modules (including the OFA)

In short, Oma und Opa get your OFA going, too. Here is the article’s abstract, but you can get the article here (PDF):

The fusiform face area is not sufficient for face recognition: Evidence from a patient with dense prosopagnosia and no occipital face area

Steeves et al.

We tested functional activation for faces in patient D.F., who following acquired brain damage has a profound deficit in object recognition based on form (visual form agnosia) and also prosopagnosia that is undocumented to date. Functional imaging demonstrated that like our control observers, D.F. shows significantly more activation when passively viewing face compared to scene images in an area that is consistent with the fusiform face area (FFA) (p

Read Full Post »

Yesterday I mentioned that brain scientists are actively investigating the neural processes underlying personality differences in behaviour. A very nice example of this research is to be found in the latest issue of Cognitive Brain Research. Michael Cohen and his colleagues linked personality testing, fMRI and genetic analysis to look into how personality may correlate with different neurocognitive ways of handling an economic game. Here is the abstract:

Psychologists have linked the personality trait extraversion both to differences in reward sensitivity and to dopamine functioning, but little is known about how these differences are reflected in the functioning of the brain’s dopaminergic neural reward system. Here, we show that individual differences in extraversion and the presence of the A1 allele on the dopamine D2 receptor gene predict activation magnitudes in the brain’s reward system during a gambling task. In two functional MRI experiments, participants probabilistically received rewards either immediately following a behavioral response (Study 1) or after a 7.5 s anticipation period (Study 2). Although group activation maps revealed anticipation- and reward-related activations in the reward system, individual differences in extraversion and the presence of the D2 Taq1A allele predicted a significant amount of inter-subject variability in the magnitudes of reward-related, but not anticipation-related, activations. These results demonstrate a link between stable differences in personality, genetics, and brain functioning.

Note how juxtaposing the various types of data effectively unveil insights into brain activity we would have no possibility of gaining using just one method. Combining behavioural, imaging, and genetic data, will probably soon become the gold standard of cognitive neuroscience.


Cohen, M. et al. (2005): Individual differences in extroversion and dopamine genetics predict neural reward responses. Cognitive Brain Research 25: 851-861.

Read Full Post »

Today’s NY Times Magazine has a rather fascinating story about research on animal personality. Although eradicated by behaviourism, the notion that others animals than ourselves display various personality types – timid, bold, aggresive, etc. – is becoming increasingly accepted in the worlds of biology and psychology. Researchers such as Sam Gosling – visit his site for in-depth research papers on the topic – are pondering why personalities exist at all; why aren’t the behavioural profile of the members of an species just uniform and similar? The answer may be that it is advantageous to have a repertoire of behavioral traits around if the milieu of a species should change. In some niches bold members will have a survival edge, in others cautious members will be better of.

Unfortunately, the article doesn’t go into the issue of what brain processes underlie personality traits. This kind of research is also booming, though. So, perhaps we may hope to see a follow-up article on this topic as well.


Siebert, C. (2006): The Animal Self. New York Times Magazine, January 22 issue.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »