Archive for the ‘law’ Category

We highly recommend this interesting conference, and please note that the deadline for registration is tomorrow (!!!). So get this out to all and everybody, and see to that you register. Sounds like a good spot, too, for holding a conference 😀

ESF-COST Conference


In the past two decades, the field of Neuroscience has made significant progress in understanding the human brain. Many expect that this research will make further strides over the next decade. And many suggest that this knowledge could have a profound impact on the future of our legal system and legal practice. There has been much speculation over whether developments in neuroscience will overturn legal paradigms (e.g., by shattering the concept of free will). This conference will sidestep such speculations to address empirical evidence and current research on the likely impacts of neuroscience on legal practice, with a specific focus on European legal systems.

Chaired by

London School of Economics and Political ScienceDepartment of SociologyBIOS Centre for the Study of Bioscience, Biomedicine, Biotechnology and SocietyLondonUnited Kingdom


Programme committee

Mr.Berry J.BonenkampE-Mail
Netherlands Organisation for Scientific ResearchSocial SciencesThe HagueNetherlands

London School of Economics and Political ScienceDepartment of SociologyBIOS Centre for the Study of Bioscience, Biomedicine, Biotechnology and SocietyLondonUnited Kingdom

London School of Economics and Political ScienceBIOSLondonUnited Kingdom

University of BergenDepartment of Biological and Medical PsychologyBergenNorway

Science Officer – EUROCORES Coordination

COST OfficeBrusselsBelgium

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bloggingheadstv.jpgMichael Gazzaniga is one of the directors of a very interesting new neuroethics project, The Law & Neuroscience Project, supported finacially by The MacArthur Fondation. The aim of the project is to convene experts from a number of disciplines (neuroscience, law, philosophy, etc.) to discuss how our understanding of the brain impacts – or, perhaps, should impact – our current legal system. It sounds like a very interesting project, and I think we here at BrainEthics will try to investigate what comes out of it as the project progresses.

In the meantime, go to bloggingheads.tv and watch Carl Zimmer interview Mike Gazzaniga about the project. As always, Zimmer asks very good and thoughtful questions.


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llchckrs.jpgRecently, the newspaper Guardian provided a news story that many people probably thought of as a prank. The chimpanzee Hiasl (pronounced Hee-sel) was suggested to be given human rights, i.e., to be recognized as a person. But it was not a prank. Indeed, activists and well-renowned scientists such as Jane Goodall have fought for the recognition of Hiasl as a person. However, the court ruled down the suggestion.

You can read more about the story from Nature, Guardian, and other googled resources. But what if the ruling have ended otherwise? What if Hiasl had been accepted personal rights? An article in Nature Neuroscience discusses some of the impacts of this ruling. For example, Hiasl could bring a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical company that was involved in his kidnapping and illegal import to Austria some 20 years ago. But should one chimp get granted some — even not all — human rights, then chimps as a group should have many lawsuits going their way. Chimp group representatives could accuse companies for deforestation. And if chimps why not other non-human primates or even mammals?

What I find particularly interesting is that whether or not we have a reason to reserve basic rights to humans, an increasingly stronger scientific literature demonstrates a huge similarity in mental functions between humans and non-human primates as well as mammals. Self-recognition, emotions and personality are just well-known phenomena that are not just anecdotally evident, but even scientifically sound. So the question is (perhaps to me) not necessarily so much if we should grant animal X specific rights. The question is: given that we know that animals are experiencing, emotional and personal beings, albeit not necessarily in a fully human sense, how does this imply that animals should be treated?

Just peeking back into the history of mankind, it is not that many centuries ago that children were thought of as “small adults”, and that donkeys and even axes could be put on trial (and “executed”) for, e.g., the murder of a person. Since then, the pendulum has shifted from such a panpsychism and anthropomorphism towards a human-only rights view. But to some extent, the baby could have been thrown out with the bathwater here. Maybe we should not necessarily grant non-human primates legal rights per se. Or maybe we should.

At the least, we should raise a fundamental neuroethic question: does our increased knowledge about the animal mind (and mental properties such as consciousness, self, emotions and suffering) urge us to treat these animals in a different way? In a century from now, will we see that these are the first feeble steps of acknowledging animals a significant increase in legal rights?


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alcohol.gifAdolescence is a period of dramatic transformation in the healthy human brain, leading to both regional and general brain volume changes. Recent high-resolution Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) studies emphasize the effects of ongoing myelination, indicating a substantial maturation process (see Figure 1). The period of adolescence is often defined as spanning the second decade of life, although some researchers expand their definition of adolescence to include the early 20s as well. Research into brain maturation in adolescence is particularly important, given that it is normally considered the peak period of neural reorganization that contributes to normal variation in cognitive skills and personality Additionally, it is seen as the period of major mental illness onset, such as schizophrenia. Despite growing evidence for pronounced changes in both the structure and function of the brain during adolescence and early adulthood, few studies have explored this relationship directly using in vivo imaging methods. Thus, little is still known about the relationship between adolescent behaviour and outcomes, and maturational effects on morphological and functional aspects of the brain.


Figure 1Brain development during adolescence

The psychological and social changes of that occur during adolescence include a higher level or orientation towards and identification with peers, group socialism and personality consolidation. A main social behavioural change is the tendency to use alcohol and other stimulants. In European countries and especially Denmark, 60% of all adolescents report having had their first alcoholic whole drink before age 15, the majority reporting a debut at around age 12 (see Figure 2). Today, alcohol is considered a normal part of adolescent culture.



Figure 2Age of alcohol use debut, as measured by the first consumption of a full alcoholic unit. Note that the majority of debuts are around 12 years. Furthermore, note the relatively high number (8%) reporting a <9 year old debut. (x-axis numbers indicate age of reported first full drink of alcoholic beverage; “yngre end 9” = “younger than 9”; “jeg har ikke drukket” = “I have not yet tried alcohol”)

The effects of prolonged regular alcohol consumption in adults are today considered well documented. Studies of extreme cases such as Wernicke’s encephalopathy and foetal alcohol syndrome have shown that alcohol at critical periods or over time can have severe effects on significant modification and damage of brain structure, physiology and function. In adults, heavy alcohol consumption results in atrophy of grey and white matter, particularly in the frontal lobes, cerebellum, and limbic structures. Heavy drinking also raises the risk of ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke.

Adolescents tend to drink larger quantities on each drinking occasion that adults, possibly a combination of lower sensitivity to some of the unpleasant effects of intoxication and altered patterns of social interaction, including a willingness to indulge in more risky activities. However, it has been suggested that adolescents may be more sensitive to some of alcohol’s harmful effects on brain function. Research now suggests that, even over the shorter time frame of adolescence, drinking alcohol can harm the liver, bones, endocrine system, and brain, and interfere with normal growth. Studies in humans have found that alcohol can lower the levels of growth- and sex hormones in both adolescent genders.

Recent studies using animal models have demonstrated that the adolescent brain is even more sensitive to alcohol consumption. Alcohol inhibits normal neurogenesis, the process in which neurons are created. The magnitude of this effect has been related to the level of consumption; higher levels of consumption (e.g. binge consumption) had the most severe effects on the brain. Furthermore, alcohol impairs spatial memory function in adolescent animals more than adults, a result that is thought to be mediated by a larger inhibitory effect of alcohol on neural transmission in adolescence.

The long-term effects of alcohol consumption on brain maturation are yet poorly understood in human adolescence. Studies report that a history of high alcohol consumption in adolescence has been associated with reduced hippocampal volumes (see Figure 3), and with subtle white-matter microstructure abnormalities in the corpus callosum. In order to understand the effects of alcohol on the brain these findings must be compared to several factors pertaining to alcohol consumption in young adults, including 1) onset of alcohol use; 2) amount of alcohol consumed regularly; 3) type of alcohol consumption (regular use or binge drinking). In addition, a number of confounding factors need to be addressed and controlled between different study groups, including 1) general cognitive function; 2) the effects of gender and pubic stage; 3) gender-related preferences for alcoholic beverages; and 4) the effects of gene-related differences in neurotransmitter function.


Figure 3Hippocampus volume differences in adolescents with alcohol use disorder (AAU, right) compared to healthy adolescents (left). Volume estimation is corrected for general brain size.

So who says alcohol is not damaging? We know it is in adults. We know it is in prenatal development. Why not during adolescence? Even more so; during this period of brain development so much is happening; the continuation of brain development; pruning and consolidation of brain, cognition and personality; all combined with the coctail of changes resulting from hormonal changes. Add alcohol, and in heavy doses in binge drinking, and you’ve got a recipe for brain dysfunction and detrimental brain development.

In most cultures, alcohol is seen as acceptable, even for adolescents. Alcohol is possibly even more problematic in countries such as Denmark, since it is not illegal for children and adolescents to drink alcoholic beverages (although it is strangely enough illegal for them to buy it; i.e. they have to get it from their parents or another >15 year old). Statistically, Denmark ranges among the countries that has the earliest alcohol debut and the highest mean weekly/monthly alcohol consumption in adolescence. In general, alcohol is more socially and culturally accepted in the Western world (or all cultures?). But given that alcohol has such damaging effects should we allow it if it turns out to have detrimental effects on brain development and cognitive functions?

You can put it another way: given that you know this, would you allow your teenage son or daughter to drink alcohol? If you knew that her or his brain would respond negatively (both long and short term) to the alcohol, would you let it happen? Thick twice


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violent-child.jpgViolence and criminal behaviour is today thought to involve a series of complex interactions between heritable and environmental factors. Centuries of debate of the relative contribution of nature and nurture have not reached anything resembling a solution, and even today we can find ardent proponents and defenders of each extreme view (see Steven Pinker on this, PDF).

While violence and crime has been part of all recorded history, the society’s understanding of the underlying causes of these acts and how they should be dealt with have changed over time. In modern times, we also see a wide variety of legal practices in dealing with criminals and violators: from the death penalties and multiple life sentences in the US, Russia and other countries, to briefer treatment sentences in Europe. These different societal solutions build – explicitly or implicitly – upon what causes violence and criminal acts, and how they should, if at all possible, be treated.

It would be no understatement to claim that the biological explanation of violence and crime has not been fully implemented (nor understood) by law makers or enforcers. Just as you could say about the society in general: aside from specific demonstrations of how violent offenders have larger or smaller neural damage, little is known about the biological properties of violence. Not that the literature has been flourishing with articles demonstrating such relationships. It hasn’t. Until now, where recent studies report detailed analyses of how genes and environments alter the brain’s workings to make people more or less prone to violence, impulsive acts and criminal behaviour.

In a most interesting paper (PDF) published in PNAS, a team of researchers from Austria, Italy and USA headed by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg have uncovered neurobiological factors that contribute significantly to violence in humans. The team studied the normal allelic variation in the X-linked monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene, a gene that has also been shown to be associated with impulsive aggression in humans and animals.

In the study both structural and functional MRI methods were applied. First, the researchers asked whether the low expression variant of MAOA, known to be associated with increased risk of violent behaviour, would predict differences in the size of limbic structures such as the amygdala. Indeed, what they found was that the low expression MAOA predicted limic reductions, as can be shown from the figure article


Structural reductions in limbic and paralimbic regions due to genotype. The size of both the amygdala and cingulate cortex are predicted by benotype. The low expression MAOA have significantly reduced volumes of these structures, compared to the high expression MAOA group.

Second, the team studied how these structures worked using two fMRI paradigms. The first task was a facial expression matching task, a task known to involve the amygdalae. The amygdala activation was significantly influenced by genotype: the low MAOA group displayed higher amygdala activation and at the same time lower activation in cingulate cortex subregions, as well as left orbitofrontal cortex and left insular cortex – all brain regions implied in emotion processing.


Regions involved in facial expression matching (click image for larger version). As you can see from the graphs, there is a genotype-by-gender interaction.

The second task was an emotion memory task, where subjects were asked to encode and recall aversive (compared to neutral) valenced information. Here, the results pointed to a significant genotype-by-gender interaction effect, in that men with a low MAOA version showed increased reactivity of the left amygdala and hippocampus during recall. No such relationship was found for women.

Interestingly, the researchers also found a tight relationship between gender and genotype during the first volumetric study. Here, low-MAOA males showed increased orbitofrontal volume bilaterally, while no such relationship was found in females. In this sense, the MAOA allelic variances seem to influence males most.

Finally, Meyer-Lindenberg and his co-workers draw the lines to other studies relating MAOA variance to a highened sensitivity in low-MAOA males to aversive events (e.g. abuse) during childhood. The combination of a low-MAOA genotype with such events seem to produce abnormal regulation (through the cingulate) of the amygdala and an increased predisposition to impulsivity and violence. As the authors note:

Predisposition to impulsive violence by means of abnormal activation and regulation of emotion-related amygdala function might be further enhanced by deficient neural systems for cognitive control, especially over inhibition, the capacity to suppress prepotent but inappropriate behavior that might originate from a dysregulated affective response. Although the rostral cingulate is key to the regulation of acute affective arousal and emotional learning, inhibitory control of prepotent cognitive responses is thought to be critically dependent on caudal aspects of anterior cingulate. Our study of genetic influences on cognitive impulse control revealed a sex-dependent impairment in precisely this area of cingulate, affecting men only. Our finding of a genotype-by-sex interaction in this region therefore provides a plausible neural mechanism for reduced cognitive inhibitory control in risk allele-carrying males, suggesting synergistic impairment in cognitive and emotional neural regulatory mechanisms that might render MAOA-L men at especially high risk for a neural phenotype that plausibly relates to the slightly greater probability of impulsive violence.

Endnote: it might be useful to note that this study was conducted on healthy, non-criminal volunteers. The obvious step next is to study crime offenders (different types) and the complex interplay between genes, gender and childhood events.


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prison.gifOur willingness to engage in punitive acts is a key part of our society. So claims a recent article in Science. Through the experiments of Milgram, Asch, Zimbardo, and Sherif psychologists have studied humans' engagement in costly social relationships with non-kin. With many of these experiments being done in students only, it has been hard to extrapolate the results to the entire population. Understanding different cultures through these experiments is even worse.

In this week's Science report, a team of scientists studied social interaction in different cultures, using three different social psychology experiments. The first was an ultimatum game:

(…) two anonymous players are allotted a sum of real money (the stake) in a one-shot interaction. The first player (player 1) can offer a portion of this sum to a second player, player 2 (offers were restricted to 10% increments of the stake). Player 2, before hearing the actual amount offered by player 1, must decide whether to accept or reject each of the possible offers, and these decisions are binding. If player 2 specified acceptance of the actual offer amount, then he or she receives the amount of the offer and player 1 receives the rest. If player 2 specified a rejection of the amount actually offered, both players receive zero. If people are motivated purely by self-interest, player 2s will always accept any positive offer; knowing this, player 1 should offer the smallest nonzero amount. Because this is a one-shot anonymous interaction, player 2's willingness to reject provides one measure of costly punishment, termed second-party punishment

The second game was a party punishing game (PDF):

(…) two players are allotted a sum of real money (the stake), and a third player gets one-half of this amount. Player 1 must decide how much of the stake to give to player 2 (who makes no decisions). Then, before hearing the actual amount player 1 allocated to player 2, player 3 has to decide whether to pay 10% of the stake (20% of his or her allocation) to punish player 1, causing player 1 to suffer a deduction of 30% of the stake from the amount kept. Player 3s punishment strategy is elicited for all possible offers by player 1. For example, suppose the stake is $100: if player 1 gives $10 to player 2 (and keeps $90) and player 3 wants to punish this offer amount, then player 1 takes home $60; player 2, $10; and player 3, $40. If player 3 had instead decided not to punish offers of 10%, then the take-home amounts would have been $90, $10, and $50, respectively. In this anonymous one-shot game, a purely self-interested player 3 would never pay to punish player 1. Knowing this, a self-interested player 1 should always offer zero to player 2. Thus, an individual's willingness to pay to punish provides a direct measure of the person's taste for a second type of costly punishment, third-party punishment.

The third game was a dictator game:

The [dictator game] is the same as the [ultimatum game] except that player 2 cannot reject. Player 1 merely dictates the portions of the stake received by himself or herself and player 2. In this one-shot anonymous game, a purely self-interested individual would offer zero; thus, offers in the [dictator game] provide a measure of a kind of behavioral altruism that is not directly linked to kinship, reciprocity, reputation, or the immediate threat of punishment.

Regardless of culture, the findings showed that the two measures of costly punishment produced an increasing proportion of individuals choosing to punish as offers approach zero. But there were substantial cultural differences also, especially in terms of people's overall willingness to punish unequal offers. In some cultures, offers as low as 10% were accepted without punishment, while other cultures were less inclined to reject such a deal.

How do these cultural differences come to be? Is there a relationship between people's willingness to share (altruism) and a culture's level of costly punishment? The researchers plotted the relationship between the minimal offers that cultural groups were to accept (x axis) and the mean offer from the dictator game (y axis):

These results demonstrate that there is a positive relationship between the likelihood of accepting an offer (i.e. the level of willingness to punish small offers) and the willingness to share (i.e. altruism). In other words, in cultures where you are expected to share, you give more, even thought others have no way to threaten or punish you.

The researchers conclude:

These three results are consistent with recent evolutionary models of altruistic punishment. In particular, culture-gene coevolutionary models that combine strategies of cooperation and punishment predict that local learning dynamics generate between-group variation as different groups arrive at different "cultural" equilibria. These local learning dynamics create social environments that favor the genetic evolution of psychologies that predispose people to administer, anticipate, and avoid punishment (by learning local norms). Alternative explanations of the costly punishment and altruistic behavior observed in our experiments have not yet been formulated in a manner that can account for stable between-group variation or the positive covariation between altruism and punishment. Whether the co-evolution of cultural norms and genes or some other framework is ultimately correct, these results more sharply delineate the species-level patterns of social behavior that a successful theory of human cooperation must address.


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psychopath.jpgIt’s a long shot, I know. We’ll never see a Nature Neuroethics or a Trends in Neuroethics. But this week’s issue of Nature caught me surprised with the release of two articles on ethical aspects of neuroscience. It really demonstrates how hot and important this issue is.

Basically, both articles are on the application of brain scanners to detect lies. The first article is a bit broader in its scope, though. Here, the Nature editor looks more generally at the ethical discussions – or lack of such – in the neuroscience community. While other scientific branches, e.g. genetics, have made ethics part of their curriculum, neuroscience is lagging behind.

From the article:

Neuroscientists have reasons for their reluctance to wade into ethics. The questions raised are likely to be open-ended, and their arrival in the world outside the laboratory may be some way off. Whereas a genetic test can say something definitive about a particular genetic make-up, and therefore about predisposition to disease, for example, an fMRI scan is just an indirect measure of neural activity based on oxygenated blood flow. For now, neuroscientists have only the most basic grasp of what this says about how the brain processes information.

Is neuroscience really lagging behind? Is it not unfair to compare the ethical discussions following neuroscientific findings and genetics? While modern genetics has the better part of a century, neuroscience is basically in its infancy. In fact, do we really know with great certainty what we are looking at with the functional MRI scan? Well’, we know it’s a mixture of blood oxygenation, vasculare response and actions, but having the full understanding of what an activation blob really means is a different matter. Yes, your orbitofrontal cortex is lighting up when you’re lying. But why? And how? What does it signify?

Unless we have a clear answer, the message will be less clear and the implications will drown in technicalities.

The second article concerns a specific topic – lie detection – and I’m afraid I’ll muddle the waters a bit on this issue. The background is that two companies – Cephos and No Lie MRI – are founded to use MRI scans in order to detect lies. Martin has blogged about lie detection studies previously. Here, I’d like to remind you about a previous blog entry I did on the problems of doing group studies. Basically, the results we can find on a group level cannot be found in the individual scans. In group studies, we’re looking at a mean effect. Does that mean that a person with very high activation of the orbitofrontal cortex is a pathological lier? No! Mind you: two persons can have a very different BOLD fMRI signal, our measuring unit. It can be dependent upon several factors, such as hours of sleep, the vascular system and caffeine & nicotine use. Even within the same person, we find day to day (and hour to hour) changes in the baseline BOLD signal. So it’s indeed very hard to move from a group level to an individual. At this stage, I think it’s impossible – and it should be avoided.

From the article you can read that Judy Illes says something similar:

Until we sort out the scientific, technological and ethical issues, we need to proceed with extreme caution.

Better still, Sean Spence of the University of Sheffield, UK says

On individual scans it’s really very difficult to judge who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

Finally, the same problems with the polygraph persist: we don’t know what a lie really is, why people lie, and we won’t catch those who don’t think that they are lying. Today, doing any kind of lie detection is a risky business. And I wouldn’t put my buck at Cephos or No Lie MRI. Honestly.


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Volume 13, issue 5 of the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience contains – in my opinion – a very strange article. It's called "Ethics in medical technologies: The Roman Catholic viewpoint" and is written by Joseph Życiński. I found a wiki-like version of the paper here. The article is not strange because of its topic per se, which is bioethics from a religious point of view. What I find strange is that the article is published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and worse, that it is filled with religious dogma that are presented as axiomatic truths. 

Even accepting these strange facts, I find it unacceptable that the article does not discuss critically other approaches such as Gazzaniga's recent book "The ethical brain" (see my blog entry here). With statements such as

According to Christian ethics, we are called upon to treat each and every living member of the human species, including the embryo, as a human person with fundamental rights, the first of which is the right to life.

… I wonder if the insightful criticism of Gazzaniga has ever been read or heard by Życiński. In this way, we can only guess at what the author's opinion is on more scientifically informed viewpoints.

Here is the abstract:

Ethics in medical technologies: The Roman Catholic viewpoint.

Zyciński J

J Clin Neurosci. 2006 May 4;

New medical techniques and novel scientific discoveries bring many basic questions concerning the role of human dignity in medical research as well as in the society of the future. This paper presents the Roman Catholic approach to the use of new technologies, the research of human embryos, the ethical aspects of studies on the human genome. The concept of "human ecology", as proposed by John Paul II, is introduced to reconcile the academic freedom of research with insurmountable ethical barriers which must be recognized to defend human dignity. In critical appraisal of Peter Singer's concept of the quality of life the author points out that it is irrational to try to reduce this quality to the level of biological parameters. Human dignity as well as the sanctity of life express also a quality of life so important for the cultural growth of Homo sapiens. To protect human ecology it is our moral duty to defend human dignity and to recognize the importance of those values that are fundamental in the process of development of the human species.

And speaking of Gazzaniga, I should definitely remember to write the following parts of the book presentation.


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Today's featured article at Wikipedia is about transhumanism, "an international intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of new sciences and technologies to enhance human physical and cognitiveameliorate what it regards as harsh and unnecessary aspects of the human condition, such as disease and aging." If you think of humanism as the attempt to help every person reach her or his full potential (whatever that means; as if we have an inborn potential), transhumanism goes beyond this and asks whether we can go beyond the "naturally given" potential and expand our possibilities — and reach them.

Some, however, mean that transhumanism is one of "the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity" today, as suggested by Francis Fukuyama. The basic idea in Fukuyama's criticism is that Transhumanism leads to inequality between humans:

Underlying this idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess a human essence that dwarfs manifest differences in skin color, beauty, and even intelligence. This essence, and the view that individuals therefore have inherent value, is at the heart of political liberalism. But modifying that essence is the core of the transhumanist project. If we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind? If some move ahead, can anyone afford not to follow? These questions are troubling enough within rich, developed societies. Add in the implications for citizens of the worlds poorest countriesfor whom biotechnologys marvels likely will be out of reachand the threat to the idea of equality becomes even more menacing.

Transhumanisms advocates think they understand what constitutes a good human being, and they are happy to leave behind the limited, mortal, natural beings they see around them in favor of something better. But do they really comprehend ultimate human goods? (…)

A response by Nick Boström can be found here. He criticizes Fukuyama on three points:

  1. The assumption that there is a unique “human essence”
  2. Only those individuals who have this mysterious essence can have intrinsic value and deserve equal rights
  3. The enhancements that transhumanists advocate would eliminate this essence. From this, he infers that the transhumanist project would destroy the basis of equal rights.

Against the idea of "human essence", Boström argues:

The concept of such a “human essence” is, of course, deeply problematic. Evolutionary biologists note that the human gene pool is in constant flux and talk of our genes as giving rise to an “extended phenotype” that includes not only our bodies but also our artifacts and institutions. Ethologists have over the past couple of decades revealed just how similar we are to our great primate relatives. A thick concept of human essence has arguably become an anachronism.


The only defensible way of basing moral status on human essence is by giving “essence” a very broad definition; say as “possessing the capacity for moral agency”. But if we use such an interpretation, then Fukuyama’s third premise fails. The enhancements that transhumanists advocate – longer healthy lifespan, better memory, more control over emotions, etc. – would not deprive people of the capacity for moral agency. If anything, these enhancements would safeguard and expand the reach of moral agency.

Boström concludes:

Fukuyama’s argument against transhumanism is flawed. Nevertheless, he is right to draw attention to the social and political implications of the increasing use of technology to transform human capacities. We will indeed need to worry about the possibility of stigmatization and discrimination, either against or on behalf of technologically enhanced individuals. Social justice is also at stake and we need to ensure that enhancement options are made available as widely and as affordably as possible. This is a primary reason why transhumanist movements have emerged. On a grassroots level, transhumanists are already working to promote the ideas of morphological, cognitive, and procreative freedoms with wide access to enhancement options. Despite the occasional rhetorical overreaches by some of its supporters, transhumanism has a positive and inclusive vision for how we can ethically embrace new technological possibilities to lead lives that are better than well.

The discussion about transhumanism is important because it, in its essence, also deals with the part of neuroethics that pertains to brain enhancements. The making and taking of a memory pill; connecting wetware to hardware; and altering genes for non-medical purposes all deal with an aspect of transcending the naturally given about human beings. Of course, so do glasses and contact lenses. But these are mostly tobe seen as tools to help, rater than something that changes you as what you are. Cosmetic neurology (PDF document) is the term for the artificial enhancement of the brain. I'd say that the term is a bit misguided, since in my view, the "cosmetic" sounds too superficial. If you manipulate the brain, you're tinkering with what a person is per se. Taking a "brainy pill", or adding hardware parts to boost your neuronal engine goes beyond the mere tool that glasses and lenses are. There is not much of a "cosmetic feel" about it when you start changing who you are and what defines you as human: error-prone, forgetful, emotional, mortal.

So, in a way, maybe we shouldn't be too be worried about the societal aspects about cosmetic neurology (or transhumanistic thought). It is possible that cosmetic neurology is neither the problem nor solution to many of today's world's problems such as poverty and inequality between people. Nor should we think of it as something that will add much to the difference, though it will be something that might mark the difference between poor and whealthy. What we should be concerned about is how technical and medical enhancements will change how people define themselves. Just as so and so many use iPod today, will we see communities of people that start inoperating wireless communication into their brains, as in Peter Hamilton's affinity function in the Night's Dawn triolgy? IOW, we should start thinking about what "brain enhancement" does to the individual rather than staring ourselves blind at the societal problems.


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Traumatic brain injury distorts the brainFrom time to time I receive emails from people who have relatives or other loved ones that suffer from a neurological or psychiatric condition. I respond to these the best that I can. Today, I'd like to share with you one such response. This is why neuroscience is important; it opens up a better understanding of diseases and treatments. Is your loved one suffering from a vegetative state – is he unconscious all the time, even though being awake – or is he in a minimally conscious state – actually emerging into awareness? Even worse: is he in a locked-in state – being fully aware but unable to communicate, and treated as unconscious?

The email below is anonymized in order to avoid identification. The text is otherwise unedited.

Hello, my name is RD. My 27 year old son, P was in a car accident 3 years ago. He was age 23 at the time of the accident. P suffered a traumatic brain injury. He now lives in a nursing home. In his medical records he is diagnosed as persistent vegetative state. I would call it minimally conscious state, especially these past several months.

We, his family have been very active in his life. I have searched everywhere I can think of for help, in-depth information, clinical trials, anything that may help him. He is aware of his surroundings. He is using his arms now, where 6 months ago he couldn't. He plays ball with his little girl. She was 5 months old when he had his accident. She plays pic-a boo with him. He smiles…especially when someone who he hasn't seen for a while comes to see him, his uncles for instance.

I am looking for someone to take interest in his condition, to see if he can be help. I just pray that someone will give him a chance. I know he has the potential to improve. We just need to be pointed in the right direction. Can you help or do you know who someone who can?

And here is my response:

Dear RD,

Thank you for your email and please excuse my much belated reply.

I am deeply sympathetic to your son's condition and your problem. We are all moved by these tragic accidents. Through my previous work as a clinical neuropsychologist, I have seen people suffering from the same condition that your son is now.

My own shortcomings to be of any serious help to you is that I am living in Copenhagen, Denmark. Although you do not mention explicitly, I think you are living in the US. The medical treatment of post-traumatic amnesia, ranging from coma through vegetative state and to minimally conscious states, is still being improved from day to day. In countries such as the US and Denmark the treatment should be similar, on average. However, there may be places that are more focused and knowledgeable on these cases.

On your feelings that your son is actually better than vegetative state, I would suggest trying to find professionals that deal with the diagnosis of these problems daily. You should always bear in mind four (opposing) facts:

  • Vegetative state patients display signs and behaviours that makes us think that they are aware, conscious and responding. However, if a patient is truly in a vegetative state these signs are automatic responses, and not signs of conscious mental life
  • Vegetative state is often misdiagnosed (publications by e.g. Steven Laureys in Belgium). Many patients are at a higher level of function, such as minimally conscious or locked-in
  • Although a diagnosis is set at vegetative state, the condition of a patient might still improve. The rule is often that that the longer a person stays in a coma or vegetative state the worse the diagnosis. Saying that, one should never lose hope. We do not fully understand the mechanisms behind loss of consciousness, and even less about the awakening from such states.
  • Should a person regain consciousness after a vegetative state, one should always remember that the loss of consciousness had a specific and dramatic cause. Although consciousness may be restored (even as episodes) the brain is often significantly damaged. The person might still be unable to speak, attend, see etc. Many psychological and cognitive functions may be severely distorted or non-functioning

You do not mention where your son's diagnosis has been set, or where in the US you live, but I will suggest some names below. Unfortunately, I have no personal correspondence with Fins or Schiff, but know them through the scientific literature I read. Steven Laureys I know a bit, but I would suggest going to Schiff or Fins first, or the place (university / hospital) they are situated.

Joseph Fins at the Center for Bioethics, Colombia University (homepage)
Nicholas D. Schiff at the Department of Neurology and Neuroscience, Weill Medical College of Cornell University (E-mail)

Steven Laureys (Belgium, for further US directions) at the Cyclotron Research Centre (E-mail)

I hope this could be of any help to you and your family.



Laureys S. (2005). Science and society: death, unconsciousness and the brain. Nat Rev Neurosci, 6(11), 899-909

Laureys S. (2005). The neural correlate of (un)awareness: lessons from the vegetative state. Trends Cogn Sci

Laureys S, Pellas F, Van Eeckhout P, Ghorbel S, Schnakers C, Perrin F, Berre J, Faymonville Me, Pantke Kh, Damas F, Lamy M, Moonen G, and Goldman S. (2005). The locked-in syndrome : what is it like to be conscious but paralyzed and voiceless? Prog Brain Res, 150, 495-511

Laureys S, Perrin F, Schnakers C, Boly M, and Majerus S. (2005). Residual cognitive function in comatose, vegetative and minimally conscious states. Curr Opin Neurol, 18(6), 726-733

– Thomas

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