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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