Archive for the ‘neuroethics’ 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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Can antidepressive medicine alter your decision behaviour? A recent paper in Science now demonstrates that alterations in subjects’ serotonin levels leads to significant changes in their decision making behaviour. In the study, subjects were set to play the Ultimatum Game repeatedly. Subjects had to do the task two times at two different days, and at one of the days they were administered an acute tryptophan depletion (ATD), i.e., their serotonin levels would drop for a period of time. The design was double-blind and placebo controlled.

The Ultimatum Game is an experimental economics game in which two players interact to decide how to divide a sum of money that is given to them. The first player proposes how to divide the sum between themselves, and the second player can either accept or reject this proposal. If the second player rejects, neither player receives anything. If the second player accepts, the money is split according to the proposal. The game is played only once, and anonymously, so that reciprocation is not an issue.

What the researchers found was that the ATD led subjects to reject more offers, but only unfair offers. That is, ATD did not interact with offer size per se, and there was no change in mood, fairness judgement, basic reward processing or response inhibition. So serotonin seemed to affect aversive reactions to unfair offers.

The study is a nice illustration of how we now are learning to induce alterations in preferences and decision making. Along with other studies using, e.g., oxytocin to increase trust in economic games (see also my previous post about this experiment), one may expect that increasing the serotonin level may actually make subjects less responsive to unfair offers.

This knowledge is also important to learn more about, as it poses a wide range of ethical problems. If our preferences and decisions are really influenced by these stimuli, can this be abused? It should be mentioned that many of these substances are not necessarily detected (oxytocin is odourless), so we may be influenced without our consent or knowledge. The wide applicances could include casinos, stores (e.g. for expensive cars), dating agencies and so on. If we did not accept subliminal messages in ads, how can we accept this?


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Here is a heads up for the upcoming Sedbergh Festival of Ideas. Martin is going over to bring our view on the neuroethics of consciousness science research. Unfortunately, I’m unable to attend, but Martin will cover our ideas very nicely.

The event Martin is talking at is “Event 4 — Varieties of consciousness“, together wih no other than Geraint Rees, Ilona Roth and Max Velmans. If you are in the vicinity, why not attend? I hope Martin is going to blog about this meeting, just as he will with his recent trip to the HBM conference.

UPDATE: Here is the program (I just received from Andi Chapple):

Session 1 – Science and Consciousness
10am – 1.30pm, Saturday 19 July
People’s Hall, Howgill Lane, Sedbergh, Cumbria LA10 5DE, England
£15 (£6 concessions) for the whole session, £6 (£2.50 concessions) for the discussion (introduced and moderated by Prof. Velmans) from 11.45am to 1.30pm.

Professor Geraint Rees, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL, London
Dr. Ilona Roth, Psychology in Science Group, Open University
Martin Skov, Danish Research Centre for Magnetic Resonance, Copenhagen
Professor Max Velmans, Goldsmiths College, London

Professor Tom Ormerod, University of Lancaster introduces the speakers.

Session 2 – Varieties of Consciousness
10am – 1.30pm, Sunday 20 July
People’s Hall, Howgill Lane, Sedbergh, Cumbria LA10 5DE, England
£12 (£5 concessions)

Speakers will lead short hands-on sessions so the audience can get personal experience of what they are talking about, then present their area of interest, and then there will be a general discussion.

Dr. Michael Daniels, Liverpool John Moores University (transpersonal
psychology and parapsychology)

Dr. David Scott (Zen and ‘Big Mind’ techniques)
Ian McPherson (t’ai chi and qi gong)


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OK, here we go again. Remember the fuzz about the Iacoboni lab at UCLA, where they used fMRI to probe into voters likes and dislikes of politicians? Now,a good article in the Atlantic.com gives us a 1st person story about the trip through the fMRI experiment, the thoughts and results following this scientific un-rigourous and invalid approach. Jeffrey Goldberg reports in a funny and entertaining manner how it all goes about.

As with the previously mentioned NY Times article by the Iacoboni team, Goldberg is scanned while watching different famous people, including politicians, actors and musicians. After a few days, the imaging results come in and are presented and discussed with Iacoboni. To me, the dialoguoes could be referring to tea-leaf reading, astrology or ___ (put in your preferred method). As here:

(…) what happened when I saw a picture of my wife. This had me concerned, but Iacoboni explained: “The dorso-lateral prefrontal-cortex activity means you’re trying to exercise cognitive control, that you’re trying to protect the privacy of your relationship with your wife. I interpret this positively because there’s also medial orbito-frontal cortex activity, which is a region associated with positive emotion.” Iacoboni could not explain one other response to my wife’s photograph: “You have weird auditory-cortex activity, almost like you’re hearing her voice, even though we just showed you her picture without sound.”

OK, so give me some (peak) activation in the brain, and I’ll try to interpret it. I’m the Rorschach inkblot master, just bring it on! Actually, thes best thing with this article is the humorous angle that Goldberg puts to it. Just following the above citation, he notes:

When I told my wife about this, she asked me how it could be that I hear her when she’s not speaking, but don’t hear her when she is speaking. I said that this was a question well beyond the capacity of neuroscience to answer.

To newcomers and outsiders, it is crucial to understand that there is a substantial difference between studying brain activation related to specific behaviours and/or tasks, and to go the other way and interpret mental states or behaviour from brain activation patterns. The brain is much more than a collection of highly specialized regions, and there is considerable redundancy and degeneracy in the brain. This means that one structure can be involved in many different functions, and one function or state is often served by many different regions at any one time. So whether your brain responds with the amygdala to a particular face, compared to other faces, may not even mean that you fear or are concerned with this person. The amygdala may be involved in positive emotions, or even novelty processing. Brain-reading is a fascinating topic, but we should steer away from the absolute claims that one can sometimes see today.

One good example, in the present article, of what this approach may lead to is the finding that the author showed ventral striatal activation to the Iranian political leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. So ventral striatrum is related to (expectation of) reward, right. And previously, activation in that region to other famous people was interpreted as a liking-effect, right. Now what? Does Goldberg like Ahmadinejad? Will the NSA knock on Goldberg’s door in the near future? Is it illegal or suspicious for his brain to respond favourably to Ahmadinejad?

This, and more puzzles are definitely going to come up in the near future, as Iacobini and other researchers are concinuing this flaky path of BS science. I’m a great fan of Iacoboni’s academic work, but I am nevertheless terribly dissapointed with his uncritical turn towards entertainment with fMRI.


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Edge.org briefly taps into a most important topic: is China going to be the next leader in science and economy? Many observers tend to think this, and it is iterated in the media regularly. In terms of economy, we may expect this to be the case. The sheer amount of people, combined with lower rates of salary etc. suggests that for a period, China will be competitive not only in industy but also high-tech jobs.

But in science? I usually think of science as either basic or applied (although they can be mutually informative, and the distinction is not water proof). For applied science, like engineering, IT and so forth, one may expect that Chine may do well. But in basic science, what we often encounter is surprising, unexpected, and, not the least, runs straight counter to our wide-held beliefs. And the realization of these ideas depend on whether the state are basically tuned to accepting scientific results.

Think for example, how often you hear science news that actually alter your thought about the human/animal mind, the world and cosmos, and so forth. Many of these ideas run straight counter to widely and long-held beliefs in society and even academia. Think of our understanding of the role of unconscious (often emotionally driven) brain processes in decision making. Or, one of our favourite topics here: how genes contribute to specific differences between people’s brains, minds and behaviour. These ideas run straight counter to ideas in religion, economic theory and social science. But they are nevertheless expressed freely, through the peer-reviewed scientific thought.

So the question could be put differently: could ideas about evolution and evolutionary psychology, quantum mechanics, or the Big Bang ever come from scientists residing in China? Several authors and observers may think not. Although this is NOT the topic of the Edge.org issue, the brief title of the news, and the afterword by Dawkins suggests that it deserves more attention.


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In relation to our previous and well-visited post about oxytocin, we should mention a new study that uses this very substance in a neuroeconomic set-up. In the study, recently published by Neuron, and headed by Baumgartner et al., it was found that the administration of oxytocin affected subjects’ in a trust game. In particular, it was found that subjects that received oxytocin were not affected by information about co-players that cheated. Or, as put in the abstract:

(…) subjects in the oxytocin group show no change in their trusting behavior after they learned that their trust had been breached several times while subjects receiving placebo decrease their trust.

That is extremely interesting. This suggests that oxytocin, a mammalian hormone + neurotransmitter that is known to be related to maternal behaviour and bonding, also is modulating social trust. So the brain link is obvious. But what happens in the brain when oxytocin is administered during the trust game?

This difference in trust adaptation is associated with a specific reduction in activation in the amygdala, the midbrain regions, and the dorsal striatum in subjects receiving oxytocin, suggesting that neural systems mediating fear processing (amygdala and midbrain regions) and behavioral adaptations to feedback information (dorsal striatum) modulate oxytocin’s effect on trust.

So oxytocin reduces fear and aversion responses, and this leads to the lack of effect in responding to cheaters. Excellent, why not use this for treating anxiety, phobia and other fear-related problems? Sounds promising, and yet other more ethically problematic issues remain to be resolved. Think, for example, about whether oxytocin makes us more susceptible to gambling, shopping and marketing effects? Or what if it may work as the first scientifically proven aphrodisiac? What if your next pick-up line would be “Hi, I’m Thomas, how are you” just followed by a few ‘puff-puff’ sounds.

Joke aside, studies like this demonstrates that emotions and decisions are often influenced by factors not consciously available, or at least only partially so. As the marketing industry is increasingly interested in multi-sensory inventions, oxytocin may be the next step in this endaveour.


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Following up on Martins post, I discover more than just a few good talks. This is a goldmine of good and important podcasts for the future!

For those neuroethics-minded of you, the two last podcasts on the list might have interest also:

Nov 1, 2005

A Slippery Slope

Facts, Ethics, and Policy Guiding Neuroscience Today

Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga and lawyer Hank Greely debated the implications of neuroimaging, cognitive enhancers, stem cell research, improved medical diagnostic methods, and more in an animated conversation with journalist William Safire.

 title= listen (11.9 MB)  | running time 00:51:41
Oct 5, 2005

Ethics in the Age of Neuroscience

A Conversation between Michael Gazzaniga and Tom Wolfe

The prominent neuroscientist and the bestselling author discussed how knowledge of the brain can shed light on controversial issues and, perhaps surprisingly, bolster moral responsibility.

 title= listen (13.5 MB)  | running time 00:58:21

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