Dr. Syd Johnson is a neuroethicist/bioethicist/philosopher at Michigan Technological University, where she teaches ethics and bioethics, and singlehandedly holds down the neuroethics fort in the snowy wilderness of northern Michigan. Prior to her appointment at Tech, she was a Research Fellow in Neuroethics at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and received her PhD in philosophy from SUNY Albany. Her research interests are primarily in the ethical implications of brain injuries, especially those at opposite ends of the severity spectrum: mild TBI, specifically sport-related concussion, and disorders of consciousness. Syd has been a vocal advocate for radical, neuroprotective reforms in youth sports such as football and hockey, and thinks one of the important roles of bioethicists is to stir up debate about health-related issues of importance to the public. To that end, and despite her training as a philosopher, her interests in neuroethics tend towards real-world problems and concerns rather than metaphysical speculation. On the other hand, Syd really likes to think about zombies, and the ethical and metaphysical implications of the impending zombie apocalypse.
The focus of Syd’s work in neuroethics is on the ethical implications of new developments in neuroscience, particularly those related to disorders of consciousness (vegetative states and minimally conscious states) and traumatic brain injury. She’s especially interested in problems that arise in the context of “halfway technologies” such as Deep Brain Stimulation and drug therapies that can result in partial recovery, but leave patients profoundly disabled. Her research agenda focuses on: (1) whether these so-called treatments actually enhance quality of life for persons with disorders of consciousness, (2) how quality of life can be effectively assessed in persons who lack the capacity to communicate or evaluate their own quality of life, and (3) how recent neuroscientific discoveries about DOCs challenge our ethical assessments of the value and quality of life for these patients. This work has broad implications for other groups of vulnerable patients, including persons with dementia, infants, children, and individuals with profound cognitive disabilities. Syd is also currently exploring the ethical and social justice dimensions of sport-related concussion and neurotrauma, particularly in the context of pediatric athletes.
Syd’s other areas of research in bioethics include issues in genethics, biomedical research with pregnant women, and the role of public bioethicists in guiding and instigating public discourse on issues of bioethical importance. An additional area of scholarly interest is film and philosophy, and the use of popular films as teaching tools in philosophy. Syd is interested in the way that philosophically intriguing questions are represented in pop culture, as well as the pedagogical potential of cinematic thought experiments.
Articles of interest:
Return to play guidelines cannot solve the football-related concussion problem. Journal of School Health 2012; 82(4): 180-185
The impact of American tackle football-related concussion in youth athletes. American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience 2011; 2(4): 48-59. (Co-authored with F. Gilbert.)
The ethically dubious practice of thwarting the redemption of the condemned. American Journal of Bioethics 2011;11(10):9-10.
Concussion and youth hockey: It’s time to break the cycle. Canadian Medical Association Journal. 2011;183:921-924
The right to die in the minimally conscious state. Journal of Medical Ethics 2011;37:175-178
Withholding care from vegetative patients: the social and financial costs. Bioethics Forum. 2010.
Implications of recent neuroscientific findings in patients with disorders of consciousness. Neuroethics 2010;3:185-196
The Silent Scream: Misdiagnosis in disorders of consciousness. Bioethics Forum. 2009.