Archive for category public scholarship

A review of The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand Enhance, and Empower the Mind

*This post by Katie Strong was initially featured on The Neuroethics Blog.

IMG_20140523_172321Katie Strong is a 4th year chemistry graduate student working in Dr. Dennis Liotta’s laboratory at Emory University. Prior to graduate school, Katie received a Bachelor of Science from the University of Mary Washington, where she worked towards the development of polyethylene glycol guanidinylation reagents for protecting alkylguanidines. Katie’s graduate school research has focused on the development and synthesis of N-methyl-ᴅ-aspartate (NMDA) receptor subunit selective potentiators to be used as therapeutic probes for the study of schizophrenia and cognitive enhancement. Katie is also an Editorial Intern at the American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience (AJOB Neuroscience), along with a supporting editor and regular contributor to The Neuroethics Blog, the official blog of AJOB Neuroscience.

The Future of the Mind, authored by physicist Dr. Michio Kaku, explores how neuroscience might inform questions that philosophers have been debating for centuries: Do we have a soul? What happens after we die? Do we even have to die? And what would it take to produce a robot with human consciousness or emotions? To explore these questions, Dr. Kaku interviewed hundreds of scientists who are actively conducting ground breaking work in labs around the world, and from these conversations he made predictions on how these scientific findings would shape our future. The work that Dr. Kaku discusses, such as the latest advances in brain-computer-interfaces (BCI) for the disabled,1 recording dream images with MRI machines,2 or implanting memories in mice,3,4 makes for a fascinating and engrossing read from start to finish. The Future of the Mind is at its best when taking readers through these areas of research and explaining the long-term significance, however many of the neurophilosophical questions posed are largely left to the readers’ imaginations for resolution.

The Future of the Mind is divided into three parts or books, and each book delves more and more into the technology of the future and the type of society that will exist decades and centuries from now. Book I sets the stage for how important physics is for neuroscience; the revolutionary technologies such as MRI, PET, and DBS have used basic physics knowledge, as Dr. Kaku notes, to promote the explosion of advances in the field of neuroscience. The state of these technologies in current research is introduced, along with how to conceptualize consciousness, and in Book II, he discusses how these technologies will enable us to conduct acts similar to telepathy and telekinesis, manipulate thoughts and memories, and enhance intelligence. Book III revisits the idea of consciousness and explores the possibilities related to mind-altering technologies, and suggests we reframe our understanding of consciousness beyond a single type of consciousness (i.e., dreaming, drug-induced states, and mental illnesses). He also suggests that the future understandings of consciousness may move beyond humans to include robots and aliens. Book III also explores ideas straight out of science fiction such as that one day our physical bodies will be too cumbersome for travel to other galaxies through deep space, so we’ll simply leave them behind.

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Comment on: Placebo for Psychogenic Illnesses: Why “It’s all in my head” does and doesn’t matter

Recently, I composed a piece for Nature Science Soapbox entitled, Placebo for Psychogenic Illnesses: Why “It’s all in my head” does and doesn’t matter and in the Huffington Post on Placebo. Both pieces work to reframe and deepen our understanding of medicine and illness by utilizing neuroscience. Importantly, this process must include humility for the limitations of neuroscience and our current understanding of the brain while also maintaining an openness to what we don’t know, avoiding foreclosing opportunities for richer understanding of the brain’s capabilities.

I believe neuroethics discourse needs to occur with all relevant stakeholders, and as I discussed with colleagues recently, I feel it would be a failure if I couldn’t engage in neuroethics discourse outside of my discipline (I admit that I’m well-rooted in neuroscience). I’ve had colleagues voice concerns about misinterpretations of what we say by the public and sensationalizing of our findings in the popular media. Generally, these, primarily academics, use these as (not entirely unfounded) excuses to avoid speaking with the public or general audiences. This is a mistake.  Neuroethics is a discipline that directly speaks to the implications of neuroscience for society and its ethical norms; we must involve society and general audiences. This necessarily means including not only individuals outside of our discipline, but individuals in our broader communities.

Recently, I received an emotionally charged response to my Nature Science Soapbox piece, where, unfortunately, the reader felt I had dismissed her and her son’s medical reality.  I understand that this misinterpretation will happen often as I’m trying to work with deeply engrained social norms about mental illness, stigma, and evolving descriptions of what the brain does (and even the mind does).

You can read her comment here and my response can  be found below.

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Thanks for your comment, Kathleen.  To be clear, this article is not about dismissing PANDAS or Dr. Trifiletti.  This article is about 2 things: 1) re-framing the way we conceptualize psychogenic illnesses and placebo by 2) utilizing evidence-based arguments—in this case utilizing neuroscience.  The overall goal being to advocate for ways to minimize suffering and to explore innovative ways to help people, in this case psychogenic patients, who are truly suffering and lack standard measures for medical care.

How do we use the phrase, “It’s all in your head,” and I invite you to start with asking yourself.

Generally, it’s used to describe psychological phenomena, thinking, feelings, or “mind”.   If it’s “all in your head”, it’s almost something to be dismissed. If you have a problem that’s “all in your head,” it’s not truly “real”: you should “get over it”. And if you don’t or can’t, it reflects poorly on the very fabric of your character: you’re weak-willed, maybe even failing morally.

Because of advances in neuroscience, we now understand that many of these psychological phenomena are intimately tied to changes in brain chemistry, and electrical activity in the brain. In this case, “it’s all in your head,” as it’s used above, stops making sense; it’s a false distinction between what is a “real” disease and what isn’t. For example, PANDAS and psychogenic disorders are equally real, as real as cancer.  These all physically affect the body– and I consider the brain as part of the body.

Historically, as a society, we have relied on technology to define disease.  And as technologies become more sophisticated, we are learning more and more about how the brain works. For example, conditions that cause enormous suffering, such as epilepsy, and dystonia were formerly considered “not real”, believe it or not.  As technology has grown more sophisticated, we can now attribute epilepsy to abnormal clusters of electrical activity and dystonia to aberrant circuitry in the brain. Similarly, placebo, which was thought to be nonspecific, “fake” even, now has been demonstrated to have significant physiological effects in the brain that correlate with reported benefit (from both patients and doctors).

What I want to share with non-neuroscientists, is the sense of wonder and humility scientists have with regard to biological phenomenon and living.  We, as a discipline, must challenge our assumptions, and revise our thinking, all of the time.  Scientists do this through evidence and empirical work. And although we currently don’t have technology to measure something, doesn’t’ mean we won’t in the future.

The girls in LeRoy are an unfortunate case study in just how unnecessarily worse the situation can get when society uses false distinctions of “what’s in your head” and what’s not.  The implication being that “what’s in your head” is NOT real and therefore stigmatized.  These girls, whose suffering and conditions are very real, were only made worse on all accounts, by this type of logic.

In sum, this article is about respectfully re-framing the way we, as a society, define disease and medicine by utilizing scientific evidence, in this case based in the brain sciences. And by re-framing the way we see psychological phenomena through the lens of science, we may eliminate the unfair stigma and suffering associated with false distinctions between what’s in the mind versus what’s in the body.

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Public Scholarship and the Op-Ed Project

Today, I was honored to have a piece featuring some of my research interests published in the Huffington Post.

According to the “Byline Report” by the Op-Ed Project, women represent an alarmingly low percentage of  public voices in a variety of media sources (In the Huffington Post, 64% of their writers are men, which is better than New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Salon which hover around 70-80%).  Read the rest of this entry »

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