Sunday, May 29, 2011

Live from the sky, somewhere over the prairies

It’s been a while, science-loving friends, and I apologize. I could list all the things that have kept me away from this blog in the past month, but then I might scare away anyone who is considering the postdoc life. Instead, I will reward your patience with brain news hot off the press: a report from a neuroethics conference I just attended in Montreal called Brain Matters. As with previous conference reports, I will share my insights in bullet-proof format, as my foggy jet-lagged brain cannot write a coherent paragraph at the moment.

  • The conference brought together a large variety of professionals: neuroscientists, lawyers, bioethicists, philosophers, psychiatrists, you name it. As it turns out, psychiatrists know a joke or two.
  • We heard quite a bit about how the media handles neuroscience news. The consensus is that in most cases (but not all), the answer is poorly. The blame gets tossed around. Journalists hype research too much, but it’s not their fault, they need to sell papers. Researchers hype research too much, but it’s not their fault, they need to get funding. I voted to shift the blame onto grad students. I also thought we could solve the problem easily by making everybody read Scientific Chick. It didn’t take as well as I had hoped.
  • We also heard quite a bit about deep brain stimulation (DBS), a potential treatment for a variety of illnesses and conditions that involves sticking a stimulating electrode in the brain and leaving it there. Right now, this works relatively well for treating advanced cases of Parkinson. The problem is that it comes with side effects and that people undergoing this type of treatment are reporting things like “no longer feeling like themselves”. This brings us to an important question: What does it mean to feel like yourself? One of the most fascinating talks of the conference involved an in-depth discussion of personal identity and how it is or isn’t affected by brain interventions like DBS.
  • There was also a discussion of self-experimentation. Should willing neuroscientists be allowed to stick electrodes in their own brains to advance our knowledge of neuroscience? The speaker argued that we allow people to skydive and bungee jump without having them fill endless forms and run their proposal to do something crazy through an ethics board, so self-experimentation should be no different. I mean, do you want the Nobel Prize or not?
  • One of the most interesting talks was on placebos. The researcher argued that antidepressants work only marginally better than placebos in most cases (though not all cases), and so we should really ask ourselves whether the small improvement is worth the side effects. I thought of a genius business venture that involves selling sugar pills for every possible condition. Then I remembered that this already exists. It’s called homeopathy.
  • Speaking of placebos, everyone always assumes that they only work because you think you’re getting an active drug. Some researchers were skeptical about this, and so they carried out this fascinating study that involved giving placebos to people with irritable bowel syndrome, but also telling them that they’re getting placebos the entire time. Guess what? They felt better anyway.

This blog post is already dragging on too long, but these were just a few of all the very interesting topics and discussions we had over two days. I hope to be back with regular science programming very shortly, so stay tuned for the latest and greatest!

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