Scientists Are Giving Dead Brains New Life. What Could Go Wrong?

A few years ago, a scientist named Nenad Sestan began throwing around an idea for an experiment so obviously insane, so “wild” and “totally out there,” as he put it to me recently, that at first he told almost no one about it: not his wife or kids, not his bosses in Yale’s neuroscience department, not the dean of the university’s medical school.

Like everything Sestan studies, the idea centered on the mammalian brain. More specific, it centered on the tree-shaped neurons that govern speech, motor function and thought — the cells, in short, that make us who we are. In the course of his research, Sestan, an expert in developmental neurobiology, regularly ordered slices of animal and human brain tissue from various brain banks, which shipped the specimens to Yale in coolers full of ice. Sometimes the tissue arrived within three or four hours of the donor’s death. Sometimes it took more than a day. Still, Sestan and his team were able to culture, or grow, active cells from that tissue — tissue that was, for all practical purposes, entirely dead. In the right circumstances, they could actually keep the cells alive for several weeks at a stretch.

When I met with Sestan this spring, at his lab in New Haven, he took great care to stress that he was far from the only scientist to have noticed the phenomenon. “Lots of people knew this,” he said. “Lots and lots.” And yet he seems to have been one of the few to take these findings and push them forward: If you could restore activity to individual post-mortem brain cells, he reasoned to himself, what was to stop you from restoring activity to entire slices of post-mortem brain?

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/02/magazine/dead-pig-brains-reanimation.html

Prepare Yourself For The Shock Of Mass Implantable Brain Technology | Forbes

Patient Undergoing Implantable Brain Technology Procedure

Patient Undergoing Implantable Brain Technology Procedure


[…] The first wave of evolution is expected to offer healing-of-sorts for various individuals such as those profiled in the film with Parkinson’s Disease, paralysis, blindness and more. The next wave is more about general usage.

Of course, who would deny any person suffering from neurological disorders the ability to possess a better quality of life through brain implants? But when such technology is beginning to be touted via interviews in this documentary as that which will be able to help you jump higher, run faster, rid oneself of this habit or that, or that annoying personality trait or another via programming, we could be teetering on some very shaky moral and spiritual ground.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/laurencoleman/2019/05/12/prepare-yourself-for-the-shock-of-mass-implantable-brain-technology/


In Spain, prisoners’ brains are being electrically stimulated in the name of science | Vox

A team of scientists in Spain is getting ready to experiment on prisoners. If the scientists get the necessary approvals, they plan to start a study this month that involves placing electrodes on inmates’ foreheads and sending a current into their brains. The electricity will target the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that plays a role in decision-making and social behavior. The idea is that stimulating more activity in that region may make the prisoners less aggressive.

This technique — transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS — is a form of neurointervention, meaning it acts directly on the brain. Using neurointerventions in the criminal justice system is highly controversial. In recent years, scientists and philosophers have been debating under what conditions (if any) it might be ethical.

The Spanish team is the first to use tDCS on prisoners. They’ve already done it in a pilot study, publishing their findings in Neuroscience in January, and they were all set to implement a follow-up study involving at least 12 convicted murderers and other inmates this month. On Wednesday, New Scientist broke news of the upcoming experiment, noting that it had approval from the Spanish government, prison officials, and a university ethics committee. The next day, the Interior Ministry changed course and put the study on hold.

https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/3/9/18256821/prisoner-brain-study-spain-aggression-neurointervention-ethics

China’s CRISPR twins might have had their brains inadvertently enhanced | MIT Technology Review

The brains of two genetically edited girls born in China last year may have been changed in ways that enhance cognition and memory, scientists say.

The twins, called Lulu and Nana, reportedly had their genes modified before birth by a Chinese scientific team using the new editing tool CRISPR. The goal was to make the girls immune to infection by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Now, new research shows that the same alteration introduced into the girls’ DNA, deletion of a gene called CCR5, not only makes mice smarter but also improves human brain recovery after stroke, and could be linked to greater success in school.

“The answer is likely yes, it did affect their brains,” says Alcino J. Silva, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose lab uncovered a major new role for the CCR5 gene in memory and the brain’s ability to form new connections. 

“The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins,” says Silva. He says the exact effect on the girls’ cognition is impossible to predict, and “that is why it should not be done.” 

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/612997/the-crispr-twins-had-their-brains-altered/


Psychology’s trolley problem might have a problem.

[...] For all this method’s enduring popularity, few have bothered to examine how it might relate to real-life moral judgments. Would your answers to a set of trolley hypotheticals correspond with what you’d do if, say, a deadly train were really coming down the tracks, and you really did have the means to change its course? In November 2016, though, Dries Bostyn, a graduate student in social psychology at the University of Ghent, ran what may have been the first-ever real-life version of a trolley-problem study in the lab. In place of railroad tracks and human victims, he used an electroschock machine and a colony of mice—and the question was no longer hypothetical: Would students press a button to zap a living, breathing mouse, so as to spare five other living, breathing mice from feeling pain?

“I think almost everyone within this field has considered running this experiment in real life, but for some reason no one ever got around to it,” Bostyn says. He published his own results last month: People’s thoughts about imaginary trolleys and other sacrificial hypotheticals did not predict their actions with the mice, he found.

It’s a discomfiting result, and one that seems—at least at first—to throw a boulder into the path of this research. Scientists have been using a set of cheap-and-easy mental probes (Would you hit the railroad switch?) to capture moral judgment. But if the answers to those questions don’t connect to real behavior, then where, exactly, have these trolley problems taken us?

https://slate.com/technology/2018/06/psychologys-trolley-problem-might-have-a-problem.html

No death and an enhanced life: Is the future transhuman? | Technology | The Guardian

The aims of the transhumanist movement are summed up by Mark O’Connell in his book To Be a Machine, which last week won the Wellcome Book prize. “It is their belief that we can and should eradicate ageing as a cause of death; that we can and should use technology to augment our bodies and our minds; that we can and should merge with machines, remaking ourselves, finally, in the image of our own higher ideals.”

The idea of technologically enhancing our bodies is not new. But the extent to which transhumanists take the concept is. In the past, we made devices such as wooden legs, hearing aids, spectacles and false teeth. In future, we might useimplants to augment our senses so we can detect infrared or ultraviolet radiation directly or boost our cognitive processes by connecting ourselves to memory chips. Ultimately, by merging man and machine, science will produce humans who have vastly increased intelligence, strength, and lifespans; a near embodiment of gods.

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/may/06/no-death-and-an-enhanced-life-is-the-future-transhuman

Scientists Project Holograms Into The Brain To Create Experiences

One day soon you may be filling your lungs with crisp ocean air, your arms bathed in warm light as the sun sets over softly lapping waters and you may wonder, is this real? Or are scientists projecting holograms into my brain to create a vivid sensory experience that isn’t actually happening? A group of researchers at University of California, Berkeley are in the early stages of testing their ability to create, edit and scrub sensory experiences from our brains, both real-time and stored experiences–memories.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/andreamorris/2018/04/30/scientists-project-holograms-into-the-brain-to-create-experiences

Morality, Neuro-myths, and the Spurious Seduction of Evolutionary Ethics

Here’s a thought experiment. Suppose you are an aid agency providing food for children in a refugee camp. You have limited resources and could either feed all the hungry children inadequately, in which case they will soon starve, or feed a few adequately so they will survive but the others will all die. It’s a moral choice between equity and efficiency. What do you do – especially if your head is in an fMRI brain imager when you are confronted with the dilemma? According to the authors of this neuroscientific quandary, who claim to be measuring the brain correlates of distributive justice, one brain region, the insula, encodes inequity while the putamen region encodes efficiency.[i]

This typifies the beliefs of the new discipline of neuroethics that absolute moral values are inscribed in the brain. But how did we get here? For as long as oral traditions or written records have been available, moral injunctions have been laid down as representing the word of God, the wisdom of philosophers or the command of kings. Think of the Bible’s Ten Commandments, the teachings of Confucius or Ashoka, or the Code of Hammurabi. Precepts, rules of conduct and penalties for disobedience follow, engraved on tablets and enshrined in ancient texts, interpreted and reinterpreted by scholars and theologians as central pillars of society.

No longer...

https://iainews.iai.tv/articles/morality-neuro-myths-and-the-spurious-seduction-of-evolutionary-ethics-auid-829

A Hardware Update for the Human Brain - WSJ

[...] Darpa has also committed $60 million to create what’s known as a “direct cortical interface,” a brain-computer connection unlike any that exists today. Neural implants like Emily Borghard’s can stimulate and record from just a handful of neurons. Darpa hopes to create a neural interface that can connect to as many as one million neurons.

A fully functional brain-computer interface on this scale would, in theory, turn a person into a programmable, debuggable machine—just like a computer. What used to be accomplished through drugs, training, education and psychotherapy could someday be achieved by more direct means. The goal is something akin to the scene in “The Matrix” where Keanu Reeves’s character learns kung fu from a quick download. “It’s almost like the design-build-test cycle” for designing new hardware and software, says Justin Sanchez, director of the biological technologies office at Darpa. This cycle of building a prototype, measuring its performance in the real world, and tweaking accordingly is how humans refine new technologies. Thanks to neurotech, we could someday use the same process to refine our brains.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-hardware-update-for-the-human-brain-1496660400

Tom Douglas on using neurointerventions in crime prevention - YouTube

Should neurointerventions be used to prevent crime? For example, should we use chemical castration as part of efforts to prevent re-offending in sex offenders? What about methadone treatment for heroin-dependent offenders? Would offering such interventions to incarcerated individuals involve coercion? Would it violate their right to freedom from mental interference? Is there such a right? Should psychiatrists involved in treating offenders always do what is in their patients’ best interests or should they sometimes act in the best interests of society? Tom Douglas (Oxford) briefly introduces these issues, which he investigates in depth as part of his Wellcome Trust project ‘Neurointerventions in Crime Prevention'

Moral Brains: The Neuroscience of Morality

Reading this book. It's great so far; well worth checking out. From the Amazon blurb:

In the last fifteen years, there has been significant interest in studying the brain structures involved in moral judgments using novel techniques from neuroscience such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Many people, including a number of philosophers, believe that results from neuroscience have the potential to settle seemingly intractable debates concerning the nature, practice, and reliability of moral judgments. This has led to a flurry of scientific and philosophical activities, resulting in the rapid growth of the new field of moral neuroscience. There is now a vast array of ongoing scientific research devoted towards understanding the neural correlates of moral judgments, accompanied by a large philosophical literature aimed at interpreting and examining the methodology and the results of this research. 

This is the first volume to take stock of fifteen years of research of this fast-growing field of moral neuroscience and to recommend future directions for research. It features the most up-to-date research in this area, and it presents a wide variety of perspectives on this topic.

https://www.amazon.ca/Associate-Professor-Affiliated-Department-Philosophy/dp/0199357676/ref=sr_1_1