Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, philosophy and health care

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Tiny human brain organoids implanted into rodents, triggering ethical concerns

Sharon Begley
Originally posted November 6, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

He and his colleagues discussed the ethics of implanting human brain organoids into rats, including whether the animals might become too human. “Some of what people warn about is still science fiction,” he said. “Right now, the organoids are so crude we probably decrease” the rats’ brain function.

Ethicists argue that “not a problem now” doesn’t mean “never a problem.” One concern raised by the human brain organoid implants “is that functional integration [of the organoids] into the central nervous system of animals can in principle alter an animal’s behavior or needs,” said bioethicist Jonathan Kimmelman of McGill University in Montreal. “The task, then, is to carefully monitor if such alterations occur.” If the human implant gives an animal “increased sentience or mental capacities,” he added, it might suffer more.

Would it feel like a human trapped in a rodent’s body? Because both the Salk and Penn experiments used adult rodents, their brains were no longer developing, unlike the case if implants had been done with fetal rodent brains. “It’s hard to imagine how human-like cognitive capacities, like consciousness, could emerge under such circumstances,” Kimmelman said, referring to implants into an adult rodent brain. Chen agreed: He said his experiment “carries much less risk of creating animals with greater ‘brain power’ than normal” because the human organoid goes into “a specific region of already developed brain.”

The belief that consciousness is off the table is in fact the subject of debate. An organoid would need to be much more advanced than today’s to experience consciousness, said the Allen Institute’s Koch, including having dense neural connections, distinct layers, and other neuro-architecture. But if those and other advances occur, he said, “then the question is very germane: Does this piece of cortex feel something?” Asked whether brain organoids can achieve consciousness without sensory organs and other means of perceiving the world, Koch said it would experience something different than what people and other animals do: “It raises the question, what is it conscious of?”

The article is here.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Public’s Distrust of Biotech Is Deepening. Commercialization May Be to Blame.

Jim Kozubek
Originally published November 3, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

The high profile patent battle over the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool, often valued commercially at a billion dollars, and the FDA approval of the first genetically modified medicine for $475,000 — a sale price that is 19 times the cost to manufacture it — have displayed the capacity for turning taxpayer-funded research into an aggressive money-making enterprise. More personally, genetics are being used to typify people for cancer risk and age-related diseases, schizophrenia, autism, and intelligence, none of which truly belong to diagnostic categories.

It is therefore no surprise that parents may want to protect their newborns from becoming targets of commercialization.

In truth, genome sequencing is an extension of earlier commercial sequencing tests and standard newborn screening tests. BabySeq has expanded these to 166 genes, which can theoretically predict thousands of disorders and identify several genetic risk variants. For instance, it has identified a dozen newborns to have a genetic variant associated with biotinidase deficiency, which can impact cognition, and be fixed by taking a simple vitamin. Casie Genetti, a researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital, noted researchers found 109 of 125 babies had at least one, and up to six, genetic variants for an autosomal recessive disorder, meaning that if they went on to have children with a partner who had a corresponding gene compromised in a similar way, it could be damaging or life-threatening for their own baby.

Part of the problem is that we all have some measure of genetic variation, and that can be either dangerous or advantageous depending on the cell type or genetic background or environment.

The article is here.

Many Academics Are Eager to Publish in Worthless Journals

Gina Kolata
The New York Times
Originally published October 30, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Yet “every university requires some level of publication,” said Lawrence DiPaolo, vice president of academic affairs at Neumann University in Aston, Pa.

Recently a group of researchers invented a fake academic: Anna O. Szust. The name in Polish means fraudster. Dr. Szust applied to legitimate and predatory journals asking to be an editor. She supplied a résumé in which her publications and degrees were total fabrications, as were the names of the publishers of the books she said she had contributed to.

The legitimate journals rejected her application immediately. But 48 out of 360 questionable journals made her an editor. Four made her editor in chief. One journal sent her an email saying, “It’s our pleasure to add your name as our editor in chief for the journal with no responsibilities.”

The lead author of the Dr. Szust sting operation, Katarzyna Pisanski, a psychologist at the University of Sussex in England, said the question of what motivates people to publish in such journals “is a touchy subject.”

“If you were tricked by spam email you might not want to admit it, and if you did it wittingly to increase your publication counts you might also not want to admit it,” she said in an email.

The consequences of participating can be more than just a résumé freckled with poor-quality papers and meeting abstracts.

Publications become part of the body of scientific literature.

There are indications that some academic institutions are beginning to wise up to the dangers.

Dewayne Fox, an associate professor of fisheries at Delaware State University, sits on a committee at his school that reviews job applicants. One recent applicant, he recalled, listed 50 publications in such journals and is on the editorial boards of some of them.

A few years ago, he said, no one would have noticed. But now he and others on search committees at his university have begun scrutinizing the publications closely to see if the journals are legitimate.

The article is here.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

What The Good Place Can Teach You About Morality

Patrick Allan
Originally posted November 6, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Doing “Good” Things Doesn’t Necessarily Make You a Good Person

In The Good Place, the version of the afterlife you get sent to is based on a complicated point system. Doing “good” deeds earns you a certain number of positive points, and doing “bad” things will subtract them. Your point total when you die is what decides where you’ll go. Seems fair, right?

Despite the fact The Good Place makes life feel like a point-based videogame, we quickly learn morality isn’t as black and white as positive points and negative points. At one point, Eleanor tries to rack up points by holding doors for people; an action worth 3 points a pop. To put that in perspective, her score is -4,008 and she needs to meet the average of 1,222,821. It would take her a long time to get there but it’s one way to do it. At least, it would be if it worked. She quickly learns after awhile that she didn’t earn any points because she’s not actually trying to be nice to people. Her only goal is to rack up points so she can stay in The Good Place, which is an inherently selfish reason. The situation brings up a valid question: are “good” things done for selfish reasons still “good” things?

I don’t want to spoil too much, but as the series goes on, we see this question asked time and time again with each of its characters. Chidi may have spent his life studying moral ethics, but does knowing everything about pursuing “good” mean you are? Tahani spent her entire life as a charitable philanthropist, but she did it all for the questionable pursuit of finally outshining her near-perfect sister. She did a lot of good, but is she “good?” It’s something to consider yourself as you go about your day. Try to do “good” things, but ask yourself every once in awhile who those “good” things are really for.

The article is here.

Note: I really enjoy watching The Good Place.  Very clever. 

My spoiler: I think Michael is supposed to be in The Good Place too, not really the architect.

Harnessing the Placebo Effect: Exploring the Influence of Physician Characteristics on Placebo Response

Lauren C. Howe, J. Parker Goyer, and Alia J. Crum
Health Psychology, 36(11), 1074-1082.


Objective: Research on placebo/nocebo effects suggests that expectations can influence treatment outcomes, but placebo/nocebo effects are not always evident. This research demonstrates that a provider’s social behavior moderates the effect of expectations on physiological outcomes.

Methods: After inducing an allergic reaction in participants through a histamine skin prick test, a health care provider administered a cream with no active ingredients and set either positive expectations (cream will reduce reaction) or negative expectations (cream will increase reaction). The provider demonstrated either high or low warmth, or either high or low competence.

Results: The impact of expectations on allergic response was enhanced when the provider acted both warmer and more competent and negated when the provider acted colder and less competent.

Conclusion: This study suggests that placebo effects should be construed not as a nuisance variable with mysterious impact but instead as a psychological phenomenon that can be understood and harnessed to improve treatment outcomes.

Link to the pdf is here.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Best-Ever Algorithm Found for Huge Streams of Data

Kevin Hartnett
Wired Magazine
Originally published October 29, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Computer programs that perform these kinds of on-the-go calculations are called streaming algorithms. Because data comes at them continuously, and in such volume, they try to record the essence of what they’ve seen while strategically forgetting the rest. For more than 30 years computer scientists have worked to build a better streaming algorithm. Last fall a team of researchers invented one that is just about perfect.

“We developed a new algorithm that is simultaneously the best” on every performance dimension, said Jelani Nelson, a computer scientist at Harvard University and a co-author of the work with Kasper Green Larsen of Aarhus University in Denmark, Huy Nguyen of Northeastern University and Mikkel Thorup of the University of Copenhagen.

This best-in-class streaming algorithm works by remembering just enough of what it’s seen to tell you what it’s seen most frequently. It suggests that compromises that seemed intrinsic to the analysis of streaming data are not actually necessary. It also points the way forward to a new era of strategic forgetting.

Why we pretend to know things, explained by a cognitive scientist

Sean Illing
Originally posted November 3, 2017

Why do people pretend to know things? Why does confidence so often scale with ignorance? Steven Sloman, a professor of cognitive science at Brown University, has some compelling answers to these questions.

“We're biased to preserve our sense of rightness,” he told me, “and we have to be.”

The author of The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, Sloman’s research focuses on judgment, decision-making, and reasoning. He’s especially interested in what’s called “the illusion of explanatory depth.” This is how cognitive scientists refer to our tendency to overestimate our understanding of how the world works.

We do this, Sloman says, because of our reliance on other minds.

“The decisions we make, the attitudes we form, the judgments we make, depend very much on what other people are thinking,” he said.

If the people around us are wrong about something, there’s a good chance we will be too. Proximity to truth compounds in the same way.

In this interview, Sloman and I talk about the problem of unjustified belief. I ask him about the political implications of his research, and if he thinks the rise of “fake news” and “alternative facts” has amplified our cognitive biases.

The interview/article is here.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Rigorous Study Finds Antidepressants Worsen Long-Term Outcomes

Peter Simons
Originally posted

Here is an excerpt:

These results add to a body of research that indicates that antidepressants worsen long-term outcomes. In an article published in 1994, the psychiatrist Giovanni Fava wrote that “Psychotropic drugs actually worsen, at least in some cases, the progression of the illness which they are supposed to treat.” In a 2003 article, he wrote: “A statistical trend suggested that the longer the drug treatment, the higher the likelihood of relapse.”

Previous research has also found that antidepressants are no more effective than placebo for mild-to-moderate depression, and other studies have questioned whether such medications are effective even for severe depression. Concerns have also been raised about the health risks of taking antidepressants—such as a recent study which found that taking antidepressants increases one’s risk of death by 33% (see MIA report).

In fact, studies have demonstrated that as many as 85% of people recover spontaneously from depression. In a recent example, researchers found that only 35% of people who experienced depression had a second episode within 15 years. That means that 65% of people who have a bout of depression are likely never to experience it again.

Critics of previous findings have argued that it is not fair to compare those receiving antidepressants with those who do not. They argue that initial depression severity confounds the results—those with more severe symptoms may be more likely to be treated with antidepressants. Thus, according to some researchers, even if antidepressants worked as well as psychotherapy or receiving no treatment, those treated with antidepressants would still show worse outcomes—because they had more severe symptoms in the first place.

The article is here.

The target article is here.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

For some evangelicals, a choice between Moore and morality

Marc Fisher
The Washington Post
Originally posted November 16, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

What’s happening in the churches of Alabama — a state where half the residents consider themselves evangelical Christians, double the national average, according to a Pew Research study — is nothing less than a battle for the meaning of evangelism, some church leaders say. It is a titanic struggle between those who believe there must be one clear, unalterable moral standard and those who argue that to win the war for the nation’s soul, Christians must accept morally flawed leaders.

Evangelicals are not alone in shifting their view of the role moral character should play in choosing political leaders. Between 2011 and last year, the percentage of Americans who say politicians who commit immoral acts in their private lives can still behave ethically in public office jumped to 61 percent from 44 percent, according to a Public Religion Research Institute/Brookings poll. During the same period, the shift among evangelicals was even more dramatic, moving from to 72 percent from 30 percent, the survey found.

“What you’re seeing here is rank hypocrisy,” said John Fea, an evangelical Christian who teaches history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. “These are evangelicals who have decided that the way to win the culture is now uncoupled from character. Their goal is the same as it was 30 years ago, to restore America to its Christian roots, but the political playbook has changed.

The article is here.

And yes, I live in Mechanicsburg, PA, by I don't know John Fea.