Biotechnology

The pill to banish painful memories—forget it!

It is a curious feature of the late 20th and early 21st centuries that the media regales readers and viewers almost daily with exciting details of breakthroughs in medical science: new cures, reversals of previous certainties about old remedies (and then, often enough, later reversals of the reversals), astonishing information about our brains and numerous other organs, apparently dramatic discoveries about free will and ethical thinking. Much of this is indeed attributable to the rapid rate of the expansion of contemporary scientific understanding which we should not want to underestimate, but it is also sometimes the result of the media’s excitability and search for sensation, combined with the impressive self-promotional skills of practitioners of the medical sciences. This latter factor means that reported “breakthroughs” are often no more than confident early steps on a promising but uncertain path, and when they lead nowhere this sad news tends not to see the light of day. And then there are the cases of outright fraud or incompetence, such as the South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk’s initially much-proclaimed breakthroughs in the early 2000s in stem cell research that were shown to be faked.

So a certain reserve about reported breakthroughs is in order, but a recent case is worth philosophical scrutiny even if its claims turn out to be less valid than they seem. This was a report in The Mail Online, Science and Technology section that was headlined “Could Pill wipe out bad memories? Drug used to treat multiple sclerosis found to help us forget experiences that caused us pain.” But it turns out that the drug has only been tested for memory erasure of pain in mice, and then only of a specific type of pain associated with mild electric shock. The Mail article jumps rapidly from this modest beginning to claim that the experiment “offers hope of a drug that could eradicate memories of traumatic events from years ago and help patients overcome phobias, eating disorders and even sexual hang-ups.” For none of this “hope” is there an iota of evidence in the scientific study and one of the scientists involved in the study at the Commonwealth University of Virginia, Dr Sarah Spiegel, showing appropriate modesty, said of the drug concerned: ‘Fingolimod, a Food and Drug Administration approved drug for treatment of multiple sclerosis, has beneficial effects in the central nervous system that are not yet well understood.” More ambitiously she added: “Fingolimod deserves consideration as an adjuvant therapy for post traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders.”

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Horizon 2020 and The Role of Lay People’s Perspectives in Bioethical Reasoning

By Kimberly Schelle & Nadira Faulmüller

Horizon 2020, the European Union’s 2014-2020 largest research programme ever, includes the call to pursue ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’ (RRI). RRI stands for a research and innovation process in which all societal actors (e.g. citizens, policy makers, business and researchers) are working together in the process to align the outcomes with the values, needs, and expectations of the European Society. In a recently published paper on the importance of including the public and patients’ voices in bioethical reasoning, the authors describe, although in other words, the value of the RRI approach in bioethical issues:

“A bioethical position that fails to do this [exchange with the public opinion], and which thus avoids the confrontation with different public arguments, including ones perhaps based in different cultural histories, relations and ontological grounds […], not only runs the risk of missing important aspects, ideas and arguments. It also arouses strong suspicion of being indeed one-sided, biased or ideological—thus illegitimate.”

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Genetically Modifying Mosquitoes to ‘Bite the Dust’? Ethical Considerations

At some point, most people will have questioned the necessity of the existence of mosquitoes. In the UK at least, the things that might prompt us into such reflection are probably trivial; in my own case, the mild irritation of an itchy and unsightly swelling caused by a mosquito bite will normally lead me to rue the existence of these blood-sucking pests. Elsewhere though, mosquitoes lead to problems that are far from trivial; in Africa the Anopheles gambiae mosquito is the major vector of malaria, a disease that is estimated to kill more than 1 million people each year, most of whom are African children. Continue reading

Expert workshop on cognitive enhancement device regulation: Are there ‘two worlds’ of devices?

Last week, we held an expert workshop with key stakeholders to discuss our recent Oxford Martin School policy paper. Our policy paper put forward proposals for how we thought cognitive enhancement devices such as brain stimulators should be regulated. At present, if these sorts of devices do not make medical treatment claims (but instead claim to make you smarter, more creative or a better gamer, say) then they are only subject to basic product safety requirements. In our paper we suggested that cognitive enhancement devices should be regulated in the same way as medical devices and discussed how this could be implemented. Indeed, the devices that are being sold for enhancement of cognitive functions use the very same principles as devices approved by medical device regulators for research into the treatment of cognitive impairment or dysfunction associated with stroke, Parkinson’s disease and depression (amongst other conditions). Being the same sorts of devices, acting via similar mechanisms and posing the same sorts of risks, there seemed to be a strong argument for regulation of some form and an equally strong argument for adopting the same regulatory approach for both medical and enhancement devices.

Having published our paper, we were very keen to hear what people more closely involved in making policy and drafting legislation thought of our proposals. Individuals from the Medical and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, the EU New and Emerging Technologies Working Group, a medical devices company, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, and experts on responsible innovation and on brain stimulation joined us. Overall, the response to our recommendations was positive: all participants agreed that some regulatory action should be taken. There was a general consensus that this regulation should protect consumers but not curtail their freedom to use devices, that manufacturers should not be over-burdened by unnecessary regulatory requirements, and that innovation should not be stifled. Continue reading

“Whoa though, does it ever burn” – Why the consumer market for brain stimulation devices will be a good thing, as long as it is regulated

In many places around the world, there are people connecting electrodes to their heads to electrically stimulate their brains. Their intentions are often to boost various aspect of mental performance for skill development, gaming or just to see what happens. With the emergence of a more accessible market for glossy, well-branded brain stimulation devices it is likely that more and more people will consider trying them out.

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a brain stimulation technique which involves passing a small electrical current between two or more electrodes positioned on the left and right side of the scalp. The current excites the neurons, increasing their spontaneous activity. Although the first whole-unit devices are being marketed primarily for gamers, there is a well-established DIY tDCS community, members of which have been using the principles of tDCS to experiment with home-built devices which they use for purposes ranging from self-treatment of depression to improvement of memory, alertness, motor skills and reaction times.

Until now, non-clinical tDCS has been the preserve of those willing to invest time and nerve into researching which components to buy, how to attach wires to batteries and electrodes to wires, and how best to avoid burnt scalps, headaches, visual disturbances and even passing out. The tDCS Reddit forum currently has 3,763 subscribed readers who swap stories about best techniques, bad experiences and apparent successes. Many seem to be relying on other posters to answer technical questions and to seek reassurance about which side effects are ‘normal’. Worryingly, the answers they receive are often conflicting. Continue reading

The future of punishment: a clarification

By Rebecca Roache

Follow Rebecca on Twitter here

I’m working on a paper entitled ‘Cyborg justice: punishment in the age of transformative technology’ with my colleagues Anders Sandberg and Hannah Maslen. In it, we consider how punishment practices might change as technology advances, and what ethical issues might arise. The paper grew out of a blog post I wrote last year at Practical Ethics, a version of which was published as an article in Slate. A few months ago, Ross Andersen from the brilliant online magazine Aeon interviewed Anders, Hannah, and me, and the interview was published earlier this month. Versions of the story quickly appeared in various sources, beginning with a predictably inept effort in the Daily Mail, and followed by articles in The TelegraphHuffington PostGawkerBoing Boing, and elsewhere. The interview also sparked debate in the blogosphere, including posts by Daily NousPolaris KoiThe Good Men ProjectFilip SpagnoliBrian LeiterRogue PriestLuke Davies, and Ari Kohen, and comments and questions on Twitter and on my website. I’ve also received, by email, many comments, questions, and requests for further interviews and media appearances. These arrived at a time when I was travelling and lacked regular email access, and I’m yet to get around to replying to most of them. Apologies if you’re one of the people waiting for a reply.
I’m very happy to have started a debate on this topic, although less happy to have received a lot of negative attention based on a misunderstanding of my views on punishment and my reasons for being interested in this topic. I respond to the most common questions and concerns below. Feel free to leave a comment if there’s something important that I haven’t covered. Continue reading

Reconsidering the Ethics of Enhanced Punishment

Last summer, on this blog, Rebecca Roache suggested several ways in which technology could enhance retributive punishment—that is, could make punishment more severe—without “resorting to inhumane methods or substantially overhauling the current UK legal system.” Her approbation of this type of technological development has recently been reported in the Daily Mail, and reaffirmed in an interview for Aeon Magazine.

Roache’s original post was, at least, a response to the sentencing of the mother and stepfather of Daniel Pelka, who was four when he died as a result of a mixture of violence and neglect perpetrated by his parents. They each received the maximum sentence possible in the UK, a minimum of thirty years in prison before the possibility of parole is discussed (and even then they might not get it). This sentence, Roache wrote, was “laughably inadequate.” Continue reading

Marathon mice, enhancement and the will to work out

In his article in the Pacific Standard last week, author Bruce Grierson discusses the emerging scientific evidence that the ‘will to work out’ might be genetically determined. Grierson describes a ‘marathon mouse’, the descendant of a long line of mice bred for their love of exercise, and a 94-year-old woman called Olga, who is an athletic anomaly. Both the mouse and Olga love to work out. The mouse goes straight to his wheel when he wakes up, running kilometers at a time and Olga – a track and field amateur – still competes in 11 different events. Grierson suggests that cracking the code for intrinsic motivation to exercise would lead to the possibility of synthesizing its biochemical signature: ‘Why not a pill that would make us want to work out?’, he asks. Such a possibility adds an interesting dimension to the debate about enhancement in sport, and to enhancement debates more generally. Continue reading

Podcast: Genetic Parenthood, Assisted Reproduction, and the Values of Parental Love

On the evening of Thursday 28 December, Prof. Justin Oakley, Deputy Director of the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash University, gave a fascinating and suggestive lecture on whether there is reason for the state to broaden access to IVF treatment for childless people as well as facilitating adoption. Continue reading

Beyond 23andMe’s Shutdown: The Role of the FDA in the Future of Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Testing

Kyle Edwards, Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and The Ethox Centre, University of Oxford

Caroline Huang, The Ethox Centre, University of Oxford

An article based on this blog post has now been published in the May – June 2014 Hastings Center Report: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hast.310/full. Please check out our more developed thoughts on this topic there!

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