How Bright Might A “Neuro Future” Be?

Neuro Revolution
By Stephan Schleim

Looking for a “Neuro Revolution”? Zack Lynch wants to offer you one in his new book.

With a title like Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World and the author celebrated as a leading technology consultant and market researcher in marketing blurbs, readers might expect the author’s opinion to be based on the state of the art of neuroscience. However, frequent mistakes and shortcomings in his presentation of the scientific findings and methodology seriously call into question whether Lynch is the right person to sketch a possible “neuro future” and to address the prospects and limitations of neurotechnology.

The first surprise comes on page 3, where Lynch describes his first experience with a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner, one of the most frequently-used research tools in contemporary cognitive neuroscience. He explains that “the machine’s computer had recorded and analyzed data about how those loud thumping noises had bounced back from the structures under my skin.” To uninformed people, the noise of high-field MRI scanners will indeed be one of their most salient features. However, it is a mere epiphenomenon subject to the sophisticated technology necessary to change strong magnetic fields in short intervals. The technique itself is based on inaudible electromagnetic waves (like those emitted by a cellphone) to investigate brain structure and function.

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The New Performance Enhancing Drugs

Enhanced Brain
By Andrew Hessert, Andrew Medvecz, Jimmy Miller, Jacquelyn Richard

Barry Bonds elevated his game to the next level with “the clear” and “the cream”, shattering legendary records in the process. Are scientists, students, and other academics about to do the same?

While stars such as Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi continue to defend themselves against their alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs, a new debate over the use of a different kind of performance-enhancing drug has begun to rage in the scientific world.
Barry Bonds Pumped Up
Cognitive enhancers like Adderall and Ritalin have commonly been used as a treatment for behavioral disorders such as Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. However, these drugs are now becoming popular “performance enhancing” substances for healthy individuals trying to gain a competitive edge by boosting their overall cognitive function.

Henry Greely, a Stanford Law Professor, advocates for unrestricted availability of these drugs, claiming the enhancers will level the “cognitive playing field” and spark a new era of increased innovation. But Greely and other advocates fail to recognize the severe personal and societal consequences that such availability would generate, looking instead to a pharmaceutical solution that would, in the end, cause more problems than it would solve.

How They Work

Ritalin and Adderall have been on the market since the 1960s to treat conditions like ADD and ADHD (Center for Substance Abuse Research, 2005). While the specific mechanisms of these disorders have yet to be fully elucidated, cognitive enhancers have been successful in controlling or mitigating symptoms in patients. Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Adderall (dextroamphetamine) both inhibit dopamine reuptake, allowing dopamine signals to remain active for longer periods of time (Jones, Joseph, Barak, Caron, & Wightman, 1999). Provigil (modafinil), an alternative to the potentially addictive dopaminergic drugs, operates in similar fashion, but instead blocks reuptake of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine.

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Gambling and Compulsion: Neurobiology Meets Casinos

Slot MachinesBy Jarred Carter, Andrew Cavanagh, Elizabeth Olveda, and Meredith Ragany

Vegas baby, Vegas!

So you’ve finally made it out to Sin City, setting aside a few hundreds dollars to gamble. Maybe even a thousand. You’re hoping to get lucky and have some fun. A few hours and a half-dozen drinks into your weekend, you find yourself at the craps table, dice in hand. You’re feeling good, ready to turn your recent down streak into big bucks. Where does that leave you?
Right where the casino wants you.

The game is rigged. Everyone loses money eventually, if not immediately. But just like gamblers grab hold of that lever and pull, society has stepped up to the gambling craze. And now gambling is pulling people for all they’re worth: emotionally, mentally and, most notably, financially.

This post will look more closely at casino’s techniques to draw gamblers back to the slot chairs and the tables, focusing on both physiological aspects and engaged decision making. Ultimately, these observations will demonstrate that casinos create more than entertainment; they develop an entire compulsive experience.

The Gambler’s Rush

The casino’s greatest asset might be the very personal, very intense rush that gamblers experience as they step up to the blackjack table or slot machine, hoping to strike it rich. This characteristic “rush” or “high” stems from the series of steps and actions that are involved in addictive behavior. Stimulation from the surrounding atmosphere and the thrill of a big risk drives the “high”. Ultimately, the “rush” from gambling can be as intense as a drug fix.

Dealing Emotions

Excitement, making a quick buck, or even the possibility of financial independence is enticing. From experience, most people know that emotions are difficult to control. From a neurological standpoint, the amygdala is situated in the limbic system and is one main centers of emotion (pdf) in the human brain. Other parts of the brain, like the prefontal cortex, display less activity (pdf) during the act of gambling.

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Triune Ethics: On Neurobiology and Multiple Moralities

Darcia Narvaez
Editor’s Note: The following essay by Darcia Narvaez is based on her paper Triune Ethics: The Neurobiological Roots of Our Multiple Moral Personalities, which was part of the Notre Dame Symposium on Character and Moral Personality. You can obtain all the conference papers online, including Daniel Cervone, Ross Thompson, Dan McAdams, and others.

Darcia Narvaez is associate professor of psychology at Notre Dame and executive director of the Notre Dame Collaboration for Ethical Education.

Triune Ethics: The Neurobiological Roots of Our Multiple Moral Personalities

By Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D.

Triune Ethics is an interdisciplinary theory whose goals are to link moral psychology to affective neuroscience, help explain individual differences in moral functioning, and suggest some initial conditions for moral development. It is also an approach that can be linked to social relationships, conditions and situations, thus providing a biosocial view of moral action.

Three types of ethics can drive human morality, as I outline in this 2008 paper on neurobiology and our multiple moralities (pdf). These are based on different affectively-based moral stances that persons can take: one oriented to security (the Ethic of Security) and focused on self-preservation through safety, and personal and ingroup dominance. Another is oriented to emotional engagement with others (the Ethic of Engagement), particularly through caring relationships and social bonds. The third I call the Ethic of Imagination, which is focused on creative ways to think and act socially. While these labels are not all inclusive, they do seem to capture three different ways of co-existing with others in the social landscape.

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Poverty and the Brain: Becoming Critical

poverty-race-opportunity
Poverty Poisons the Brain was one of our most popular posts last year. Recent research has brought that topic back into public light. It’s good research, but today I will get critical about what really matters in our emerging realization that social disadvantage results in neurological disadvantage.

Gary Evans and Michelle Shamberg recently published a PNAS paper, Childhood Poverty, Chronic Stress and Working Memory (pdf). Here’s the abstract:

The income–achievement gap is a formidable societal problem, but little is known about either neurocognitive or biological mechanisms that might account for income-related deficits in academic achievement. We show that childhood poverty is inversely related to working memory in young adults. Furthermore, this prospective relationship is mediated by elevated chronic stress during childhood. Chronic stress is measured by allostatic load, a biological marker of cumulative wear and tear on the body that is caused by the mobilization of multiple physiological systems in response to chronic environmental demands.

The Evans and Shamberg paper has gotten prominent media attention. Over at Wired, Poverty Goes Straight to the Brain got an enormous number of diggs. Brandon Keim’s opening lines are, “Growing up poor isn’t merely hard on kids. It might also be bad for their brains. A long-term study of cognitive development in lower- and middle-class students found strong links between childhood poverty, physiological stress and adult memory.”

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