Is This the Most Misleading Image in Neuroscience?
One image has had an incalculable effect on policy around the world, but is it even remotely representative of what happens in the real world? Children who have been neglected can look forward to a more positive outlook than this image would suggest.
The CT scans above purport to show the difference between two three-year-old children, one that was loved by its mother and another that suffered neglect. The image has been used to support the claim that children's brains are "irrevocably hardwired" in the first few years of life, and to justify early intervention programmes and investment in early years education. However, along with these noble goals comes a dark side, the implication that children who have been neglected or who have grown up in poverty are permanently damaged, beyond help after a critical time period has expired. This proposition at the very least has been greatly overplayed. The idea risks reinforcing unhelpful and unjustified attitudes towards children who have come from deprived backgrounds and has even been used to argue against investment in children later in life and to justify questionable decisions in the area of child protection.
In an article for the Guardian, Zoe Williams quotes Val Gillies, a researcher in social policy at South Bank University:
"That illustration of the walnut brain is from a paper by Bruce Perry. There are no details given of the case histories of those kids. We don't know what 'normal' was. We don't know what 'extreme neglect' was. We don't even have a scale on that image. It's had the most powerful impact, but I've never seen another image like that. When people say, 'I've seen a brain scan showing what neglect does to the brain', that's the image they're talking about."
As Williams explains: "Immediately, there are a few things wrong with this: with no details on the case study, except for the fact that "extreme neglect" meant life in a Romanian orphanage, we could be dealing with anything, from the effects of malnutrition to a disability. But even without the drama of the image, the use of these extreme populations is misleading." In an article in the New York Times, Anna North looks at how the adoption of such false assumptions about neuroscience by policy makers in the US could do more harm than good.
The discussion couldn't help but remind me of an experiment that demonstrated the powerful effects implicit beliefs about our abilities can have on our performance. Researchers gave black school children a test and asked them to report their race either before or after taking the test. The children who reported their race before taking the test did worse than the children who were asked the same question afterwards. Similarly, undergraduates at university performed worse on a test if they were reminded that they graduated from a high school that was poorly represented at the university. These experiments make up part of a large body of evidence on the phenomenon of stereotype threat - an effect that has been repeatedly replicated, in which people conform to the negative stereotypes of their social group, creating a self fulfilling prophesy.
Of course it is important to invest time, money and resources in the first three years of human life, we don't need neuroscience to tell us that. But we shouldn't by any means be under the illusion that after this point a child's trajectory is permanently set in stone, this assumption which has become so pernicious, is not just dangerous, it is simply wrong.
Image Credit: Bruce Perry
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A new method promises to capture an elusive dark world particle.
- Scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) devised a method for trapping dark matter particles.
- Dark matter is estimated to take up 26.8% of all matter in the Universe.
- The researchers will be able to try their approach in 2021, when the LHC goes back online.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
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