Animal law, animal rights, and biomedical research: Can’t we all just get along?

30 05 2011

According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund 125 schools in the U.S. and Canada alone offer “Animal Law” classes as of Spring 2010. Possibly as a response to a growing zeal in the public for animal rights, the already saturated field of Law has left law school students searching for a new niche.

Certainly, we love our pets– some surveys suggest that 62% of U.S. households have a beloved pet.  According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association’s (APPMA) annual pet ownership survey pet spending has more than doubled from $17 billion in 1994 to over $50 billion in 2010. Last summer I saw a man, running in the park, dressed in all yellow with matching yellow-rimmed sunglasses.  Proudly running at his owner’s feet was a small dog donning the same outfit, complete with yellow-rimmed doggles. I knew they were called doggles because I was introduced to them several years ago through a T.V. show where a dog was featured riding around in a convertible with his tongue sticking out and the doggles strapped around his head. The goggles portion sat crooked atop his little snout,  successfully covering only one eye while the other eye was partially covered, but mostly smooshed.  The host interviewed the owner and excitedly asked her with a huge grin, “Does he like them?”  The owner said, “I’m not sure, but I think he likes that his eyes are protected when we’re riding in the convertible.”  I tried to put a “Happy New Year” hat on my dog once. He convinced me that animal fashion is its own special form of animal cruelty.

There are more obvious forms of animal cruelty. The story of Michael Vick and his Bad Newz Kennels brought national public attention to animal cruelty and animal rights.    There is also a movement to file lawsuits on behalf of the animals such as those affected by BP’s oil spill. In this article, Adam P. Karp, an attorney in Bellingham, Washington, says  “The law should recognize animals as legal persons with the same access to justice.” And more and more examples of animal cruelty that have come to the public eye on waves of the organic food movement. Documentaries like Food, Inc. have highlighted the darker side of mass-produced meats and numerous organizations now advocate on behalf of farm animals. When we think of animal cruelty in the case of Michael Vick, we understand that we must intervene in order to maintain the moral fabric of society by prevented debasing acts against our humanity.  It’s a win-win, right? But this might be a more difficult point to argue since people often have different moral threads that they weave into their moral codes.  In the case of animals used for food, vegetarian or meat-atarian, it arguably become a health concern.  Our physical bodies are at steak, er stake.  We protect the animals, we decrease e. coli problems, ergo we don’t have e.coli in our spinach and meat.

What about animals used for research and research on incurable diseases? I went to a talk entitled, “Public Opinion and the Use of Animals in Research” by Paul McKellips at the Foundation for Biomedical Research (FBR) where McKellips warned a room full of scientists about the waning public support for animal research and made the call for scientists to talk to their communities about animal research.

What was appalling about the audience was that very few scientists from the primate facility showed up to this talk and of those that were there, most left before the talk was over right after they had their fill of free pizza.  I recently led a discussion in my lab about speaking to the community and general audiences about their work, and while some expressed some interest or anger, most seemed to feel a degree of trepidation or plain disinterest.  The most vehement argument I heard in defense of animal research was that animal rights activists were “all crazy” and that no one would listen to them anyway. However, this argument is quite wrong and weak.  Most are more well-spoken than your average scientist, and for that matter much more (financially) supported in their campaigns against research than those who advocate for animal-based research. It’s critical when making any argument to know what and who you’re arguing against.

What are the common arguments against animal research and how do animal research advocates answer to them?  There is a pretty good list of arguments and responses here at Understanding Animal Research (UK). I prefer this to the Foundation for Biomedical Research (or Research Saves) site because the UK site relies less on manipulation and pulling heart strings (see “Jen’s video” on the FBR site not to mention the preview for billboards that I saw during Paul McKellips’ talk featuring a body in a morgue and a toe tag that said “I didn’t want to benefit from meds created with animal research” and an Advance Animal Directive which basically makes those for animal research kinda sound like jerks) and more on providing information.

When listening to arguments against animal research, I find the following to be the most compelling. I have also included responses from the Understanding Animal Research website.  I thought they did a pretty good job answering some of these concerns.

1. Animals aren’t people and haven’t generated any new cures for people.

“All mammals are descended from common ancestors, so humans are biologically very similar to other mammals. All mammals, including humans, have the same organs – heart, lungs, kidneys, liver etc – that work in the same way, controlled via the bloodstream and nervous system.

Of course there are minor differences, but these are far outweighed by the remarkable similarities. The differences can also give important clues about diseases and how they might be treated – for instance, if we knew why the mouse with muscular dystrophy suffers less muscle wasting than human patients, this might lead to a treatment for this debilitating and fatal disorder.

Vitamins work in the same way in animals as they do in people – research on guinea pigs led to the discovery of how vitamin C works. Hormones found in animals also work in a similar way in people. The following animal hormones have all been used successfully in human patients: insulin from pigs or cows; thyrotropin from cows; calcitonin from salmon; adrenocorticotrophic hormone from farm animals; oxytocin and vasopressin from pigs.”

2. I’m not against all animal research, just research that cannot benefit animals such as those directed to diseases that animals don’t get like Huntington’s Disease.

“In fact many veterinary medicines are the same as those used for human patients: examples include antibiotics, pain killers and tranquillisers. Many of the veterinary medicines that are used to treat animals are the same as, or very similar to, those used to treat human patients. Most human diseases exist in at least one other species. Many different animals naturally get illnesses such as cancer, heart failure, asthma, rabies and malaria and they can be treated in much the same way as human patients. There is evidence that dinosaurs suffered from arthritis. Chimpanzees can get polio and the human vaccine has been used to protect them in the wild.”

In addition, I’d like to add that although Huntington’s may not naturally occur in animals, Huntington’s is thought to involve a failure in the normal machinery of protein degradation, a process which is shared by animals used in research. The research findings from current studies may prove to have a benefit for both non-human animals and humans in the future.  Further, basic research also has great value and data from these studies is often an intimate part of leading to applied clinical research and providing foundational building blocks for clinical research.

Here is a nice list (it’s not exhaustive) of diseases and the role animal research has played in advancing treatment.

3. Laboratory animals suffer

“Most animal research involves mild procedures such as taking a blood sample, giving a single injection, or having a change of diet. If more invasive procedures are necessary, then anaesthetics and pain relief will be given whenever appropriate.

It is in researchers’ interests to make sure animals suffer as little as possible; stressed animals are less likely to produce reliable results. All animal research must pass an ethical evaluation which weighs up its pros and cons and decides whether it is justified. The research then has to be approved by Home Office Inspectors, who are all doctors or vets and who ensure that high welfare standards are applied.

Any animal suffering undue pain or distress that cannot be alleviated must be put down immediately and painlessly: this is the law.”

As a researcher, I know that there are many strict regulations both within the university and by government organizations to monitor animal welfare in research and prior to 1966, this was not always the case. The Animal Welfare Act and regulations monitoring the welfare of animals generally guard against the physical and psychological distress of non-human animals. 

When we’re talking about rodents, the general public doesn’t really feel much sympathy. In fact, anyone can easily purchase services or a host of rat-killing devices from poison and slow death to electric shock (and I wonder if maybe animal law would be useful in regulating these devices). On the other hand, people almost universally have trouble with monkey research due to their more similar nature to humans.

I have two problems with the above positions–

1. How do we really understand the degree of suffering non-human animals have?

2. Why would rats be any less entitled to rights than monkeys?

1. As a neuroscientist, I can tell you this.  We have not even come close to understanding the biological processes that make up individual thoughts.  In other words, no one knows how a thought is made.  That includes thoughts on suffering, sadness, loneliness, etc. Sure we may understand how to manipulate and alleviate pathological depression to some extent, but we can’t with any certainty say that our research animals are happy or satisfied, or even if our pets are happy or satisfied or suffering. However, rather than discouraging me from animal research, I believe that  there is an intense need for more research in this area (not less). For example, a recent article has developed a way to identify pain in mice, by examining and scoring their “grimaces.” While this may seem odd upon first glance, these studies “… will not only be an important tool in helping scientists ensure that laboratory animals don’t suffer unnecessarily, but could lead to new and better pain-relief drugs for humans.” –particularly in situations where verbal communication is not possible such as with infants or with patients in circumstances where speaking is impaired.

2. While it may be easy for some people to say that humans have dominion over all other living creatures–we should question this assumption and the roots of our moral assertions (After all, it wasn’t too long ago that women and black people weren’t considered people). Even the most educated people fail to recognize a host of almost intuitive (Western) principles that were adopted from Judeo-Christian practices regardless of a proclaimed Christian faith or orientation.  Similarly, the notion of martyrdom is also celebrated in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Whether researchers want to question it or not, we as researchers are entering a time where we are left with little choice and are increasingly finding ourselves on the “wrong” side of the animal research equation. FBR’s Paul McKellips personally told me that researchers are “on a sinking ship” despite his efforts and his polling results showing that 50%+ of the U.S. public supported animal research. And it’s not hard to see, the Animal Rights Movement is almost en vogue with “all natural”, “organic” and vegetarian/vegan products becoming popularized. After all, organic products are advertised as, “worth the cost”. It would almost seem foolish to not jump on this moralistic money train, and take up a career in defending animals. And frankly, it may not seem obvious what the immediate price of taking up this moral high ground might be.  What does the average person feel they give up by being moralistic about animal research when most of them rarely consider where their favorite medications originated, or even more rarely come in contact with a biomedical researcher?

In this case, biomedical researchers and the general public alike must take up the responsibility of being engaged in this conversation.  In this blog, I have repeatedly advocated for scientists to cultivate skills in public communication, but I also advocate for public audiences to be critical thinkers.  Everyone must take part in the conversation of where and how our tax dollars are being spent for biomedical research. Biomedical research is different in that the monetary return on research or even the medical advances that may come from this research are not immediately apparent. Basic research perhaps suffers that most scrutiny in this light.  Biomedical researchers should be able to explain to anyone how each piece of new information that is gathered about basic biology can be applied to numerous health and disease-related states. Scientific research utilizes  a systematic process, but more importantly scientific discovery is a creative process.  It is through this creativity that we have been able to discover numerous new medications and new applications of old drugs, often based on revisiting data collected decades ago. This is the beauty of peer-reviewed scientific data–it’s not simply a consumable. Scientific research is an investment that has a legacy of providing valuable information for generations to come. And as it stands,  the only way to achieve critical biomedical discoveries that benefit the public health of our society is through research in living preparations such as non-human animals or humans where biomedical researchers can examine toxicity profiles and efficacy profiles of new treatments at the systems level.

When considering how we may best co-exist with animals, we must consider the context, and be careful to question our assumptions and root of our assumptions (religious bias, childhood upbringing, engrained social prejudices). An important distinction must be made between animals rights, either legal or moral, vs. animal welfare.  Laws may help establish guidelines to maintain animal welfare and even moral rights appropriate for the context (e.g.  animals as pets, research subjects, or in the wild). Biomedical research in animals must continue to be monitored, and conducted with compassion and exquisite care for the research subjects. This is important not only for the well-being of non-human animals, but for both the non-human animals and humans in our society who benefit from these treatments every day. An informed public and well-spoken biomedical research community must lead animal law in directions that align with goals for flourishing society.


American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience Publication

30 04 2011

Paul Boshears of the Europäische Universität für Interdisziplinäre Studien and I published an Open Peer Commentary in the American Journal of Bioethics this April 2011.  The article addresses important issues and warning with regard to over-interpreting neuroimaging data.

Here is a draft of the article “Ethical Use of Neuroscience,” but the final publication can be found here.


Levy’s essay (2011) claims that some intuitions leading to one’s moral judgments can be unreliable and he proposes the use of a more reliable, third party, empirical measure. It is commendable that Levy attempts to work beyond traditional bounds; however, the author’s use of fMRI data is questionable in supporting an argument about intentionality. As neuroscientists, we rely upon evidence-based thinking and conclusions to create generalizable knowledge, and while fMRI data can be informative in broad correlational accounts of behavior, to rely upon these data as reliable measures of intuition is arguably just as speculative as the first-person account. It is deeply concerning that society may attempt to apply these data in the manner Levy describes. Indeed, alarming misappropriation of fMRI and EEG data for commercial purposes and as evidence in criminal cases–thereby establishing legal precedents–has already begun.

Levy brings into question the appropriate context for which to use neuroscience as a tool–specifically in illuminating moral decision making. We share with Levy an enthusiasm for neuroscience, and it is enticing to think that in learning how the brain operates we will thereby better understand how the mind also operates. Problematic is Levy’s belief that fMRI studies demonstrate how brain regions, “function to bring the agent to think a particular action is forbidden, permissible, or obligatory.” This is something that fMRI simply cannot do as it is a technique developed to represent mathematical constructs, not detail physical mechanistic processes. We believe the essay depicts scenarios beyond the limitations of what is truly testable by neuroscience, and this could facilitate unintended unethical applications of neuroscience.

As imaging data has become so compelling and headline-grabbing, we focus on addressing these data. Our concern is that one more professional-sounding voice will influence society with scientifically-unfounded claims of what current technology can do leading to unethical exploitation of neuroscience findings. This is especially important given evidence that simply referencing neuroimaging data can bias the public’s evaluation of papers (McCabe and Castel, 2008, Weisberg et al., 2008). It is, therefore, necessary to outline the limitations of fMRI brain imaging and EEG technologies. What is brain imaging actually? What can it tell us? What are the limitations of how these data can be interpreted?

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) are noninvasive techniques that indirectly measure brain activity (for an extensive review see Shibasaki 2008). Magnetic resonance imaging uses electromagnetic fields and radio waves to reconstruct images of the brain. Functional MRI relies on detected changes in blood flow by tracing oxygenated and deoxygenated blood. Changes in blood flow are calculated by statistical software and then colorized in a constructed brain image based upon mathematical modeling. When imaging a brain of a person making a moral decision, for instance, one might identify gross changes in blood flow in some areas versus others. This may be called activation, more oxygenated blood brought in to the brain area of interest, or deactivation, less oxygenated blood. The spatial resolution of fMRI allows fairly accurate reconstruction of activated structures. However, the actual neural activity generating these changes and the origins of the blood flow changes are not identified and could arise from areas centimeters away from the activated or de-activated region (Arthurs and Boniface, 2002).

EEG utilizes a series of sensors affixed to the scalp and these scalp recordings are used to describe electrical fields emanating from the cortex. EEG cannot detect activity of deep brain structures, unlike fMRI, which can detect changes in cortical and deep brain structures. Functional MRI can detect changes within seconds; EEGs can detect changes within fractions of seconds for better time resolution of actual neuronal firing rates. Electroencephalographs have relatively poor spatial resolution, but can be combined with other higher resolution techniques, such as fMRI, to give more informative data. Neither technique has the spatial resolution to detect the activity of individual or specific types of neurons. Rather, these techniques detect networks and groups of neurons on the order of thousands to millions. Knowing which types of neurons are activated can give us more mechanistic information. Based on our anatomical and functional knowledge of specific types of neurons, we can predict where these neurons project in the brain and to what extent as well as what kind of neurotransmitters these neurons release. Knowing the chemical phenotype of a neuron gives us important distinctions.  For example, an activation of excitatory neurons (which release excitatory transmitters) would not have the same effect as an activation of inhibitory neurons. In addition, recent data (Koehler et al., 2009, Attwell et al., 2010) have suggested that fMRI detects blood flow regulation by glia, not neurons (the brain cells classically known to mediate synaptic transmission) bringing to question how fMRI data can alternatively be explained, and what fMRI actually tells us about brain function. Importantly, it is unclear whether the changes neuroimaging data depict are indicative of causative factors or simply after-effects.

Overall, we do not doubt the statistical rigor and analyses of researchers, and our simplified description of these techniques is not meant to devalue or undermine the contributions of neuroimaging data. However, we must remind ourselves that the brain is composed of much more than blood vessels and electrical fields, having more complexity than can be described with neuroimaging techniques alone. We must caution against over-interpretation of these exciting data and call for the responsible incorporation of these studies into interdisciplinary pursuits that aim to describe the human mind.

When considering how any scientific data might translate into something as complex as moral behavior, we can do little more than show correlation. While some brain areas may show some degree of specialization such as in “Reward Pathways,” it is apparent that these brain areas work in concert to serve multiple functions and could not accurately describe exclusive rights to consequentialist-based or emotion-based moral decision making. When interpreting areas of brain activation, we must also consider a variety of functions that each brain region can have. If we could: (1) identify individual cells in the brain as the smallest unit of moral processing that were (2) active exclusively during consequentialist and not emotion-based moral decision making, and (3) describe all of the requisite circuitry–then these data might have applications as the author describes. However, this is not the case. The studies cited in Levy’s paper are purely correlational of a behavior and in no way directly describe the biological construction of specific thoughts, intuitions, or morally (ir)relevant processes. Research has not demonstrated that these brain regions are the sites of generating moral intuitions, nor identified that the essence of morality or intuition is stored somewhere in these neurons. We can make some broad conclusions about what brain regions might be involved in mental states or thought processes from neuroimaging data, but we cannot draw conclusions about moral constitution.

Levy’s invocation of a future constructed “neural signature of intention” from fMRI or EEG data ignores what the brain is designed to do best and what artificial intelligence engineers have the most difficult time re-creating: the brain’s plastic, ever-changing, and adaptive nature. Experimental models of learning in brain cells have repeatedly shown that experience can strengthen or weaken connections between cells and between cells connecting different areas of the brain, making it unrealistic, and potentially ethically dangerous, to imagine a fixed moral signature. Researchers should take care to avoid interpretations that conspire with assumptions that the mind is the brain, thereby implying the brain itself is the moral agent. One should also question the accuracy of stating that a brain region or set of cells is the seat of moral agency.

While Levy is concerned about expanding the ethicist’s toolkit through using neuroscience findings, we wonder about the ethical implications of using neuroscience in a manner that seems to ascribe moral agency to the brain alone. Levy describes scenarios where neuroimaging could be used to discriminate intent. What is to say that these data would not be used to predict mal-intent as the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) and Transportation Security Association’s (TSA) Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST) aims to do? Indeed, neuroimaging technologies have already been (mis)appropriated in the courtroom (Brown and Murphy, 2010) and in some cases for questionable commercial activity (Farah, 2009) such as those in the business of lie detection (Greely and Illes, 2007).

We applaud Levy’s creativity and concern for expanding and improving interdisciplinary ethical discourse. However, we suggest that caution be exercised to avoid using neuroscience beyond its limitations. We also advise that scientists must be the ethical stewards of their work. While neuroscience continues to deliver exciting findings the considerable beauty and complexity of the brain has yet to be fully understood.


Arthurs, O. J. and Boniface, S., 2002. How well do we understand the neural origins of the fMRI BOLD signal? Trends in Neurosciences. 25: 27-31.

Attwell, D., Buchan, A. M., Charpak, S., Lauritzen, M., Macvicar, B. A. and Newman, E. A., 2010. Glial and neuronal control of brain blood flow. Nature. 468: 232-243.

Brown, T. and Murphy, E., 2010. Through a scanner darkly: Functional neuroimaging as evidence of a criminal defendant’s past mental states. Stanford Law Review. 62 1119-1208.

Farah, M. J., 2009. A picture is worth a thousand dollars. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 21: 623-624.

Greely, H. T. and Illes, J., 2007. Neuroscience-based lie detection: The urgent need for regulation. American Journal of Law & Medicine. 33: 377-431.

Koehler, R. C., Roman, R. J. and Harder, D. R., 2009. Astrocytes and the regulation of cerebral blood flow. Trends in Neurosciences. 32: 160-169.

Levy, N. 2011. Neuroethics: A new way of doing ethics. AJOB Neuroscience.

McCabe, D. P. and Castel, A. D., 2008. Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning. Cognition. 107: 343-352.

Shibasaki, H. 2008. Human brain mapping: Hemodynamic response and electrophysiology. Clinical  Neurophysiology. 119(4): 731-43.

Weisberg, D. S., Keil, F. C., Goodstein, J., Rawson, E. and Gray, J. R., 2008. The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 20: 470-477.

The guilt was written all over her face

7 02 2011

A poet and cognitive neuroscience enthusiast sent me this link:

May 19, 2008, 10:56 pm <!– — Updated: 8:06 pm –>The Most Curious Thing, By ERROL MORRIS explaining “how a photograph aided and abetted a terrible miscarriage of justice…about Sabrina Harman, one of the notorious ‘seven bad apples’ convicted of abuse in the notorious Abu Ghraib scandal”.

The focus of the article is her smile, the photographed record of her smile, which could have been the same smile you would’ve captured in an awkward family photo or at the Eiffel Tower, but eerily misplaced in the context of a prison full or rotting and damaged bodies, covered with ice in an attempt to diminish foul odors of decay.  It was shocking for audiences to view the photos, but more shocking that a person in that situation would give a ‘thumbs up’ and grin.

But if we look more closely at the photos, is the smile really the same smile captured in an awkward family photo or in front of the Eiffel Tower.  The writer looked for a smile expert, and found Paul Ekman, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, San Francisco who is an expert on facial expressions.  So well versed in reading facial expressions he created F.A.C.E Training, a tool marketed to businessmen and government officials alike to help develop skills in “reading” another’s emotions and even lie detection just by critical review of someone’s face. I had to wonder when looking at his profile picture, how much time he had put into capturing the right facial expression for his audiences-to encourage trust and willingness to buy his product (you can see pictures of his own smiles used as example for his 2003 book in the article).

Why would being able to read her facial expression be important to discuss.  If he detects remorse or lack of enjoyment would that absolve her of her actions, or maybe it would help people have a restored faith in humanity–“See, at least she felt bad about it.” Ekman’s assessment of one photograph is something this “..she is showing a social smile or a smile for the camera. The signs of an actual enjoyment smile are just not there. There’s no sign of any negative emotion. She’s doing what people always do when they pose for a camera. They put on a big, broad smile, but they’re not actually genuinely enjoying themselves. We would see movement in the eye cover fold…”

Hmm…sounds pretty scientific.  But let’s get back to exploring F.A.C.E.  FACE stands for Facial expression Awareness Compassion Expression. What is it, what is the evidence behind it, and how is it being used? This is what the F.A.C.E. Training page says for the Advanced METT (Micro Expression Training Tool) says–

“This training is meant for those whose work requires them to evaluate truthfulness and detect deception – such as police and security personnel, and those in sales, education, and medical professions . If you should achieve the minimum target score of 80% or higher on the post test, a certificate of completion will be emailed to you.”

How is it currently being used? I found this article:

Airport security: Intent to deceive?

| May 26, 2010 |


According to this article, up to 1000 TSA (Transportation Security Administration) screeners have been trained with Paul Ekman’s techniques. In addition, “There are about 3,000 of these officers working at some 161 airports across the United States, all part of a four-year-old program called Screening Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT), which is designed to identify people who could pose a threat to airline passengers” primarily terrorists. SPOT is a technique based on Ekman’s work. And interest in the technique is growing from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and various intelligence agencies.

Does it work?  Ekman’s work has sparked a Fox T.V. series: Lie to Me, so there are probably a lot of people (general audiences and specialists alike) out there who are fascinated by (and maybe even like to fantasize about) the idea of it working.

But is Micro Expression identification actually a reliable tool for lie detection or intent to do bad things? According to this article, it seems that his colleagues remain skeptical.  Primarily, his scientific colleagues have problems replicating and corroborating his results. Other psychologists find that “many peer-reviewed studies seem to show that people are not better than chance when it comes to picking up signs of deception.” A 2007 report composed by a panel of “credibility assessment experts say that, “Simply put, people (including professional lie-catchers with extensive experience of assessing veracity) would achieve similar hit rates if they flipped a coin.”

In addition, his studies lack proper controls and his more recent work lacks peer-review.  But Ekman claims the lack of peer-review is intentional: “Ekman maintains that this publishing strategy is deliberate–that he no longer publishes all of the details of his work in the peer-reviewed literature because, he says, those papers are closely followed by scientists in countries such as Syria, Iran and China, which the United States views as a potential threat.” But peer-review is an important checks and balances system for scientists, as experts, to evaluate the works of one another. “As a scientist, I want to see peer-reviewed journal articles, so I can look at procedures and data and know what the training procedures involve, and what the results do show,” says Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Ekman claims that examining micro expressions can give you up to 70% accuracy in determining deception.  But you can go up to 100% if you use remaining body cues. According to TSA statistics from 2006-2009,”behavior-detection officers referred more than 232,000 people for secondary screening…But 1,710 were arrested, which the TSA cites as evidence for the program’s effectiveness. And in this 1% of people accurately identified, those arrests were for criminal activity unrelated to terrorist activity. Although, I found this article link from the TSA’s blog stating that at least one individual bearing explosive was caught by behavior detection officers.

Actually, the TSA’s blog expresses a lot of enthusiasm about Ekman and his techniques for identifying guilty travelers. They claim that After passing along his skills to US Customs, their “hit rate” for finding drugs during passenger searches rose to 22.5 percent from 4.2 percent in 1998. Some examples of suspicious criteria are illustrated here.

Now enter FAST (Future Attribute Screening Technology), a project being funded $10 million/year.  With FAST, travelers would walk through a portal while a myriad of sensors would monitor their vital signs remotely for ‘malintent’. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a host of Human Factors Behavioral Sciences Projects, FAST is just one of them. According to the DHS website blurb on FAST, “FAST is grounded in research on human behavior and psychophysiology.”

Supporters of FAST technology feel that the future of security screening should be more about the people and less about their things. What does the research say about being able to reliably detect ‘mal-intent’ based on a combination of skilled observation and vital signs? In an interview for, Carnegie Mellon’s Stephen Fienberg, a university professor in the statistics and machine learning departments, said, “I haven’t seen any research that shows that those measures from the autonomic nervous system … measuring blood pressure, measuring breathing, measuring heat on the face, are at all related to intent.” Indeed, it sounds a bit like what would otherwise be part of any routine doctor’s visit, except done by a machine that has been programmed to calculate the statistical significance of my responses.

Polygraph lie detection, which measures four parameters—heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and sweating has been around since the 1920’s. In a 2001 National Academy of Sciences panel discussion about lie detection, Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and Director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience from University of Wisconsin Madison claims that lie detection is more likely to detect “fear of detection” than actual lies. As a neuroimager, he says we need to go to the brain, “And if there’s one emotion that we have really learned a lot about in the last decade, it’s fear.” But lie detection in the brain will have to be another blog post on its own.

FAST is supposed to be more sophisticated in its goals than polygraph detection.  It’s not just trying to detect guilt.  FAST aims to detect intent. (And, for part of the testing, we might even see the Wii Balance Board thrown into the mix.).

This has sparked a lot of fearful titles like “Homeland Security Detects Terrorist Threats by Reading Your Mind.” But this isn’t mind reading.  If it was all you would need is $37 anyway.

Mind reading implies a certain ability to get a 1 to 1 level of accuracy to your thoughts.  This is simply taking into account your vital signs, your body and facial language, to really make an educated guess (using statistics) on whether you *plan* to do something bad. And this educated guess is maybe supported by some experts.

The TSA says that the data will be recorded and dumped for unsuspicious passengers so what’s the harm? Proponents could say, “Well, what harm does it for me to be a little uncomfortable to potentially save lives?”  Skeptics might say, “Well, this is an invasion of my privacy!”  But actually, maybe it’s something else.  What if it’s not really relevant to saving lives?  Think about what happens when you accuse someone of anything? What kind of psychological resonating effects will we see?  Will cultural differences be accounted for?

While many exciting technologies are being developed to give new insights into human behavior, most data point toward correlation and mathematical constructs (as in neuroimaging and EEG). The findings from these technologies do not predict or detect a 1:1 relationship of the human mind.

While the brain is a powerful decision-making machine, one thing might be important to consider: Bodies have brains; people have minds. Stay-tuned for another post on morality and brain-imaging as I have recently co-authored a commentary in the American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience on just this topic.

Rudeness As a Neurotoxin

7 01 2011

Thanks, Mike, for sending me this article by Douglas Fields entitled “Rudeness Is a Neurotoxin”. Fields states that the aim for his article is “not to be preachy,” but meant to be an honest assessment from a neurodevelopmental scientist’s perspective.

Here he claims that studies have accumulated to support the notion that American society and it’s all-too-familiar rudeness have become not only socially toxic, but gives you brain damage. He cites inspiration from his recent trip to Japan and 1950s American television.

It’s an interesting idea, but his conclusions aren’t really supported by his argument.  If it were true, then you’d think that children in Japan, for example, weren’t exposed to the same social stressors–which isn’t true. I wholeheartedly believe that the Japanese culture is an intensely sophisticated one and one to be admired for many reasons, but not because his superficial viewing of the appearance of “politeness”.  In fact, this naïve description really doesn’t do Japanese culture justice. Although, I myself, had a very brief exposure working in Okinawa (where I also lived until I was 10 years old) as a adult for one year, it’s obvious that what contributes to the a major difference in their society in the difference in the importance of relationships-not exposure to mean parents, peers, or media (have you seen manga?). Americans chronically seem to feel their lack of “community”—this is in part what the organic movement, among many others, has counted on for it’s marketing. And as far as the” Leave it to Beaver Days”—let’s not forget other rampant social stressors of that time (racism, sexism, homophobia), which arguably were worse then than now.

Second the data he cites are more exciting and confirmatory to the beliefs that people want to hold (e.g. “ People are jerks, don’t you agree?”). It seems that the most compelling for people is the study citing that verbal abuse damages your corpus callosum.  An important note is that the technology used here (Diffusion Tensor Imaging) may report differences in the corpus callosum of abused individuals, but this does not definitively tell us how this translates into altered function in the brain.  Furthermore, it’s a mathematical estimation of anatomy, not actual anatomy. Even if these data could suggest that neurodegeneration (suggested by increased mean and radial diffusivity and decreased fractional anisotropy) was occurring in abused individuals, there could be larger factors at hand altering their development including socioeconomic status and lifestyle choices. In addition, there’s a bit of a bias. Is this really representative of your average populations—there is a variation in how well one would remember their peer stress in middle school (I would also argue this varies greatly depending on your age—this was much different for me personally as an 18-year old vs. 25-year old, the age range used in the verbal questionnaire portion of study, not to mention the smaller group “young adults” used in the imaging studies)?

I’m curious how this article and the data cited will continue to impact audiences.  Will middle-schoolers be warned of giving their classmates brain damage?  Will they then be less likely or more compelled to be mean? Could you be criminally charged for future assault? And more importantly, do we really need a biological substrate of how people’s cruelty can hurt one another?

I do feel like these data could be potentially valuable in how they might represent predisposition to developing later neurodegenerative diseases or illnesses. Perhaps in combination with their exposome profiles…but Fields chose a sexier topic.

The crux of his hypothesis is that

“it is stressful for individuals (people or animals-this is not uniquely human) to interact with strangers, and also with other members of a working group and family members. As the size of the group increases, so do the number of interactions between individuals, thus raising the level of stress if not controlled by formal, stereotyped behavior, which in human society is called “manners.”

While it is stressful to interact with strangers (this is also true for animals), maybe the bigger issue is how much of our families in our society have become strangers. Long gone are the days where you can walk to your extended family’s house.  Where is the focus on the evaluation of the strength of social bonds in these contexts with family members? In addition, about 5 of my friends have either just had new babies or will have them in a few months.  As they are all working, women, and there is no paid leave in this country for my colleagues, they will be sending their children to day-care when the children are 2.5 months old.  Basically, when they still fit in a catcher’s mitt.

Frankly, Field’s article was a bit preachy hidden under a thin veil of science. Let’s not forget that “formal” manners can be their own tyrannical violent force and even can exhibit class-ism and damaging, dated cultural norms. In Japan, these formalities often can illustrate formal inflexible roles in your relationships to others (not just a simple pleasant behavior for foreigners to superficially enjoy). You can be a good person without the formalities. And you can focus less on being rude and focus more on the familiar by cultivating your relationships and perhaps making fewer people strangers.

Important considerations for science advising for policymakers

2 01 2011

Here is what Robert Schenkel, the Directorate- General of the Joint Research Centre, European Commission wrote recently in Science about five important considerations that science advisor much take into account when considering future policy-making. I especially like points four and five.

“First, science is at the heart of invention and the drive to make our lives better in a globalized world. Legislative answers founded on scientific evidence increasingly shape the world we live in.

Second, science should not claim to have “the” answer. Scientists from different disciplines should not be afraid to engage in a “contradictory evidence-based mode” of discussion, challenging each other with conflicting facts and uncertainties to arrive at a better-informed, yet less narrow and more harmonized view. This mode has advantages above the classical peer-review used by scientific journals and is better suited for a proper treatment of multidimensional topics, even if it may result in “gray” literature only.

Third, industry and other core interest groups have natural vested interests in policy-making. Scientific outcomes are often better if they participate in the process.

Fourth, public opinion is crucial and public debate is instrumental in forming it. Scientists must speak in a language that the public understands, engaging in real dialog and moving away from the often arrogant “ex cathedra” presentation style.

Finally, robust scientific advice has to be multidimensional and inclusive. It must consider economic, social, environmental, ethical, and scientific aspects, while indicating how best to deal with uncertainties.”

A Pale Blue Dot

30 12 2010

To ring in the New Year, here is an excerpt from Carl Sagan’s book where he reflects on the photograph of Earth, “The Pale Blue Dot,” taken from the spacecraft Voyager 1 in 1990.

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Extra, Extra: Eternal Sunshine on a Spotless Mind, in real life!

28 12 2010

I was recently sent this article, by an esteemed veterans officer who is deeply concerned about the welfare of our nation’s veterans plagued by PTSD.

Traumatic Memory Erasure on Horizon
November 23, 2010, Baltimore Sun, featured on

The article triggered a lot of comments from the readers: questions about mind control, jokes about forgetting ex-spouses, and government conspiracy and poisoning. This article was also splatttered all over the media, with titles like,  “Fear Deleted!” and “Memories Erased!”

I have to blame the authors, in part, for this uproar. In an attempt to make the data sexier (scientists have to market too) they chose this title, “Calcium-Permeable AMPA Receptor Dynamics Mediate Fear Memory Erasurefor their manuscript.

While it’s clear that the researchers intents are therapeutic, the news article ends with a cautionary comment,”…trying to eliminate all the memories could significantly alter a person’s personality and history. So could forgetting a whole person after a painful loss or breakup, as depicted in the 2004 movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

There’s no question where the writer leaves the reader, wondering whether scientists have the power to erase your mind and memories and ultimately who we are.

I too believe that these pharmacotherapies for PTSD need to be monitored in their progress and application, but not for the same reasons. Ultimately, I don’t believe that these technologies have the ability to erase memories, and quite frankly the researchers don’t at all describe this. The current studies and these data are not really about erasing “memories”.  They are more about decreasing the connection of powerful debilitating emotions (like extreme fear) with an event.  You would still remember gruesome details of bombings, etc, but you wouldn’t associate such debilitating fear when you remembered them and you’d also be less likely to fixate on and globalize that fear to a motorcycle back-firing, etc.

Current PTSD research aims to disrupt strong unwanted emotional associations with memories. In particular, the focus is fearful memories.  Fear, is a healthy thing.  It is evolutionarily favorable to have a sense of fear and to know when to generalize those fears (some snakes are poisonous; I should use caution when I see a snake). A healthy brain is also adaptable and flexible (I should use caution when I see a snake, but in this case, I’ve just seen a stick in the leaves).  However, people that suffer from PTSD, have their fears hijacked so that fears may not be only to a specific event, but also have become generalized this fear (all stick-like objects are just as bad as an actual snake, all sticks induce fear like snakes). Research is working to dissociate a memory of an event from a debilitating emotional response.

Memory formation and learning works in two ways 1) making associations and 2) breaking associations. Breaking and then re-making associations is what allows us to learn and adapt to our environments. Neuroscientists like to call this “plasticity” in the brain.  A healthy brain is “plastic”, not stiff and unchanging. A healthy brain is constantly building and rebuilding, kinda like the Fraggle-Doozer relationship. Neuroscientists find this fascinating and believe understanding plasticity and how to manipulate it could have therapeutic benefit for a wide range of psychiatric and even movement disorders.

Drugs that are being developed, just as the ones being developed by Dr. Huganir, the researcher featured in the above article, typically utilize a similar model.  The animal model is typically a rodent exposed to stress.  The rodent is placed in a box with two compartments.  When the rodent is in compartment A, the rodent receives a mild shock.  When the rodent is in compartment B, it doesn’t.  The rodent naturally learns to avoid compartment A (even when the shock is no longer administered) because bad things tend to happen in compartment A.  This sounds simple, but a lot of behind the scenes action is happening in the brain in order for this behavior to manifest.  Researchers try to interrupt this learning process with various drugs and then they suggest that this drug may be helpful in disrupting unpleasant stimulus+emotion associations.

You may argue, that this certainly isn’t PTSD.  And no neuroscientist worth her salt would say such a thing.  However, many of these drugs have gone from the rodent model phase to the human PTSD patient therapeutic phase in just this manner.  Researchers have shown that some of these drugs that worked to disrupt the unpleasant stimulus+emotion association in rodents helped PTSD patients, usually in combination with behavioral therapy.  In some cases, the PTSD patients given the drug show greater progress (fewer therapy sessions needed, lower levels of anxiety, etc) than their behavior therapy alone counterparts.

The patients, absolutely, do not have a hole in their memory.  They haven’t forgotten, for instance, that they fought a war, or that people died, or that they are married and are from Idaho. I guess, to some, it may seem disappointing that neuroscience can’t always live up to the expectations of sci-fi movies. In this regard, I don’t worry about erasing people’s minds or memories nor am I disappointed in the findings.

I can see some benefit: rape victims take pill as part of initial care in ER to prevent PTSD onset (which, by the way, does not necessary kick-off immediately after the traumatic event-memories take a long time to form).  But, I worry about messing with our emotional responses to things in general. My biggest concern being that these drugs weaken some memories, but can strengthen others.  For example, one drug being tested in PTSD veteran patients has been shown to improve behavioral therapy sessions and weaken fearful memories.  The same drug has also been shown to increase positive associations with drugs of abuse (promoted cue-induced cocaine relapse in rodents) and can increase memory abilities when given at higher doses (in Alzheimer’s patients). Given that many veterans with PTSD also suffer from drug addiction, discussions about these drugs (for ‘erasing memories’) should include how patients might be even more compelled to take drugs or have more difficulty in their drug treatment programs. Or maybe a seemingly less threatening ‘problem’, but would PTSD therapies qualify for cognitive-enhancement if used outside of the recommended dosing regimens? These questions may not seem as magical as wiping one’s mind clean, but they have equally powerful ethical implications for society. And I’d like to invite readers to explore these (more immediate) concerns before worrying themselves about their spotless minds.