Category: Commentary

complex ethics of emerging brain technologies

Imagine infusing thousands of wireless devices into your brain, and using them to both monitor its activity and directly influence its actions. It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, and for the moment it still is – but possibly not for long. Brain research is on a roll at the moment. And as it converges with advances in science and technology more broadly, it’s transforming what we are likely to be able to achieve in the near future. Spurring the field on is the promise of more effective treatments for debilitating neurological and psychological disorders such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and depression. But new brain technologies will increasingly have the potential to alter how someone thinks, feels, behaves and even perceives themselves and others around them – and not necessarily in ways that are within their control or with their consent. This is where things begin to get ethically uncomfortable. Because of concerns like these, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) are cohosting a meeting of experts this week on responsible innovation in brain science. Berkeley’s ‘neural dust’ sensors are one of the latest neurotech advances.   Where are neurotechnologies now? Brain research is intimately entwined with advances in the “neurotechnologies” that not only help us study the brain’s inner workings, but also transform the ways we can interact with and influence it. For example, researchers at the University of California Berkeley recently published the first in-animal trials of what they called “neural dust” – implanted millimeter-sized sensors. They inserted the sensors in the nerves and muscles of rats, showing that these miniature wirelessly powered and connected sensors can monitor neural activity. The long-term aim, though, is to introduce thousands of neural dust particles into human brains. The UC Berkeley sensors are still relatively large,

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Steampunk smart pill

It’s that time of year again when technology pundits peer into their crystal balls, and predict the hottest tech trends of the coming twelve months. Let’s be honest though, these lists can get a little stale. So I thought I’d break ranks this year by imagining what a top tech trends list would look like in a “steampunk” world, where steam engines, clockwork mechanisms, and retro-artistic flair, rule supreme.

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Politics don't always play a role in attitudes toward science issues 750x400

Comments provided for GENeS on the launch of the Pew Research Center attitudes survey on Americans, Politics and Science Issues (July 1 2015) Political leanings are frequently associated with attitudes toward science and technology in the U.S.  Yet as the most recent poll from the Pew Research Center on Americans, Politics and Science Issues shows, public attitudes toward science and technology depend on a far more diverse and complex set of factors. This latest survey uses tried and tested statistical approaches to assess the degree to which different factors predict attitudes toward science, technology and engineering related issues amongst American adults.  As well as investigating attitudes as a function of ideology and political party, the survey also looks at the influence of age, education and science knowledge, gender, race and ethnicity, and religion or religious activities. These factors are mapped onto 22 areas covering climate and energy, government funding of science and technology, evolution, biomedical research and applications, food safety, animal testing, and space research and exploration.  For each area, the analysis assesses how strongly or weakly each factor predicts public attitudes. As with all statistical analyses, there are some uncertainties surrounding the results.  However, the approach used enables different influences to be disentangled from one another, allowing a clear picture to emerge of how different factors influence attitudes.  Within the caveats that apply to any such assessment, the survey paints a nuanced overview of factors influencing American attitudes toward the development and applications of science, technology and engineering. As might be expected, the survey shows attitudes toward climate change and fossil fuel use to be strongly associated with political affiliation and ideology.  In contrast, acceptance of evolution due to natural processes is not strongly associated with political allegiances; rather, age and religion are stronger predictors of whether someone accepts

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In response to pressure from the advocacy group As You Sow, Dunkin’ Brands has announced that it will be removing allegedly “nano” titanium dioxide from Dunkin’ Donuts’ powdered sugar donuts. As You Sow claims there are safety concerns around the use of the material, while Dunkin’ Brands cites concerns over investor confidence. It’s a move that further confirms the food sector’s conservatism over adopting new technologies in the face of public uncertainty. But how justified is it based on what we know about the safety of nanoparticles? Titanium dioxide (which isn’t the same thing as the metal titanium) is an inert, insoluble material that’s used as a whitener in everything from paper and paint to plastics. It’s the active ingredient in many mineral-based sunscreens. And as a pigment, is also used to make food products look more appealing. Part of the appeal to food producers is that titanium dioxide is a pretty dull chemical. It doesn’t dissolve in water. It isn’t particularly reactive. It isn’t easily absorbed into the body from food. And it doesn’t seem to cause adverse health problems. It just seems to do what manufacturers want it to do – make food look better. It’s what makes the powdered sugar coating on donuts appear so dense and snow white. Titanium dioxide gives it a boost. And you’ve probably been consuming it for years without knowing. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration allows food products to contain up to 1% food-grade titanium dioxide without the need to include it on the ingredient label. Help yourself to a slice of bread, a bar of chocolate, a spoonful of mayonnaise or a donut, and chances are you’ll be eating a small amount of the substance. Why does As You Sow want this substance gone from Dunkin’ Donuts?  

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Yesterday, I posted a piece examining the oft-quoted mortality rate for measles of one to two deaths per thousand cases of infection.  Today, I want to look at what can be learned from more recent and more comprehensive dataset – this one from the 2008-2011 measles outbreak in France. In the early 2000’s, measles was a relatively rare occurrence in France.  From 2008 to 2011 though, there was a dramatic increase in cases – peaking at over 3,000 new cases per month being recorded in 2011.  Because the outbreak occurred in a developed country where the disease was no longer considered a pressing pubic health issue, it provides a unique opportunity to estimate mortality rates following infection by the virus in economies with robust healthcare systems. In 2013, Denise Antona and co-authors published a comprehensive assessment of the outbreak in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.   Over the four year study period, there were 22,178 documented cases of measles.  11.6% of cases (2,582) involved complications , including pneumonia (1,375 cases, 6.2%), acute otitis media (321 cases, 1.4%), and hepatitis or pancreatitis (248 cases, 1.1%). According to the paper’s authors, diarrhea was reported in 100 cases (0.4%). Overall, there were ten deaths reported (0.05%). The data are particularly useful for examining morbidity and mortality rates associated with measles in a developed country like France, as with the relative novelty of the disease, the number of reported cases is likely to have been substantially higher than in earlier decades when the disease was commonplace. In table 1 below (based on Antona et al.’s paper), the number of measles-related complications per 10,000 cases of infection is given for different health impacts and age ranges, based on individuals who were hospitalized. Focusing specifically on mortality, the overall rate was 4.5 deaths per 10,000 documented cases of

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Recently the American publication Mother Jones published an article on the dangers of food laced with tiny metal oxide particles. The article, however, is laced with errors and misinformation. The source material for the article came from a report by the environmental organisation Friends of the Earth, an online database of nanotechnology-based consumer products and a peer-reviewed paper published in 2012. However, the analysis of the information is flawed. Tom Philpott, author of the Mother Jones article, claims nanoparticles – defined as particles smaller than 100 nanometres, which is a thousandth of the width of a human hair – are used because they behave differently from other particles. He is worried that scientists still don’t know how dangerous these differences make them. He also claims that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has done nothing to slow down their rapid move into the food supply. Bad journalism The inventory Philpott cites is the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Consumer Products Inventory, which I helped establish in 2006 as a way better understand the increasing number of consumer products that were using engineered nanomaterials. It provides a useful but only qualitative sense of what was being used where, and relies on intermittent web searches and other sources of intelligence. The inventory was never meant to be comprehensive or authoritative. In 2013 the inventory was updated to include further information on products and materials where it was available. As part of this update, products from a peer review paper published the previous year were included – a study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, reported an analysis of nearly 90 food products for the presence of the material titanium dioxide. Titanium dioxide has been used widely in foods for decades as a whitener and a base for other colors. It

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2020 Science is published by Andrew Maynard - Director of the Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University. More ... 

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