Thursday, October 23, 2014

Why invasive neuroscience research on all creatures should stop

Why invasive neuroscience research on all creatures should stop

On September 22, 2014, the UCSF scientist Edward  Chang gave a seminar to UC Berkeley’s venerable “Ear club” which only rarely features invasive neuroscience.  The lecture began with an experiment being performed on a young American woman undergoing surgery for a brain tumor. A split screen showed one panel with this clearly highly civilized young woman attempting to answer questions, and the other panel showing her cortex being “zapped”. Naturally, she had trouble “hearing” some questions.

When asked, Dr Chang insisted that the woman had given consent. Of course, neuroscience s full of stories of dubious such consent; 1% or so of Wilder Penfield’s patients famously delivered  his fantasies about the brain back to him, leading to notions that we have spots in the brain encoding specific memories like being in a garden. The issue of whether someone about to undergo brain surgery can “give consent” needs to be asked; it rather seems to have a prima facie resemblance to a prisoner accepting a warder’s sexual advances, which we know to be an absurdity.

Perhaps equally interesting is the fact that Chang did not have a clue what to do with the data. His presentation was full of “Euclidean” metrics; the standard three-dimensional geometry  we learned at high school. He confessed that he did not have a clue as to why he could not process the data concerning the onset of speech; tongue, jaw and other muscles.

Yet when it was put to him that since these muscle systems were of different dimensionalities, the space could not be Euclidean, he readily agreed. In short, these data, gleaned at such cost, were useless to him as neither he nor his team had the math to understand them.

Both UCSF and UC Berkeley have refused to share these data, despite their recent Nobel laureate Randy Shekman publicly stating that, because they have been published, they must now be shared. For the record, the reason given is – wait for it – “patient confidentiality”. So it is ok to show a young woman in extremis having a neural trick played on her because she has “given consent”; but confidentiality is invoked when there is a chance of losing a competitive advantage gained by aggressive use of surgery.

Ironically, they now have all these data that they don’t understand. It is surely time to share them with experts who will use them properly, and stop these ethically dubious procedures forever

PS This disturbing trend - get the data at whatever cost to the patients even if you don't know how to process them - was repeated by  Maya Cano of the Knight Lab at UC Berkeley. In her Ph.D talk on Dec 2014, she described how she invasively acquired data from patients, and discovered - NOTHING! she then went back to scalp EEG, no surgery, and came up with some results........

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