The challenge to simulate the brain

October 7, 2015

Michele FariscoIs it possible to create a computer simulation of the human brain? Perhaps, perhaps not. But right now, a group of scientists is trying. But it is not only finding enough computer power that makes it difficult: there are some very real philosophical challenges too.

Computer simulation of the brain is one of the most ambitious goals of the European Human Brain Project. As a philosopher, I am part of a group that looks at the philosophical and ethical issues, such as: What is the impact of neuroscience on social practice, particularly on clinical practice? What are the conceptual underpinnings of neuroscientific investigation and its impact on traditional ideas, like the human subject, free will, and moral agency? If you follow the Ethics Blog, you might have heard of our work before (“Conversations with seemingly unconscious patients”; “Where is consciousness?”).

One of the questions we ask ourselves is: What is a simulation in general and what is a brain simulation in particular? Roughly, the idea is to create an object that resembles the functional and (if possible also) the structural characteristics of the brain in order to improve our understanding and ability to predict its future development. Simulating the brain could be defined as an attempt to develop a mathematical model of the cerebral functional architecture and to load it onto a computer in order to artificially reproduce its functioning. But why should we reproduce brain functioning?

I can see three reasons: describing, explaining and predicting cerebral activities. The implications are huge. In clinical practice with neurological and psychiatric patients, simulating the damaged brain could help us understand it better and predict its future developments, and also refine current diagnostic and prognostic criteria.

Great promises, but also great challenges ahead of us! But let me now turn to challenges that I believe can be envisaged from a philosophical and conceptual perspective.

A model is in some respects simplified and arbitrary: the selection of parameters to include depends on the goals of the model to be built. This is particularly challenging when the object being simulated is characterized by a high degree of complexity.

The main method used for building models of the brain is “reverse engineering.” This is a method that includes two main steps: dissecting a functional system at the physical level into component parts or subsystems; and then reconstructing the system virtually. Yet the brain hardly seems decomposable into independent modules with linear interactions. The brain rather appears as a nonlinear complex integrated system and the relationship between the brain’s components is non-linear. That means that their relationship cannot be described as a direct proportionality and their relative change is not related to a constant multiplier. To complicate things further, the brain is not completely definable by algorithmic methods. This means that it can show unpredicted behavior. And then to make it even more complex: The relationship between the brain’s subcomponents affects the behavior of the subcomponents.

The brain is a holistic system and despite being deterministic it is still not totally predictable. Simulating it is hardly conceivable. But even if it should be possible, I am afraid that a new “artificial” brain will have limited practical utility: for instance, the prospective general simulation of the brain risks to lose the specific characteristics of the particular brain under treatment.

Furthermore, it is impossible to simulate “the brain” simply because such an entity doesn’t exist. We have billions of different brains in the world. They are not completely similar, even if they are comparable. Abstracting from such diversity is the major limitation of brain simulation. Perhaps it would be possible to overcome this limitation by using a “general” brain simulation as a template to simulate “particular” brains. But maybe this would be even harder to conceive and realize.

Brain simulation is indeed one of the most promising contemporary scientific enterprises, but it needs a specific conceptual investigation in order to clarify its inspiring philosophy and avoid misinterpretations and disproportional expectations. Even, but not only, by lay people.

If you want to know more, I recommend having a look at a report of our publications so far.

Michele Farisco

We like challenging questions - the ethics blog

Articles may be retracted if ethics is neglected

September 30, 2015

Pär SegerdahlWhen a scientific article is retracted, it means that the article should never have been published and that data and conclusions from the study should not be used to underpin future research.

Articles are often retracted when it is found that the authors acted fraudulently. They may have been careless, or cheated, or have plagiarized someone else’s (or their own!) previous work. Retracted articles may still be available for reading, but with a notice that they are retracted, and with explanations of the reasons behind the decision.

A rarer and less known reason to retract scientific articles is that the study reported does not satisfy ethical requirements for the protection of research participants.

Human research participation should be voluntary and research on humans must first be approved by an ethical review board. Editors of medical journals are bound by the same requirements. They increasingly require that authors state that the research they want to publish has an ethics approval.

How common is it that published articles are retracted because ethical requirements were neglected? How do editors motivate their decision? And what happens afterwards – are the articles cited and used despite the retraction?

Ethical retractions are uninvestigated, but in an article in the journal Accountability in Research Yusuke Inoue (former guest researcher at CRB) and Kaori Muto, present a study of articles retracted for ethical reasons:

One difficulty they mention is that unethical research may still produce scientifically valid data, results and conclusions – although neglect of ethics is a strong warning sign that other demands may have been neglected. Editors must therefore strike a balance between the requirement to retrospectively protect research participants and the scientific value of the article and its results. And if one decides to retract the article for ethical reasons, the research study may have to be repeated with new participants, which is also ethically problematic.

Yusuke Inoue and Kaori Muto studied retracted medical papers in English in the period 1981-2011. They found that the first ethical retractions did not occur until 2000 (2 articles). The number was then relatively constant (14 articles 2001-2010), but increased dramatically in 2011 (83 articles) – most of them related to a research scandal around anesthesiology researcher Joachim Boldt.

Most retraction notices stated as reason for the decision, simply “lack of ethical review.” However, editors rarely explained the decision more closely, for example, if they judged that the whole study was fraudulent, or judged that the study was well done but lacked ethical review. It then becomes unclear how to assess the contents of the retracted article.

Inoue and Muto also found that the majority of articles that were retracted for ethical reasons continued to be quoted. In some cases, it could be established that citations were deliberately misleading (as when authors cite their own retracted articles without mentioning that they are retracted). In other cases, however, retracted articles were cited perfectly legitimately, to specify that data from them had been excluded.

Inoue and Muto’s conclusion is that editors need to explain more clearly the reason behind their ethical retractions, so that future researchers can better assess the content of the articles. Moreover, discussion is needed on how data from articles that were retracted for ethical reasons may be used.

While we’re discussing scientific misconduct, I take the opportunity to link to an American dissertation that shows that often when misconduct is revealed by the Office of Research Integrity, it does not lead to the retraction of articles:

The number of retracted articles thus gives a poor measure of the extent of scientific misconduct. There are many “fraudulent articles” in circulation!

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog

Dissertation on palliative care of children with cancer

September 21, 2015

Pär SegerdahlApproximately every fifth child who gets cancer in Sweden dies from their disease. In her dissertation work at CRB, Li Jalmsell studied the care of these children at the end of their life from both the child’s and the parents’ and siblings’ perspectives.

One of her findings is that one doesn’t generally recognize that the child’s cancer is beyond cure until very close to death, giving little time to plan palliative care based on personal preferences.

Jalmsell also did surveys with parents and siblings who lost a child/sibling, and interviewed children with cancer. The children themselves emphasize in the interviews that they want honest information, even when it is bad. But they also want the conversations to be hopeful and contain a plan ahead; and they want to be informed simultaneously with the parents (not after the parents).

The psychological suffering of parents and siblings who lost a child/sibling seems to be influenced by different factors. Parents’ suffering after the child’s death is much dependent on how they experienced the child’s suffering near the end of life. The parents’ suffering also tended to increase if the child underwent bone marrow surgery before death, perhaps because of the hope of a cure that such an intense treatment awakens.

Siblings generally felt ill-informed and unprepared for the child’s death. Siblings who didn’t get opportunity to talk about what they could expect tended to feel anxiety long after the child’s death.

Jalmsell also stresses the importance of parents talking about death with their child. Other studies have shown that parents who don’t talk often regret this afterwards; while parents who talk with the child about death don’t regret it. In Jalmsell’s own study the parents say that the initiative to talk about death often came from the child, often through stories. The child understands its situation.

If you want to read Li Jalmsell’s dissertation, you can find it here:

It emphasizes the importance of open communication with the whole family.

The public examination is on Friday, September 25, at 09:00, at the Uppsala Biomedical Centre (BMC), room A1:111a. The examination will be conducted in English. Welcome to listen and ask questions!

Pär Segerdahl


Interesting Big Data-symposium on video

September 9, 2015

Pär SegerdahlMany posts on the Ethics Blog are about how new possibilities to collect and process large amounts of data change the horizon for medical research.

But “Big Data” makes its entry also in the humanities and social sciences. How does the horizon change there? How is the understanding of humans and of society affected when processing large amounts of data opens up a new field of vision for humanists and social scientists?

A symposium in Gothenburg last summer took up the issues, I saw at Christian Munthe’s blog (“Philosophical Comment”). He links to a video recording from the symposium and I link to Christian’s blog post; that way you’ll find both the blog and the video:

When you have time, take a look – the presentations are exciting!

Pär Segerdahl

We like challenging questions - the ethics blog

Bioethicists suggest broad consent for biobank research

September 2, 2015

Pär SegerdahlIt is still unclear what kind of consent should be used when collecting biological samples for future research. Different forms of consent are practiced, which creates another uncertainty: which research is actually permitted with the collected samples?

This haphazard situation leads to unintended constraints on research. But it also leads to research sometimes being carried out without consent.

Against this background, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) organized a workshop to discuss whether it is ethically reasonable to manage these uncertainties by using broad consent for future research when collecting biological samples.

The group of bioethicists who attended the workshop, including Mats G. Hansson, recently published their thoughts and conclusions in the American Journal of Bioethics:

The group’s proposal is that broad consent is ethically reasonable and often the best option, if it has three components:

  1. Consent is conducted initially, in connection with sample collection.
  2. There is a system for oversight and approval of future research.
  3. As far as possible, there should be ongoing communication with, and information to, donors.

Biological samples are collected in a variety of contexts. It is here that the haphazard situation arises, if different forms of consent are used, or perhaps no consent at all. By initially informing potential donors of the wide range of research that can be carried out, they can take a position on risks and benefits of donation (given the oversight and the general conditions of the future research that they are informed about).

The group emphasizes that broad consent gives donors control over the use of samples, while minimizing costs and burdens for both donors and researchers.

They also point out that empirical studies show that most people want to decide if their samples may be used for research. Most respondents also say that the decision is not influenced by the specific details of the future research (e.g. what diseases are studied, what techniques are used, or which parts of the sample are studied).

Of course there are examples of research that can be perceived as controversial, such as human cloning. But broad consent can be combined with specific restrictions. Oversight moreover considers whether research proposals can be said to comply with the donors’ values.

If donors still hesitate, they are free to choose not to donate the sample.

Pär Segerdahl

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog

Ethics research keeps ethical practices alive (new dissertation)

August 25, 2015

Pär SegerdahlI have in two posts complained about a tendency of ethical practices to begin to idle, as if they were ends in themselves.

A risk with the tendency is that bioethics is discredited and attacked as no more than an unhappy hindrance to novel research.

Like when Steven Pinker recently wrote that the primary moral goal for bioethics today should be:

But there is a way to go: self-scrutinizing ethics research.

Bioethics is often misunderstood as merely a fixed and finished framework of ethical rules, principles and review systems: as a cumbersome bureaucracy. I guess that is how Pinker understands it.

But first, the “framework” is the result of novel ethical thinking at a time when we had reason to rethink the position of science. Doing research is important, but it does not justify exploiting research participants. There are other values ​​than Science, which scientists should take seriously.

Secondly, this ethical thinking will never be finished. There are always new problems to subject to self-scrutinizing ethics research.

Not infrequently these problems are occasioned by the bioethical framework. Pregnant women and children are routinely excluded from research, on ethical grounds. But does not the protection of these groups as research participants mean that they are exposed to risks as patients? If new drugs are tested only on adult males, we don’t know what doses a pregnant woman or an infant should receive.

We need self-critical ethics research, to keep ethics alive and to avoid idling.

Therefore, I formulate a different imperative than the one Steven Pinker suggests. Bioethics main goal should be: Think anew, reflect critically, do ethics research!

We follow that imperative at CRB. An example is Tove Godskesen’s thesis,

which will be defended on Friday, August 28, at 09:15, in room A1:107a at BMC (Biomedical Centre, Husargatan 3, Uppsala, Sweden).

This thesis is not about standing in the way of cancer research, but about doing empirical-ethical research to examine how well the ethical practices work when cancer patients are recruited as participants in such forms of research.

Do the patients understand the information they receive about the research? Do they understand that the possibility that they will be cured through research participation is extremely low? Do they understand that cancer research involves certain risks? Do they understand what a randomized study is?

And why do they volunteer as research participants? Because they hope for a new miracle drug? Because they want to help future patients? As thanks for the help they received? Because they feel a duty towards relatives, or because of (perceived) expectations from the doctor?

All these questions are empirically studied in the thesis.

Godskesen’s dissertation also contains reflections on the concept of hope. Her empirical studies show that it is precisely the patients with the least chance to be cured – those who don’t have much time left, and who usually are asked to participate in Phase 1 clinical studies – who primarily are motivated by the hope of a cure, at the last moment.

How should we view this fact? Does it mean that these participants misunderstand the study they have chosen to participate in, and thus participate on false premises? Or is it a hope which gives meaning at the end of life, a hope which might be nourished even if you understand the study design?

These are questions we cannot “step out of the way” of. Tove Godskesen does not step out of their way. Come and listen on Friday (but observe that the examination will be conducted in Swedish)!

Pär Segerdahl

In dialogue with patients

Idling normativity

August 17, 2015

Pär SegerdahlI recently wrote about the tendency of ethical practices to lose their vital functions and degenerate into empty rituals. Why is there such a tendency?

The tendency is not unique to ethics: it is everywhere.

Suddenly, patients and students are to be called “customers” and be treated “as” customers. This can be perceived as an imposed language, as empty rituals that demean all concerned.

Since the edict to treat a variety of relationships “as” customer relationships can be experienced as demeaning, expanding customer normativity has become a problem even where it has its rightful place: in our stores, where we really are customers.

A retail chain – I will not say which – is now instructing their employees to call their customers “guests” and to treat them “as” guests!

The retail chain “solves” the problem of expanding customer normativity by decreeing guest normativity at precisely the place where customer normativity should work authentically.

I don’t know why we so easily go astray in our own forms of normativity, but I have a name for the phenomenon: idling normativity.

Pär Segerdahl

Minding our language - the Ethics Blog


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