The theme for this year's Nobel Conference, held by Gustavus Adolphus
College, was "The Brain and Being Human." The two-day conference
featured eight speakers from top scientists in Neuroscience and related fields.
Concordia students had the opportunity to attend the second day of the
conference through Concordia's science department. Speakers for day two
included Dr. John Donoghue, Dr. Paul w. Glimcher, and Dr. Martha J. Farah.
The first lecture, "Merging Mind to Machines: Brain Computer Interfaces
to Restore Lost Function," was given by Dr. Donoghue. He spoke about his work
on developing technology that to decipher neural signals and use them to run
machines. By implanting a chip the size of a baby aspirin into the motor cortex
of a person's brain the chip is able to pick up the signals from neurons that normally
tell the body to perform an action, such as lift an arm. The technology Dr. Donoghue's
team developed deciphers the potential actions (spikes) of the neurons. From
there, the information can be used to make a robot move or even work a cursor
on a computer screen. This technology was developed to provide freedom to
patients who are paralyzed or have amputated limbs. Although the technology
still has a long way to go, the goal is to eventually return anyone with such
an injury to full function.
Dr. Glimcher gave his lecture on "The Neurobiology of Decision-Making." He
and his team set out to understand how it is people make decisions. They also
wanted to know if, once they had enough information, they could predict which
decision a person would make. The process of answering these questions was
rather complicated, but the team yielding some promising results. By mapping
out how the brain functioned during decision-making Dr. Glimcher was able to determine
which parts of the brain are used most for making decisions. By slowly increasing
the complexity of their experiments, the team was able to begin predicting what
a person would decide. Dr. Glimcher was careful to emphasize that this advancement
was only possible because it combined
the disciplines of neuroscience, economics, and psychology.
The final afternoon lecture was given by Dr. Farah. Her talk was titled, "21st
Century Neuroscience: From Lab and clinic to Home, School and Office." She
focused mainly on recent and potential non-medical applications of the knowledge
gained by the advancements of neuroscience and the ethical issues raised by
those applications. Dr. Farah gave the example that pharmaceuticals originally developed
to treat ADHD, such as Ritalin, are now commonly being used by college students
as a study aid. Some adults working 60-80 hour work weeks have started taking a
drug originally developed to treat narcolepsy to keep them alert while they
work long hours. Both these applications raise questions about the freedom of
enhancement. Does taking drugs in this manner leave non-users at an unfair
disadvantage? Should companies be allowed to require their employees to take
enhancers? Dr. Farah also focused in her lecture on how neuroscience has
affected the sense of "self." Some scientists, such as Francis Crick, believe
advancements definitively disprove dualism. If this is true, how does that
affect religious or cultural beliefs? These
types of questions have shaped and will continue to shape the way advances are
made in science.
This conference relates strongly to the "being human" aspect of this year's
focus in Honors. Advancements in neuroscience are constantly changing
scientists' understanding of what it means to be human. Does the ability of technology
to restore function to a patient fundamentally change who they are as a person?
Is it decision-making skills that separate humans from animals? Can a brain
injury make a person less "human?" Part of the purpose of this year's focus is
to answer questions like these. The conference also provided a perfect example of
how the world is interconnected. Like Dr. Glimcher said, a lot of the recent
advancements would not have been possible without interdisciplinary work. By
connecting the knowledge of multiple disciplines a more complete understanding
of the world can be reached. If the world were less interconnected the
understanding of what it means to be human might be very different.
I am extremely grateful I had the opportunity to attend this conference
and am very much looking forward to attending next year's as well. It is
amazing to me how much we know about how the brain works. I was also surprised
how much of what the speakers talked about related directly to topics we have
covered in the Honors program. For example Renee Descartes and his ideas about
dualism were brought up several times in terms of our understanding of
consciousness. This ties in perfectly with Dr. Morgan's classes on the brain.
It reinforced what I had already learned and gave me a new perspective on the
matter. The ethics discussions reminded me a lot of last year's discussions
with Dr. Hillmer. We talked a lot last year about seemingly small events can
affect a large number of people in many ways. I was so excited by the lectures
I listened to that I went to Gustavus's book store during the break to purchase
a couple of books written by the speakers.