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In the Journal: The Ethics of Molecular Memory Modification

8 Jan, 15 | by BMJ

Guest post by Katrina Hui

What if memories could be enhanced or erased, not through traditional pharmaceuticals, but directly, through manipulation of the molecular processes that govern memory?

Several years ago, scientists thought they had found a single molecule believed to be the key to memory editing. This molecule, called protein kinase Mζ (PKMζ), appeared to play a crucial role in the preservation of specific long-term memories. Though its actual molecular mechanism remains unclear, the discovery demonstrates that memory is governed by molecular processes and can possibly be manipulated through such means. Though research is still in its early stages, the example of molecular memory modification raises some interesting questions about the ethics of memory that merit consideration.

According to current frameworks of memory, memories are made temporarily unstable after recall and are “rewritten” each time they are summoned before being stored again. Early research seemed to indicate that specific memories could be enhanced by increasing levels of PKMζ, then recalling the target memories. On the flip side, memories could be “erased” by interfering with the expression of the molecule at a similar point in time in the recall process, thus destabilizing and preventing the re-storage of previously held memories. To add to the excitement, modifying specific memories with PKMζ seemed to have few side effects on other memories or processes.

However, more recent research has called into question PKMζ’s involvement in long-term memory storage and maintenance, and it remains unclear if PKMζ really is as powerful as it was once thought to be.

Nonetheless, the possibility of manipulating memory through molecular means will continue to be investigated. Molecular memory modification (MMM) provides a new perspective on some unresolved ethical questions regarding memory. For instance, is there a “the duty to remember” certain valuable memories? This duty could have a place in the courtroom, for example, where eyewitness testimony, while notoriously unreliable, is also frequently used and sometimes essential. On the other hand, while requiring or perhaps even forcing people to remember might appeal to those with an authoritarian bent, in reality, the mechanism of action of MMM in particular requires active recall from the participant, illustrating how subject participation, a previously neglected topic in ethical debates about memory, could be essential.

More broadly, the example of MMM illustrates that the idea of “enhancing” memory, rather than a monolithic process, is multifaceted. The folk intuition of enhancing memory, generally implies remembering more, for a longer time. However, a closer examination of the molecular processes underlying memory functions, the term “enhancement” is shown to be vague, as there are many dimensions along which memory could be enhanced, such as fixing incorrect associations, eliminating temporary memory blocks, or even erasing memories in cases such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. What ethical concerns are relevant and we mean when we use the term “enhancement” ultimately depends on how memories are altered. As research continues, new mechanisms for improving memory will emerge, and more precision about the ethical calculus will be required.


Read the full paper here.

Free Speech and the CMF

5 Jan, 15 | by Iain Brassington

Despite a slight reticence when it comes to quoting Mill approvingly, I do have to admit that sometimes he does articulate a thought clearly and pithily, and sometimes it’s a thought in which all right-thinking people ought to see the merit.  Like, for example, this, from the opening paragraph of chapter III in On Liberty:

An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.

The general point ought to be clear: whatever your prima facie right to say what you want, it doesn’t mean there’re no limits on the circumstances in which it can be said.  Mill is concerned about excitable mobs, but the basic principle could, I think, be extended without too much difficulty: if your free speech causes severe inconvenience or distress or inconvenience to others, you ought to moderate it or take it elsewhere.  Having the freedom to make a point is, and ought to be, compatible with others’ freedom not to be bothered by your making it.

I think that that’s pretty reasonable: your liberty is one thing, but it’s not the only thing.  There’s the liberty of others to avoid you to consider, for one thing.  Pushing things a bit further, we might be inclined to argue that liberty is a good because of its relationship with, and contribution to securing, the general welfare – but that there’re other things that contribute to that, too, which therefore ought also to be considered good things worth protecting.  Basic civility might be one such good.  Mill doesn’t make much of that, but there’s no reason why we couldn’t say that that’s a good worth preserving – and why we couldn’t fit that into a modified Millianism, should we so desire.  On Liberty isn’t Holy Writ: its good ideas might be extendable.

Keep that in the back of your mind for a moment.

Many readers will have seen the video posted a few weeks ago by Sunny Hundal in which a woman berates a group of pro-life protesters outside an abortion clinic.  The background detail is that there is reportedly an increasing prevalence in the UK of pro-life protesters congregating outside such clinics.  Sometimes those protests take the form of prayer vigils; sometimes – as in the video – they’re more direct, with posters of babies and foetuses, sometimes quite graphic.  Occasionally there’s barracking; I think that this is more common in the US, but I suspect that the trend may appear here soon enough, not least because these things do tend to escalate.  Yvette Cooper has apparently mulled the idea of buffer-zones around abortion clinics, within which pro-life protesters would not be allowed to protest.

Writing on the CMF blog, Cheryl Chin is not happy about Cooper’s idea; she thinks that “It would appear that once again, liberties are under threat of being curtailed by the proponents of the pro-abortion brigade”.* more…

A Bit More on Nonhuman Persons

23 Dec, 14 | by Iain Brassington

A bit of a followup to my last post: sometimes, nonhumans are granted habeas corpus:

Orangutans have been granted the status of “non-human persons” with legal rights in a landmark court ruling in Argentina. The decision clears the way for Sandra, a shy 29-year-old, to be freed from Buenos Aires Zoo after spending her entire life in captivity. […]

The ruling came after animal rights campaigners filed a habeas corpus petition – a document more typically used to challenge the legality of a person’s detention or imprisonment – on behalf of the Sumatran orangutan, who was born at a German zoo and was transferred to Buenos Aires two decades ago.

Sandra will, unless there’s a successful appeal, be moved from the zoo to a sanctuary.

In practice, this might not make all that much difference.  She’ll still be confined in a sanctuary; it would be utterly indefensible just to turf her out onto the streets, and she wouldn’t last long.  And in some cases, it’s quite possible that a well-run zoo is the best possible place in which to look after her or others like her.  Zoo, sanctuary: tomayto, tomahto.  Meh.

What matters primarily is that a point of principle is established, and secondarily that there would be some guidance about the kind of facilities that would be minimally decent.  It’s likely to be wholly acceptable, morally and legally, to keep great apes in some form of captivity if it’s in their interests, in rather the same way that we might provide a human child or an adult with an intellectual disability with sheltered or supervised accommodation, and might even limit their time away from it.  (The family home is a kind of sheltered and supervised accommodation!)  If a creature – human or orang or chimp or whatever else – can’t deal with the world around them, that seems to be morally required.  Let’s call this “soft captivity”, as opposed to the “hard” captivity of some zoos, prisons, laboratories, and so on.  The point is that, rather as we wouldn’t deny that a child or adult disabled human is a person and thus protected by the law, it does seem reasonable to extend that protection to members of other species.

I wonder how much further we could push it: it’s one thing to have a great ape in soft captivity for its own protection; and it’s one thing to say that if a great ape is in captivity, it ought to be soft captivity.  But could we make a similar claim about keeping a member of a species in soft captivity for the sake of protecting the species?

Orangs are under threat.  Now, a threat to the species is almost always a threat to the members of the species, too – and so we would almost always be unable to distinguish acting to protect individual orangs and the species as a whole.  But this needn’t be the case.  Imagine that there are two small colonies of the animal left; a genetic bottleneck means that neither is viable on its own, but, if they were combined, the species may be rescued and flourish in the future.  Furthermore, each colony is in a confined area that cannot support a bigger population.  There is no direct threat to either colony, though.  It so happens that a busy road separates the colonies, which means that they are to all intents and purposes isolated.

Would it be permissible to swing into action to take all these orangs into a sufficiently big sanctuary, and maybe to keep them there for the sake of increasing the population?  It wouldn’t obviously be in the interests of any particular living orang; but it could be in the interests of the species.  Even if the captivity is soft, it is still captivity.  Would it be justified?

Part of me thinks that it might be; but this does rely on thinking that the species qua species has a moral value and interest, aside from the value and interest of its members.  And that does seem like a bit of a stretch – especially if (as seems plausible) individual orangs have no concept of species with which they can identify.


Admittedly, this isn’t a medical ethics post in the strict sense – but it’s a nice story, so ner.

Rights, Duties, and Species

19 Dec, 14 | by Iain Brassington

A little earlier this year, there was a case brought before the New York courts concerning a chimpanzee called Tommy: the matter was the lawfulness of keeping Tommy confined.  Acting on Tommy’s behalf was an organisation called the NonHuman Rights Project.  The legal documentation filed is available here.  The basis of the case was not so much that Tommy was being harmed by his treatment as that he was wronged by it: to keep a chimpanzee in such conditions s a violation of certain rights, and ought not to be allowed granted a plausible application of habeas corpus, even the most comfortable of cages still being a cage – or so the claim went.  Essentially, the legal question under consideration was this: does a chimpanzee have any of the legal rights that a human has; and, if so, which?

Perhaps predictably, the suit was rejected; Justice Karen Peters found that habeas corpus did not apply to chimpanzees, and the other judges agreed.  Whatever legal restrictions there may be on primates, they do not fall under the rights paradigm.

The reasoning here strikes me as being a touch… well, wonky.

A significant part of the argument revolves around what kind of thing counts as a person, and so ought to have the rights of a person.  It’s not difficult to see why this is important in bioethics, because it’ll impinge on what happens in laboratories, and – potentially – on what happens in a human uterus or neonatal unit.  If the definition of “person” extends to chimps, the suit goes, then habeas corpus should apply.  If it doesn’t, then there’s no reason to suppose that it would.  The judgement is that personhood does not apply to chimps.  The term has, the court found, never been explicitly defined; and habeas corpus relief has never been granted to any nonhuman.  This wouldn’t mean that it shouldn’t be; the question then would move on to examining the ought question.

For Peters, there is no ought here, and this conclusion is based on an appeal to a particular definition of “person”.  It’s worth quoting the ruling at length here: more…

Would the Falconer Bill Increase the Suicide Rate?

8 Dec, 14 | by Iain Brassington

This is just a quickie – I promise.

A tweet this morning from Kevin Yuill raises what he sees as a scary prospect:

The Falconer bill will treble suicides amongst the terminally ill, according to Dignity in Dying. Is that what we want? Reject this bill.

He bases his claim on two things, both from Dignity in Dying: first, this document, which estimates that 332 of the 4513 suicides in the England in 2012 (p 1); second, this document, which estimates that there would be 1000 assisted deaths in England and Wales under an Oregon-like law (p 10).

Dignity in Dying has disputed his interpretation of the figures, and I’ve spotted a couple of problems with them.  Some of those who committed suicide while terminally ill may not have committed suicide because they were terminally ill; that might skew the figures.  So might the leap from “England” to “England and Wales”.  And, most importantly, we don’t know how many people would have killed themselves but for the current legal setup.  (Neither does DiD.)  Hence the trebling rate is at best an educated guess, but probably not even that.

But I’m going to allow that Yuill’s interpretation is reasonable for the sake of the argument.  I’ll also allow – in keeping with the Falconer Bill – that all legal assisted deaths in the UK would be assisted suicides, rather than allocides.  It occurs to me, though, that his claim still doesn’t do quite what he thinks it does, or wants it to do.  Importantly, he assumes that an increase in suicides would be a bad thing – and that DiD has therefore blundered in admitting that the rate would rise.

I’m not so sure.  Suicide may be a bad thing, but it isn’t necessarily bad in the way Yuill thinks.

Here’s one consideration.  Assume that some people who are terminally ill would take assistance to kill themselves were it available, but don’t kill themselves under the current regime.  Maybe they’re housebound and can’t procure the means, for example.  Something like the Falconer Bill would make suicide easier for them; and so we’d expect the rate to increase.  But we oughtn’t to forget the alternative, which is not not dying, but dying from a different cause.  This being the case, it isn’t necessarily going to matter too much to a defender of assisted dying that the suicide rate would increase, since his whole position would be that being able to end your own life in the way you choose is preferable to dying without any control.

In other words, the defender of assisted dying could, I think, accept that the suicide rate’d increase, and point out that, in a way, that is the whole point.  An increase in the suicide rate may be, in a certain light, a welcome development, not something to be feared.  I don’t know whether DiD would endorse that view, but it seems coherent, and not obviously vicious; hence Yuill seems to have committed an ignoratio elenchi.

And this leads to another consideration, which is that you don’t – as far as I can see – have to deny the badness of suicide to defend assisted dying.  All you have to think is that there are circumstances in which it’s less bad than the alternative.  Being the better option doesn’t mean it’s a good option, in just the same way that amputation of a limb may be preferable to dying from gangrene without that meaning that amputation is a particularly good thing in its own right.

Even if Yuill’s use of the figures is statistically sound, his claim doesn’t have any of the normative punch he thinks it does.


This could get Personal

5 Dec, 14 | by Iain Brassington

And so 23andMe has launched in the UK.

For those not familiar with it, 23andMe allows individuals to swab themselves and have their genome analysed, at a cost of £125. The company is offering to generate a report covering about a hundred traits, giving information on a range of potentially important to fun things: the list includes tests for the presence or absence of inherited conditions such as Tay-Sachs and Beta Thalassemia; risk factors relating to things like Alzheimer’s; how much DNA you have in common with Neanderthals; and earwax type.

To be honest, I’d’ve thought that by the time you’ve got £125 to spend on a test like this, you’d probably know all you’d ever want to know about your earwax, but… well, apparently there’s more.  Joy.

Anyway: BBC Breakfast invited me to witter on about it the other day.  I only got a couple of minutes, and so didn’t get to say much; shamelessly, I’m going to think aloud a little bit here.  My basic starting point is that it’s hard to see why the test per se is too big a problem: all else being equal, who would begrudge a person information about himself?  All the same, I think that there are questions that are probably worth asking.  (NB: in what follows, whenever I mention 23andMe, the point should be taken to cover any company offering a similar service.)  So, in no particular order… more…

Questions to which the Answer is Yes

28 Nov, 14 | by Iain Brassington

Over at Practical Ethics, Charles Camosy asks a question: Can bioethics be done without theology?

Yep.  It can.

Well, that was quick and simple.

But – oh, all right: I probably ought to say a bit more.  Now, Camosy’s post is quite long, and that means that if I want to scrutinise it in any detail, I’d have to generate something at least as long.  I’m not sure if I – or any reader – has the patience for that, so what follows is probably not going to be without the odd gap.  All the same, this post has turned out to be something of a monster in its own right – so it might be worth going to make a cup of tea first if you intend to read it.

The tl;dr version is that I think that Camosy’s argument is fallacious in several places.  And though I’m arguing from a position of godlessness, I think that the problems ought to be apparent to those who do have faith as well.  With that caveat issued, here we go… more…

Should Anyone get IVF?

25 Nov, 14 | by Iain Brassington

Cast your mind back to this summer, and Christina Richie’s paper about the provision of ARTs.  It attracted a fair bit of controversy because of the way it talked about gay people’s rights to access ARTs, and their “voluntary” infertility.  For my money, that was the weakest part of the paper, and it should have been left out of the argument; the majority of the paper, and the more ethically interesting part, had to do with the environmental impact of striving to have more and more kids, irrespective of their parentage.  But I can see why the part about gay people struck many people as worth commenting on.

Why mention all that now?  Well, there’s a nice paper by Emily McTernan currently on pre-pub in the Journal of Applied Philosophy asking whether any fertility treatment should be state-funded.  In it, she asks whether IVF should be state-funded at all.  In a nutshell, her claim is that many of the arguments about the good of parenthood are either weak in their own right, or else could apply equally well to any number of other goods that a person might pursue.  Those that are weak are obviously less likely to sustain a claim that iVF should be provided; those that apply equally well to other goods obviously suggest either that governments should fund the pursuit of those other goods as well, or that if pursuit of those other goods is not funded, then neither should IVF be.  Thus

it is unjustifiable for a state to provide fertility treatment more generously than it funds other valuable like projects, both in the quantity of funding and the lack of means testing.

What I really like about the paper is that McTernan sets out the main arguments for funding in a simple but never simplistic manner, and calmly knocks them down one by one.  I’m already inclined to be suspicious of, if not hostile to, public funding of IVF (there being things with a more pressing need for public money, and genetic relatedness being not all that important), but she puts the arguments more neatly than I ever could.  She’s very good at pointing out that a particular argumentative strategy might be tempting, but that we would probably fight shy of adopting it because it would commit us to moral conclusions we wouldn’t normally want to embrace.  So, for example, if you’re inclined to agree with the Daniels line that adverse departures from normal species functioning could count as disease, you might be tempted to say that infertility is a disease – and therefore ought to be treated, or at least ameliorated, by IVF.  But

lack of reproductive success cannot itself suffice to make for an adverse departure [from the norm]: we would not want to conclude that those preferring same-sex partners have a disease, given the reproductive failure resulting from their statistically unusual sexual preference, let alone that it should be treated.


Elsewhere, she attacks the idea of parenting as a unique good as a ground for providing IVF, and the idea that we ought to support and enable reproduction as a social good.  McTernan recognises that there is arguably a social injustice in that a woman’s most fertile years tend to coincide with the years most crucial for her career.  This means that a woman who wants kids is likely to defer pregnancy, thereby reducing her chance of getting pregnant.  IVF might correct for that.  However, McTernan contends, this isn’t compelling, not least because the argument transforms a social phenomenon – which she thinks constitutes an injustice – into a problem with the individual; providing IVF (which isn’t all that reliable anyway) might provide an interim solution to the social problem, but it does nothing to address it fundamentally.  So, she claims, the argument probably isn’t all that strong.

But she then makes a fascinating exception – and this is where her paper is in interesting contrast to Richie’s: it’s that we do have more of a reason to provide IVF to gay couples. more…

Would Aristotle Vape?

13 Nov, 14 | by Iain Brassington

As I surfaced the other day, there was a discussion on Today about the marketing of e-cigarattes between Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH, and Lorien Jollye of the New Nicotine Alliance (now there‘s an organisation that wears its heart on its sleeve!).  It’s available from about the 1:22 mark here.  Having re-listened, it appears to me that they’re talking past each other for a significant amount of time; but the points around which they’re at least orbiting has to do with the safety of e-cigarettes and the permissibility of advertising for them.  Arnott’s concern is not so much about whether using e-cigs – which I believe the well-informed call “vaping” – can be shown in adverts, but how.  Jollye’s claim is that all that matters is whether and that the devices reduce levels of smoking across the board.  The subtext here is that the tone of the advertising possibly doesn’t matter – but if it does matter, and making the devices more attractive gets smokers to make the switch, then so much the better.

Arnott’s response here is that if e-cigs can lure smokers, they can presumably lure non-smokers, too.  And it does seem initially plausible that if the point is to coax smokers rather than non-smokers, it could be done in a non-glamorous way. emphasising the grimness of smoking-related illness and the relative benefits of vaping.  Glamour seems to be an attempt to be appealing to non-smokers as well.

Does that matter, though? more…

Growing a Kidney Inside a Pig Using your own DNA: The Ethics of ‘Chimera Organs’

6 Nov, 14 | by Iain Brassington

Guest post by David Shaw

Imagine that you’re in dire need of a new kidney. You’re near the top of the waiting list, but time is running out and you might not be lucky enough to receive a new organ from a deceased or living donor. But another option is now available: scientists could take some of your skin cells, and from them derive stem cells that can then be added to a pig embryo. Once that embryo is implanted and carried to term, the resulting pig will have a kidney that is a perfect genetic match to you, and the organ can be transplanted into your body within a few months without fear of immune rejection. Would you prefer to take the risk of waiting for an organ donated by a human, which would require you to take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of your life? Or would you rather receive a “chimera organ”?

This scenario might seem far-fetched, but it is quite likely to be a clinical reality within a decade or so. Scientists have already used the same technique to grow rat organs inside mice, and it has also been shown to work in different types of pig. Although clinical trials in humans have not yet taken place, using these techniques to create human organs inside animals could solve the current organ scarcity problem by increasing supply of organs, saving thousands of lives each year in Europe alone. As illustrated in the example, organs created in this way could be tailored to the individual patient’s DNA, allowing transplantation without the risk of immune rejection. However, the prospect of growing organs of human origin within (non-human) animals raises several ethical issues, which we explore in our paper.

Although chimera organs are ‘personalised’ and unlikely to be rejected, one of the major concerns about using organs transplanted from animals is the risk of ‘zoonosis’ – the possibility that an animal virus might be transmitted along with the organ, resulting in a new disease that could cause a pandemic. more…

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