A little weary (okay, probably a lot weary), we climbed up to the fourth floor of the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science this morning for our final day of boot camp. It turned into a day of big-idea questions, culminating in a wide-ranging discussion this afternoon of the implications of neuroscience for the law and society.
Where did the conversation end up? To borrow a phrase from my constitutional law professor, it appears that both the law and neuroscience’s contribution to it are “foggy, fluid, and conflicted.” This is not to say that there aren’t a number of exciting possibilities, some of them already in motion. But there are no settled answers to questions such as: “Neuroscience is just telling us things we already know. Yes or no?” “What aspects of neuroscience get lost in translation to judges and juries?” “Will neuroscience change the law (or other academic disciplines) or public policy?” Anyone have the answer? (Click below to continue).
- Adolescent brain development and its legal implications, led by Jennifer Drobac
- Gender differences: Implications for law and policy, led by Amy Wax
- The gracefully aging brain: Risk and protective factors, led by David Wolk
- Social development in infancy, led by Lauren Cornew
- Species differences: Cognition in the African Grey Parrot, led by Irene Pepperberg
We spent the second half of the day wrapping up, and thinking about the applications of neuroscience in many of our professional work and personal lives. Boot camp members talked about how much more they wanted to know; and how we might be at the start of major paradigm shifts in the legal system (and the counter point that this might be just another false-start challenge). We ended the day with a wonderful reception and dinner in Houston Hall.
II. Important Lessons
The lecture on aging today dovetails nicely with the lectures yesterday on disorder, so I’ll hit on a few high points covered by David Wolk. The big picture story is that over time, our brains begin to decrease in cortical volume and in white matter integrity. As a result, our neural networks run a bit slower, especially on some tasks.
Given this degeneration, an important question for researchers is: what promotes more optimized cognitive health? And translated into the clinical context, what might we be able to do to ease the effects of decreasing cognitive health over time? There are three potential mechanisms by which we might be able to produce some positive changes. First, we might directly modulate the neurobiology of brain changes or Alzheimer’s pathology. Aging and Alzheimer’s are both neurobiological and neurochemical processes, and we might be able to alter the biology/chemistry in the brain such that we directly change the way that the aging or Alzheimer’s processes work.
The second mechanism, and this is what most current Alzheimer’s drugs do, is to directly enhance cognitive function. In this mechanism, we’re not actually slowing down the actual degeneration due to age or Alzheimer’s, but we are dampening its effect on cognitive ability by enhancing that cognition through other means. A third approach is to increase your cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve can be thought of as a type of resilience to age-related brain changes (though the specific contours are not yet well known).
While the connections are still being made between a number of factors that might work through these different pathways, Dave mentioned the following possibilities as factors that may be correlated with the likelihood or timing of Alzheimer’s: physical exercise, mental stimulation, educational attainment, reduction of cerebrovascular risk factors, psychosocial factors such as social networks (good) and stress (bad), dietary factors, and cognitive training.
III. Who’s at boot camp with me?
Yesterday I mentioned the lawyers, and today I’ll mention the many philosophers who have been asking big questions all week. Philosophers in attendance include Tom Buller of the University of Alaska, Anchorage, Tamar Gendler of Yale, Erik Parens of The Hastings Center, Susan Schneider of the University of Pennsylvania, John Teehan of Hofstra University, and Gideon Yaffe of the University of Southern California.