Two Neuroscientists Who Get It Right

Posted by Jessica Cussins January 7, 2015
Biopolitical Times
Elan Ohayon and his wife, Ann Lam, who is holding their daughter, at the Green Neuroscience Laboratory. (Emily Berl for The New York Times)

Knowledge of the enormous power that is coming with advances in neuroscience is presumably common among those working in the field. But embracing the responsibility that comes with that power is much more unusual.

Dr. Ann Lam and her husband Dr. Elan Ohayon, co-founders of the San Diego-based Green Neuroscience Laboratory, are leading the charge.

The couple worries that excitement about the field is allowing problematic practices to go unchallenged and important questions to never even enter the conversation. They are deeply concerned that much of the funding comes from the military and that scientists’ research will be used for unintended purposes.

Many brain (and other) researchers are willing to accept such realities and downstream consequences as beyond their control, but Lam and Ohayon tackle them head-on.

Their “Roadmap to a New Neuroscience” is pretty amazing. It includes these principles:

  • Seek to identify and understand brain activity, perception, cognition, sentience, and liberty in other forms of life. No Captive Animal Experimentation.
  • Challenge, rethink and deconstruct definitions of “disorders”, “normal” and “deviance”. Be aware of racism, sexism, ableism, mentalism, sanism, ageism, speciesism, anthropocentrism and other forms of bias and discrimination in neuroscience research.
  • Research must aim at increasing individual agency, not control.
  • Neuroscience must be directed exclusively toward health, peaceful and non-violent purposes.
  • Move away from genetic determinism and other forms of fatalism.
  • The brain cannot be accurately studied and understood as a disembodied organ. Aim to understand the brain in its embodied social and environmental context.
  • Pursue fundamental inquiry for the sake of pure curiosity so long as it is not harmful. Fixation on applicability can obscure the road to discovery.
  • We will take no corporate, pharmaceutical or military funding.

In The New York Times on Monday, Dr. Lam expanded: “Our dream is to create an educational training program in green neuroscience where people can really study ethics, philosophy and experimentation all at the same time.”

Reporter John Markoff wrote of how the duo has been speaking at events around the country about the moral dilemmas facing researchers:

They start by reviewing dystopian futures as described in science fiction. “You know all of that stuff?” they ask. “It’s much worse.”

But they’ll also tell you the good news: “greener science often leads directly to better science!”

Lam and Ohayon’s lab, principles, and education efforts offer a real opportunity to shift the neuroscience status-quo, and to provide inspiring mentorship for a burgeoning field.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: