Green Neuroscience: Re-envisioning How We Study the Brain and Ourselves

 

In this Science and Justice Working Group event, Dr. Ann Lam and Dr. Elan Liss Ohayon present the story of establishing the Green Neuro Lab. They will outline some of the key issues facing the neurosciences and describe the lab's efforts to advance a sustainable and inclusive neuroscience. They will also outline how their current research directions, in studies of neural imaging, cognition, and computational neural modeling, address their objectives. They hope to engage the audience in a discussion of how neuroscience can be re-envisioned in the context of science, justice and the environment.

There is an urgent need for the neuroscience community as a whole to reexamine its purpose and approach to research. Simply put, the overall trajectory of neuroscience research today is generating toxic waste, causing harm to other species, and creating fractured categories of human health that result in unnecessary stigmatization and marginalization. Many of these issues stem from long-established and largely unchallenged belief systems about the brain and brain-environment interactions. These problems are also systemic in nature in that much of neuroscience research is driven by funding structures and other factors that run counter to individual and community interests.

The aim of the Green Neuroscience laboratory is to advance our understanding of the brain by posing questions and conducting careful research in a sustainable and creative manner. The lab strives to demonstrate that neuroscience research can be less harmful to the environment and improve health while simultaneously recognizing the importance of neurodiversity, community, and the environment. Another central goal of the lab is to improve the dialogue between researchers and the publics they strive to help.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013 | 4:00-6:00 PM | Engineering 2, Room 599

Bios

Dr. Ann Lam received her PhD from the University of Saskatchewan and completed her postdoctoral research at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. She is Director and Founder of the Green Neuroscience Laboratory. Her work has focused on brain development and cognitive conditions, including Williams Syndrome. She is currently working on developing an open atlas of brain metals to study the relationship between metals and cognition.

Dr. Elan Liss Ohayon received his PhD from the University of Toronto and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California San Diego. He is currently a research associate at the Salk Institute. He is also Co-Director and Founder of the Green Neuroscience Laboratory. He is a neurocomputational researcher, with research projects relating neural network structure to activity in epilepsy and social cognition.

"Green Neuroscience: Re-envisioning How We Study the Brain and Ourselves"
SJWG Rapporteur Report
22 January 2013
In this Science and Justice Working Group event, Drs. Ann Lam and Elan
Ohayon presented the story of establishing the Green Neuroscience Lab (http://greenneuro.org/).
The aim of the Green Neuroscience laboratory is to advance our understanding of the brain by
posing questions and conducting careful research in a sustainable and creative manner. The lab
strives to demonstrate that neuroscience research can be less harmful to the environment and
improve health while simultaneously recognizing the importance of neurodiversity, community,
and the environment. Another central goal of the lab is to improve the dialogue between
researchers and the publics they strive to help. In this presentation, they also outlined how their
current research directions, in studies of neural imaging, cognition, and computational neural
modeling, address their objectives.

Dr. Lam and Dr. Ohayon began the presentation by asking everyone in the room to describe what
they think a “green neuroscience”, or more broadly a “green science" might entail. Their
presentation outlined the issues with neuroscience research today and how the principles of their
lab address and go beyond these trends. They also described the physical space and the research
foci of their lab.

Problems with the Trajectory of Neuroscience Research
The presenters briefly described the concerns of brain/mind-related research as depicted by
popular culture, referring to stories such as Frankenstein, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Brave New
World, and Total Recall. They then outlined some troubling objectives and research of
neuroscience that may actually go beyond those of the sci-fi realm. These included military and
commercial applications, various psychiatric therapies, the extensive use of viral vectors, and a
push toward mono cultures, pathologizing, medicalization, and marginalization. Examples
discuss included: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, optogenetics, and
bias due to close connections between academic research and for-profit industries. They also
described the large quantities of hazardous waste generated by most neuroscience approaches
and harm to other species.

Principles of Lab
They outlined some of the laboratory principles, which included: developing green, non-toxic,
sustainable, and restorative research methods; no captive, experimental animal testing; aiming to
increase the overall autonomy of individuals; non-hierarchical research and just labor practices;
nurturing of cooperative science; encouraging an appreciation of neurodiversity rather than
“typical” brain structures and functions; sustaining responsible and rigorous research practices
that also incorporate humor and deep fun.

Conceptual Space
The presenters described the conceptual space that has supported the formation of the Green
Neuroscience Lab. This includes their affiliation with the NeuroLinx Research Institute (https://
neurolinx.org/), which is a non-profit research institute that began operations in 2011 and whose
mission is to further neuroscience research within a framework of open scientific collaboration.
The institute addresses this mission by “building bridges between researchers, creating unique
collaborations, linking diverse scientific data and information, and supporting high-risk but
potentially high-reward research projects.” The mission is summarized in the moto “Liberating
Science”.

Physical Space
Dr. Lam and Dr. Ohayon then discussed how they have worked to create a physical laboratory
space that reflected their principles. This includes no animal testing, minimizing the use of
hazardous materials for studies, and a practice of non-hierarchy (e.g., encouraging college
student researchers to develop their own questions and research studies which is rare at the
undergraduate level). They also described how the laboratory is the first net zero neuroscience
laboratory powered with solar energy, how much of the equipment and furniture were reclaimed
or repurposed, and how they increased green space in a primarily industrial area.

Research
The speakers then presented examples of their research projects. Dr. Lam outlined the Open
Atlas of Brain Metals project (http://greenneuro.org/atlas/) that she and Dr. Ohayon are working
on as part of the Green Neuroscience Laboratory. Using X-ray fluorescence imaging at the
Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, they are developing an open access atlas that will
offer researchers new information on the distribution and function of metals in the human brain.
Metals contribute to the basic architecture, function and plasticity of neural systems. By
constructing this digital repository, they are documenting the diversity across and within socalled
“typical developing” brains as well as conditions such as epilepsy and Williams
Syndrome. The hope is to help identify the role of metals in the brain in order to understand how
their distributions in brain structures contributes to function. By using synchrotron imaging they
have avoided many commonly used carcinogenic substances in assessing brain anatomy,
although a possible environmental trade-off is the large amount of energy that this method can
consume (though relatively brief in duration). Beyond the accuracy and environmental benefits,
the method also has additional scientific advantages in that it enables other histological
techniques to be applied post-imaging.

Dr. Ohayon also outlined his neurocomputational research on neural activity, cognition and
epilepsy. He described how he explores the effects of changes in the structure of large networks
on their function. He also illustrated how he has thought about these models in the context of the
environment and autonomous agents. As an example, he presented an experiment where
embodied models (robots) where evolved from a seizure-like condition to a point where they
could move around and avoid obstacles.

Question and Answer Period:
The discussant, Martha, began the question section of the event by asking Drs. Lam and Ohayon
three questions (paraphrased in the following section):
Martha - In Science and Justice we have discussed this idea of “slow science.” It is a concept
that we have taken from the idea of fast food as something that is output quickly, but has all
types of negative consequences ecologically and socially. We have thought about the possible
benefits of moving away from a fast-paced competitive atmosphere or a ‘publish or perish’
model to allow for time for experimental projects, potential false starts, the ability to “digest” the
science, and a more positive workspace. In what ways might that concept resonate, or not
resonate, with the Green Neuroscience Lab?

Ann and Elan - The analogy definitely works in many senses, in that there is definitely too
much rote research being conducted, with little thought of the impact both within neuroscience
and on society. Also, pressures to finish study quickly and considerations of how easy it will be
to publish can bias both the approach and results. Proper experimental design should allow for
thinking space and serendipitous discovery to occur. On the other hand, while we have to give
space for things to happen slowly, we must also recognize that sometimes things happen very
fast and great realizations can occur quickly. So we need to be flexible and act upon rapid
developments in our studies and within neuroscience as a field.

They agreed that concept resonates at many levels and that the means of our practices should
reflect our principles. In that sense it is very important to give things time to simmer and avoid
"fast food" science. On the other hand, they also remarked on the urgent need to recognize and
respond to the dangerous trajectories in neuroscience research. The detrimental consequences are
speeding up and require fast responses to mitigate the damage. This urgency means that
researchers who care about these ethical issues need to respond quickly and strongly.
There have also been some positive developments. For example, there is an important move
away from ‘publish or perish” that is now allowing for more inclusive and thoughtful science. In
fact, some of the most momentous and rigorous results have recently been disseminated in nontraditional
manners. An example is the solution to the Poincaré conjecture by Grigori Perelman
who posted the proof online (on arXiv).

There are also many troubling social justice dimension to the competitive "fast food" model. For
example, talented immigrant scientists are pressured to perform under the threat of losing their
jobs and visas. This can turn marginalized people against each other as well as potentially
compromising the science and ethics. In the US, the problem is exacerbated by the lack of
universal healthcare, so people may overwork themselves or cut corners because they are afraid
of losing their health insurance benefits. Also, researchers who want to keep their positions and
health insurance in order to protect their families will often sacrifice time with their families.
Women in particular may feel the pressure to choose between work and family. The absence of
social safety nets can also lead to researchers that are less likely to take chances. Dr . Ohayon
remarked that this is exceedingly ironic since the lack of socialized health care can actually
hamper the entrepreneurial spirit so celebrated by industry.

Martha - mentioned the work that she did with Ruth Müller that found women postdocs had an
enormous amount of pressure to make sacrifices and felt they lacked role models for women who
combined their work as scientists with family obligations.

Ann and Elan - This is certainly an important issue. As mentioned, there is a lot of pressure,
especially on women that can pit research against family. This is very common at the
postdoctoral level. However, while recognizing the problem, we also should carful about reifying
the issue. In many ways academia is much more flexible than other occupations and can offer a
wonderfully rich and fulfilling life. It is important that the positive stories and aspects be told as
well so that women are encouraged and supported in pursuing careers in science and academia.

Martha - Says she was struck by their use of language, namely the lab principle of encouraging
“rich narratives.” Her work is on narratives in science, so she curious about what inspired that
way of framing their work and what does the idea of narratives might mean to them

Ann and Elan - Talked about the importance of listening to people’s stories in order to inspire
and contextualize their research as well as for understanding the brain in context. SAND, for
example, has had speakers such as a woman whose sister has epilepsy and a native elder. These
narratives have often been amongst the most engaging presentations. These stories clearly
affected the basic researchers and clinicians at the conference. Focusing on the telling of stories
also allows for a conversation with society and invites people to participate.

They also mentioned that there is the need for more artists and writers to partner with scientists
on interpreting some the issues and depicting how science impacts peoples’ lives. It is often
artists that perceive and interpret the impact long before scientists have even begun the research
(as per examples from literature at the start of talk).

Martha - What kind of limitations have they encountered trying to implement Green Neuro?

Ann and Elan - The principles have eliminated a lot of the traditional funding sources given that
the lab does not accept funding from military or industry (e.g., pharmaceutical). They have also
met many incredible researchers that they would have liked to work with but unfortunately their
research was ungreen either in their funding and/or outcomes. For example, research that is
partially focused on the development of military devices or patented medical treatments.
However, although the funding has been an issue, in some ways the limitations have also led to
creative solutions and opened up new possibilities. For example, much of the furniture and
equipment was acquired though Craigslist which was both green and affordable. This also led to
connecting to interesting individuals in the community such as environmental architects and
engineers. The SAND conference has been an inspiration in this regard as it has run for many
years with a zero budget. The conference takes place in academic public spaces which helps
brings researchers from many fields together while nurturing connections with public institutes.

Andrew Matthews - asked how they came up with the concept of an “atlas” to describe their
repository of information?

Ann and Elan -  The term "atlas" is actually taking on many meanings in neuroscience. It's a very
active domain. There have been very energetic discussions about this at the lab and with
collaborators. The debate is quite lively. One of the most interesting connections is that the lab
received a generous donation of vintage atlases from the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, CA.
This has given the discussion a certain historical perspective and has led to many of the
questions. Is the description of a single individual an atlas? Should an atlas be made up of a
collection that reflects a population? What about the ethics of collecting the data (in humans and
other animals)?

Magdalena Górska - Thanked the speakers for coming and said it is rare that scientists think so
deeply about the social issues of science.

Andrew Matthews - Thanked the speakers and said that what they are doing is a very
inspirational project.

Discussion continued after the formal event and future collaborations are being planned.

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