Dissecting the Society for Mutual Autopsy

Here's an interesting historical note about "encephalic autopsies" -- examining brains. It suggests that contemporary fascination with the brain and the allure of neuroscience began long ago. 

* * * * * 

The Society of Mutual Autopsy was an organisation formed in the late 1800s to advance neuroscience by examining dead members’ brains and to promote atheism by breaking sacred taboos. It included some of the great French intellectuals and radicals of the time and became remarkably fashionable – publishing the results in journals and showing plaster-casts of deceased members brains in world fairs.

In October 1876, twenty Parisian men joined together as the Society of Mutual Autopsy and pledged to dissect one another’s brains in the hopes of advancing science. The society acquired over a hundred members in its first few years, including many notable political figures of the left and far left.… click here to read whole article and make comments


Suicide can be rational, says editor of Bioethics

Brutus falls on his sword.   

As Quebec debates the legalisation of euthanasia, Canadian bioethicist Udo Schuklenk, who is also the co-editor of the prestigious journal Bioethics, has argued in a newspaper column that suicide by depressed people may sometimes be rational. Schuklenk claims that in cases where depression is severe and untreatable by medication it might be reasonable for a sufferer to commit suicide:

“When do people decide to commit suicide? Surely for many this occurs when they consider their lives not worth living any longer and when they don’t see a realistic chance that their lives will improve in such a way that they will be worth living again. If that’s correct, at least for some people with depression suicide is a rational response to their suffering.”

Sckulenk refers to a 2010 US study that found anti-depressants “fail to result… click here to read whole article and make comments


Genetic predisposition as a legal defence

With the rapid advance of behavioural genetics it has become easier for lawyers to mount a defence based on ‘genetic predispositions’. A number of high profile cases in the US have involved such defences, including the recent trial and conviction of gunman Jared Lee Loughner. If a genetic predisposition can be demonstrated, a defence can secure a significantly more lenient sentence, and as is too often the case, prevent their client from receiving the death penalty. 

The genetic defence has received significant attention from academics, as it throws up a number of complex philosophical questions: What is the relationship between genetic predisposition and upbringing? What effect does this have on gene expression? Can you quantify the effect of genetics on culpability? And do we have an adequate legal framework to do so?

The media has ridiculed the genetics defence, but experts say it is valid. "People… click here to read whole article and make comments


Stop fretting about 3-parent embryos and get ready for “multiplex parenting”

The controversy over three-parent embryos could soon be old hat. Writing in one of the world’s leading journals, one of Britain’s best-known bioethicists has outlined a strategy for creating children with four or more genetic parents. He calls it “multiplex parenting”.

John Harris, of the University of Manchester, and two colleagues, César Palacios-González and Giuseppe Testa contend in the Journal of Medical Ethics (free online) that this is one of many exciting consequences of using stem cells to create synthetic eggs and sperm. (Or as they prefer to call them, in vitro generated gametes (IVG).)

After the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells in 2007, theoretically any cell in the body can be created from something as simple as a skin cell. Mice have already been born from sperm and eggs created from stem cells. Harris and his colleagues believe that the day is not far… click here to read whole article and make comments


Analysis of legal assisted suicide in Switzerland

An extensive survey of assisted suicide in Switzerland between 2003 and 2008 has found that the most vulnerable people are women, people who live alone or people who are divorced. People who ask for assisted suicide tend to be wealthier and better educated.

The results have been published in the International Journal of Epidemiology. The authors, from the University of Bern, conclude that disadvantaged sectors of the Swiss population are not more vulnerable to assisted suicide, because relatively fewer low-income people take advantage of it. Their principal recommendation is that the government should require better statistics.  

However, other interesting findings also emerge.

* Fewer people with a religious affiliation, especially to the Catholic Church, seek assisted suicide. “The association with religion may reflect greater social integration among the religious as well as social norms and dogma,” they say.

* The existence of right-to-die associations might… click here to read whole article and make comments


Rethinking informed consent

Informed consent is a bioethical precept of paramount importance in medicine. Ever since the publication of the Belmont Report in 1978, researchers have by and large applied this principle to their daily work.

However, the very authors of that 1978 report are now questioning their conclusions. In an article in the February 20th edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr Tom Beauchamp et al outline a new set of principles providing for the waiving of informed consent in situations that fall below “a threshold of negative effect”. The authors argue that in cases where research has “no or only minor effects on important patient interests” it is permissible to proceed without explicit consent.

The paper, entitled ‘Informed Consent, Comparative Effectiveness, and Learning Health Care’, contains a new seven principle framework – the ‘Common Purpose Framework’ – that emphasises the importance of improving… click here to read whole article and make comments


The industrial revolution in surrogacy

An Indian doctor cum businesswoman is looking to build the world’s biggest ‘baby factory’, a 110 bed hospital focused specifically on infertility treatment and surrogacy. Dr. Nayna Patel, who currently runs a large but poorly equipped surrogacy clinic, wants to provide a one-stop-shop for surrogate mothers and biological parents.

The hospital, to be commissioned in February next year, will be spread over four acres, with special dormitories to accommodate surrogate mothers, 25 rooms for IVF patients, 15 neo-natal ICUs and 40 special rooms for couples. The estimated cost is $8 million USD.

Dr. Patel wants the hospital to be a “family nest”, where biological parents, surrogate mothers and neo-natal children all live together as an integrated family. Patel intends for the hospital to be staffed largely by relatives and friends of the surrogates, so as to “improve the overall family atmosphere”. 

click here to read whole article and make comments


New technology could raise awareness in minimally conscious patients

A promising way of rousing minimally conscious patients  has been developed by a group of Belgian researchers. In the April edition of the journal Neurology, the researchers, a team from Liège University, outline how electric stimulation can increase awareness in patients with greatly reduced consciousness. 

They found that 15 out of 55 minimally conscious patients responded to the stimulation by becoming more responsive and two were even able to communicate nonverbally with researchers. Those in a vegetative state did not show any reaction.

“These results are all the more impressive because they can occur in chronic patients, i.e. years after their accident, when their state is often considered as no longer being able to evolve”, said Aurore Thibaut, the chief author of the paper. Unfortunately the improvement is only temporary and patients return to their original state after several hours.

In a minimally conscious state a patient will exhibit minimal or occasional… click here to read whole article and make comments


India profits as Afghan health crisis continues

With Afghanistan’s hospitals in a parlous state, tens of thousands of Afghans are travelling to India for safe, albeit expensive, medical care. In the past year the Indian embassy in Kabul issued 32,200 medical visas in 2013, up from 26,500 in 2012.

Overseas hospitals are sometimes the only option for Afghans. In a recent Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) survey conducted in Afghan hospitals, one in five patients said they had a relative or close friend who had died as a result of lack of access to healthcare in the past 12 months.

The MSF report outlined major understaffing, lack of medicines, short opening hours and corruption as key problems in the Afghan public and private systems.

In Indian the quality of healthcare is higher – though perhaps not as outstanding as many Afghans think – and there are more specialists available.

As a raw figure… click here to read whole article and make comments


Force-feeding continues at Guantanamo Bay

A US federal court recently declined to stop force-feeding of detainees at Guantánamo Bay. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit refused to issue a preliminary injunction.

 “The rights of men being held in Guantánamo are being completely ignored, and the hunger strike is the only option they have left to protest their indefinite detention, which has lasted more than 11 years without charges for some of them,” said Dr Vincent Iacopino, of Physicians for Human Rights. “By allowing the cruel and degrading practice of force-feeding to continue, the court has essentially authorized the continuation of an abusive tactic that violates human rights and fundamental medical ethics.”

The detainees being forced-fed are being held in indefinite detention, which is in itself a violation of human rights, according to the PHR. A preliminary injunction would have at least stopped force-feeding, which constitutes ill-treatment… click here to read whole article and make comments


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