Rise of the Planet of the Apes – a bioethical feast

December 31, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, now available on DVD, was one of the blockbuster releases in the summer of 2011. A prequel to the classic series of films (5 cinema releases between 1968 and 1973, TV spin-off and Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of the main Planet of the Apes), the new movie tries to offer a plausible mechanisms for the evolution of apes into a dominant global force.

(Warning: contains spoilers!) The new film is a veritable gold-mine for discussion of ethical topics, it would make as excellent vehicle for an engaging “film night”. In terms of bioethical issues, the film touches on all of the following:

  • Research ethics – there are lots of examples where aspects of the conduct of research are raised (some of which are picked out specifically in the list below). The motivations for doing research are touched upon at several points in the film – these include financial gain, fame and a desire to do good, both for mankind in general and specifically for the benefit of a relative in need. GenSys boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) is the embodiment of profit as a driver for research whereas Will Rodman (James Franco) represents more noble aspirations. A discussion of the ethics of research funding could follow naturally. Read the rest of this entry »

Brain and Awareness – The Secret You (Horizon)

November 7, 2009

Mathematician Marcus du Sautoy is becoming an increasingly regular front-man for the BBC science documentary Horizon and, to date, his contributions have always been satisfyingly informative. The recent episode The Secret You is no exception.

In his quest to discover the underlying biochemistry and physiology of consciousness, du Sautoy visits a number of laboratories around the world where self-awareness and the notion of “the inner me” are being investigated. In doing so, he frequently participates in experiments; at one point he quips “another day, another scanner”(50:49).

scanner

Marcus du Sautoy takes part in many experiments as part of his search for the basis of consciousness

There are a raft of ethical questions which arise from functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and other neuroimaging methods, some of which I have written about elsewhere (see Disorders of consciousness: do state-of-the-art neuroimaging techniques shed new light on the brain-injured patient?).

For me, the most interesting ethical questions in the programme arise from the work of Professor Adrian Owen. du Sautoy and Owen discuss experiments conducted with patients in PVS, a Persistent Vegetative State (16:44 to 19:22, though the discussion makes most sense if you start at 15:30).

owen4

Prof Adrian Owen of Cambridge University has made exciting discoveries about the awareness of a patient in PVS

Previously our abililty to tell whether or not a PVS patient was genuinely conscious was constrained by the fact that they had no physical ability to demonstrate their awareness. In ground-breaking experiments, however, Owen and his colleagues have communicated with patients by asking them to imagine performing certain tasks, for example playing tennis, and using fMRI to show that the appropriate areas of their brains are activate. By developing this further, it is possible to get the patient to imagine two different activities which are clearly distinguishable from one another in terms of brain activity. These can then serve as proxy signals as “yes” and “no” answers to questions posed.

owen1

A patient could be trained to make certain areas of her brain active as a proxy answer to questions posed by researchers (e.g. by imaging she was playing tennis or walking around her house)

These experiments have revolutionised our understanding of brain-injured patients. In particular it brings into question the practice of withdrawing food and water from patients in PVS on the assumption that the are not aware.

Horizon: The Secret You (TRILT code 01210858) was first broadcast on BBC2 on 20th October 2009.


Cognitive enhancement: less sleep = more done?

February 25, 2009

In Make me… stay awake, the final part of an engaging series of three documentaries (following Make me… smart and Make me… live forever), Michael Mosley investigates the effects of sleep deprivation and ways in which these symptoms may be alleviated. As he puts it in the introduction to the film, he wants to know if there are ways of “conquering… my need and my urge for sleep” (01:40).

Several sections of the programme brought bioethical themes into sharp focus – including the use of model organisms in research (17:53-20:47) and the use of drugs to stay awake longer (26:42- end).

Read the rest of this entry »


Blood & Guts – A History of Surgery: Fixing Faces

February 16, 2009
Michael Mosley performing a facial surgery technique on a Mannequin/dummy

Michael Mosley performing facial surgery on a mannequin/dummy

In the fourth part of the BBC 4 Blood and Guts series, Fixing Faces looks at the evolution of plastic surgery. True to form, Michael Mosley presents a graphic account of how brutal attempts to reconstruct patients’ diseased or damaged faces have led to a modern medical speciality which is now believe to be on the eve of the first full face transplant. This episode describes and illustrates the history of this area of surgery: showing the work of the 16th century Italian doctor Gasparis Taliacotii (00:05:06 – 00:18:02); the beginning of the Botox era (00:18:02 – 00:30:00); and the work of Sir Harold Gillies and Sir Archibald Mclndoe, who developed both surgical techniques and the need for psychological support for patients undergoing reconstructive facial surgery (00:30:00 – 00:50:00) (Please see this Student BMJ article – ‘A brief histoy of plastic surgery’).

This episode highlights two main ethical topics for discussion: functional Magnetic Resonance Imageing (fMRI) and Neuroethics (00: 01:54 – 00:05:06); and face transplants or facial allograft transplantation (00:50:00 – End).

Read the rest of this entry »


An epic journey – Do You Want To Live Forever?

February 12, 2008

The ethics of life extension is an immensely complex topic. It touches on a number of social and political issues, though also philosophical and metaphysical perspectives, and draws us into a consequentialist calculus over the rights of people living now and those of future, unborn generations. A number of these issues are explored in the thought provoking Channel 4 documentary Do You Want To Live Forever?, in which writer and director Christopher Sykes, follows biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey in his quest to be the man that conquers ageing.

aubrey2.jpg

Biogerontologist, Aubrey de Grey (from Do You Want To Live Forever?, Channel 4, February 3rd 2007, 18.35)

In addition to extensive footage with de Grey himself, the programme also features a ‘cast of characters’, from de Grey’s mother Camilla, to award winning physicist Freeman Dyson. In interviewing each of these characters Do You Want To Live Forever? offers a number of different perspectives on the ethics of life-extension research. Although the views of different commentators are spread throughout the 75minute programme, they provide an excellent source of capsule quotes which articulate many of the ethical arguments and issues in the debate around life-extension. Read the rest of this entry »