Tuesday, 3 June 2014

News from Cheltenham Science Festival - Day 1

So, as promised, I am sending a first update from Day 1 at the Cheltenham Science Festival.

To start with I met up with all the other Bursary winners from the University of Surrey and UCL.  It was great to see representatives from so many disciplines, including Chemistry, Space Science, Physics and Professions Allied to Medicine.  It was also great to see an artist amongst us, which sparked an interesting dialogue about the complimentary roles of art and science, and how one can learn from the other.  Then after checking into the hotel, it was on to the talks.

So First up for me today was "Noise, a Sound Concern", chaired by Quentin Cooper and featuring Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist and Bernard Berry, an expert in environmental noise.  This was a stimulating talk in two parts; the first, a fascinating insight from Bernie Krause about sounds in the natural world (termed geophony and biophony retrospectively), and the effect that human noise (anthrophony) is having on other species.  First he showed how naturally occurring sounds from other species (biophony) often occupy different acoustic spaces within a biosphere in complimentary ways, so that all the species can be heard, giving a fascinating example from Borneo.  More worryingly he demonstrated several examples of animals falling silent in response to human noise, e.g. the response of a certain species of frog to low flying aircraft noise.  Bernard Berry then spoke about his work in assessing the health impacts of environmental noise and how these are assessed.  He showed evidence that there is a negative impact of environmental noise on human health, with cardiovascular disease implicated.

As a speech and language therapist with a keen interest in sounds, natural, human and musical I was fascinated by this talk.  A clear opinion from Bernie Krause which I happen to share is that many people are in denial about the negative impact environmental noise has on our health and wellbeing.  I certainly feel that we are passively accepting an increasing level of noise in our lives, to the extent that it is extremely rare to hear true silence, or even only natural sounds.  Bernard Berry reported that there are standards for manufacturers to reduce noise levels, but I wonder how aware we all are about the amount of noise we experience every day that we could actually reduce?  I want to rise to the challenge that Bernie Krause gave to all of us to get out into the field and record the natural world.

Then I went to "Brain Stimulation", sponsored by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and featuring neuroscientist Vincent Walsh (UCL) and ethicist Ilina Singh (Kings College).  Vincent first spoke, identifying four different types of brain stimulation:  The first form of stimulation, deep brain stimulation involves electrodes being implanted deep into the brain through the scalp.  This is typically used as a form of therapy, for example, to inhibit abnormal movements caused by Parkinsons Disease.  The second form, electroconvulsive therapy is infamous with highly negative associations, for example, with narratives such as the film "One Flew over the Cuckoo's nest.  It is reported to be, however, a highly effective form of therapy for severe, drug resistant depression.  The third form of stimulation is known as transcranial magnetic stimulation.  A device is held above the head and brain stimulation occurs through a magnetic field.  There is a growing body of evidence for the effectiveness of this, far less invasive form of stimulation for depression.  Fourth and finally, direct current stimulation describes a benign stimulation using very simple machines that have developed across the market.  In this particular field, there have been claims to improve memory, help people make moral choices and even see God.  There have been no proven benefits yet to support any of these claims, but a degree of hype has been created around the concept of brain stimulation.

Ilina then talked about exploring the ethics around brain stimulation research and product development. The drivers for developing an ethics board within the Nuffield Council for novel neurotechnologies were threefold; an increasing number of people are living with serious neurological and mental health disorders, pharmacological interventions have not been as successful as originally hoped, and new technologies are being developed, often outside of the usual regulatory frameworks for clinical interventions.  One particular ethical issue central to the development of novel neurotechnologies is the special status of the brain as being the organ that represents the very essence of who we believe ourselves to be.

Ilina also spoke about the hype associated with brain stimulation research with often unsubstantiated claims.  She and Vincent also raised concerns about society's tendencies to look for technological solutions to enhancement and for management of disorders such as ADHD and dementia, when often low tech every day life and environmental changes can provide the support people need.  Ilina highlighted that talks such as this were valuable in raising the awareness of a more balanced and objective view of brain stimulation.

I believe this talk was both cognisant of the exiting developments that are taking place in brain stimulation research and development, particularly for conditions such as depression, but was also firmly rooted in common sense and awareness of the ethics around this new area.

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