2019 Annual Meeting
Chicago, IL, USA
October 17-18

Interview With Matthew Baum

Neurotechnology produces a better diagnosis, but what are the ethical implications for people with mental illness?

Matthew Baum is an MD-PhD student at Harvard Medical School. He graduated from the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology department at Yale University, then studied neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland and completed a D.Phil. in neuroethics at the University of Oxford in the U.K. He completed the PhD Program in Neuroscience at Harvard University where he investigated neural–immune interactions in the development of psychiatric disease and is now finishing his medical training with a plan to specialize in psychiatry. Baum will be giving the opening lecture at the 2019 INS Annual Meeting on Thursday morning, October 17.

Image of Matthew L. Baum

What is your field of research?

I am studying mental health and the medicine and science associated with it. I am finishing my clinical training in medical school where I am focused on psychiatry. I did my PhD investigating the role of immune molecules in schizophrenia, and I am hoping to unite this with a clinical focus around the immune system and mental health.

It's a new area and we are learning that molecules in the immune system sometimes get dysregulated and affect the brain, which in turn can influence mental illness. For example, we are learning that a tumor in a completely different part of the body can sometimes secrete antibodies that affect brain function in a way that produces psychosis and looks a lot like new-onset schizophrenia. The field has thought for a long time that the biology of schizophrenia and other psychiatric illnesses is likely to be highly diverse, so now we can ask how often does disruption of the immune system lead to symptoms we define as a particular kind of psychiatric illness? The neuroethics I am fascinated by is in how neurotechnology and biomarkers converge with the clinical sphere of psychiatry and neurology.

What will your lecture be about?

I will be talking about the neuroethics of biomarkers, that is, how variations in genes, molecules in the blood, and anything you can measure can predict things like cognitive decline and psychotic episodes. I will also discuss what obligations there are, and on whom, for this predictive technology in medicine and law.

What are the main neuroethical issues in biomarkers for brain disorders?

I'll give you an example that would apply in law. When a person has a seizure that could harm someone else — say through a road accident — the person who has the seizure can be excused because they didn't know it was going to happen. But if he or she knows they are at risk of a seizure yet chooses to drive at that time and has a seizure, the responsibility falls on that driver. So we have to work out how our responsibility is affected by big data techniques that can, with a handful of biomarkers, in one fell swoop notify us of not just one, but hundreds of different biological risks; risks such as a heart attack, stroke, or even lack of attention. And if we choose not to gain that information, is our ignorance culpable or excusable?

What got you interested in neuroethics?

When I was training in basic neuroscience and then later at medical school, I saw how many philosophical and ethical complications this new knowledge of the brain could produce. Just because people are at high risk of a psychotic episode, do they actually have a mental illness? How do we decide whether something should be considered a mental illness? I wanted to approach these sort of questions with the same sort of rigor as in the science that provoked them.

As a previous student representative of the INS, why is it so important for young scholars to be involved with neuroethics?

Younger people are on the front line in neuroscience, medicine, philosophy, and the law. By virtue of that experience, young people can bring real value to the field of neuroethics. Also, most scholars in neuroethics have transitioned into it laterally from one of the associated disciplines like law or science. But for young people, in addition to that traditional path, there is potential for their real insight growing into the field (as a primary interdisciplinary pursuit), rather than transitioning laterally into it.

What are you most excited about at the annual meeting?

Most exciting for me is the informal conversations between lectures and in front of posters — the bubbling up of new ideas in an environment of shared interest. At our individual institutions, one may go a long time before finding someone with similar interests in neuroethics.


Mapping Neuroethics: An Expanded Vision

The 2019 Annual Meeting of the International Neuroethics Society (INS) will gather a diverse group of scholars, scientists, clinicians, and professionals dedicated to the responsible use of advances in brain science. Attendees will participate in intellectually stimulating and dynamic sessions that will explore neuroethics in a global context.

Discounted registration rates are available until September 20.

Meeting Program