Los Angeles, California, United States. June 23, 2021: #FreeBritney rally at LA Downtown Grand Park during a conservatorship hearing for Britney Spears.

There’s More to Decision-Making Capacity than Cognitive Function

The Health Law, Policy, Bioethics, and Biotechnology Workshop provides a forum for discussion of new scholarship in these fields from the world’s leading experts. Though the Workshop is typically open to the public, it is not currently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many of our presenters will contribute blog posts summarizing their work, which we are happy to share here on Bill of Health.

By James Toomey

The doctrine of capacity is a mess.

From Britney Spears’s high-profile struggles to establish her own capacity to the countless, quiet challenges of so many older adults, the doctrine of capacity, which requires people to have the cognitive functioning to understand the nature and consequences of a decision in order for it to be recognized in law, is vague, normatively and medically challenging, and inconsistently applied.

This is a big deal — at stake in every capacity case is whether, on the one hand, an individual may access the legal rights most of us take for granted, to enter into contracts, buy or transfer property, or get married or divorced; or, on the other, whether the legal system will ratify a decision the “real person” never would have made.

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Washington, USA- January13, 2020: FDA Sign outside their headquarters in Washington. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA or USFDA) is a federal agency of the USA.

FDA Approves Aducanumab for Alzheimer’s Disease: An Unethical Decision?

By Beatrice Brown

On June 7, 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the accelerated approval of aducanumab (Aduhelm), a biologic manufactured by Biogen for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

The FDA’s decision, which went against the near-unanimous opinion of its own advisory committee following its meeting in November 2020, has been embroiled in controversy over whether the available evidence demonstrated benefits that outweigh the risks of the drug. Namely, questions remain whether: 1) the conflicting evidence from the two pivotal trials is sufficient to suggest clinical benefit worthy of approval; and 2) the surrogate measure used to justify its accelerated approval is actually correlated with clinical benefit.

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Hundred dollar bills rolled up in a pill bottle

Aducanumab: A Bitter Pill to Swallow

By Emily Largent

On June 7, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) used the Accelerated Approval pathway to approve aducanumab, which will go by the brand name Aduhelm, to treat patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Aducanumab, developed by Biogen, is the first novel therapy approved for AD since 2003. This news has left many experts stunned.

I have at least one colleague, Dr. Jason Karlawish, who has publicly stated that he will not prescribe aducanumab. Other clinicians have said they will only prescribe it reluctantly. These are individuals who have dedicated decades of their lives to treating patients with AD, to conducting path-breaking research and serving as investigators in clinical trials, and to advocating for public policies that will better serve AD patients and their families. Many have also seen their own families affected by AD. My colleagues are hardly indifferent to the suffering wrought by AD and would like to have a meaningful treatment to offer to patients and their families. But, they have concluded, aducanumab is not it.

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Senior citizen woman in wheelchair in a nursing home.

COVID-19 and Dementia Care: Lessons for the Future

By Marie Clouqueur, Brent P. Forester, and Ipsit V. Vahia

Alongside the COVID-19 epidemic in the U.S., the country faces another public health epidemic: dementia, and particularly Alzheimer’s disease.

Currently one in nine older adults in the U.S. — 6.2 million — have Alzheimer’s disease. The number of adults with Alzheimer’s in the U.S. will increase rapidly as the Baby Boomers age — it is expected to double by 2050.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation. Acute, surging demand for dementia care services will turn into a persistent problem if we do not increase our capacity for services and better support our frontline workers. We have a chance now to reflect and take action to prepare for what is coming.

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White jigsaw puzzle as a human brain on blue. Concept for Alzheimer's disease.

Detecting Dementia

Cross-posted, with slight modification, from Harvard Law Today, where it originally appeared on November 21, 2020. 

By Chloe Reichel

Experts gathered last month to discuss the ethical, social, and legal implications of technological advancements that facilitate the early detection of dementia.

“Detecting Dementia: Technology, Access, and the Law,” was hosted on Nov. 16 as part of the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience, a collaboration between the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.

The event, organized by Francis X. Shen ’06 Ph.D. ’08, the Petrie-Flom Center’s senior fellow in Law and Applied Neuroscience and executive director of the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital, was one of a series hosted by the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience on aging brains.

Early detection of dementia is a hopeful prospect for the treatment of patients, both because it may facilitate early medical intervention, as well as more robust advance care planning.

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Senior citizen woman in wheelchair in a nursing home.

Seniors’ Perspectives on Dementia and Decision-Making

By James Toomey

In order to make a decision recognized in law — to enter into or enforce a contract, buy or sell property, or get married or divorced — an individual must have the mental capacity the law requires for the decision. As people, especially older adults, develop dementia, their decision-making abilities are increasingly compromised, and the law begins to find that they lack capacity for particular decisions.

The standards governing capacity determinations, however, are notorious for being vague, inconsistently applied, and excessively curtailing the rights of those with dementia. Part of the problem, I think, is the lack of an agreed-upon normative theory for when in the course of dementia the law ought to intervene in individual decision-making. That is why, here on Bill of Health, I’ve previously called for understanding the perspectives of seniors — the population affected by the doctrine of capacity most closely and most often — on this normative question.

In my recent publication “Understanding the Perspectives of Seniors on Dementia and Decision-Making” in AJOB Empirical Bioethics, I’ve begun to do so, reporting the results of an empirical study that I conducted with the Petrie-Flom Student Fellowship in the 2018-19 academic year. The study, which involved an online survey of and interviews with older adults, revealed a heterogeneity of ways of thinking about the problem, supporting a flexible legal doctrine that would assist people in making their own choices. Notwithstanding the diversity, however, the data reveal several conclusions and tensions of interest to academics and healthcare and legal practitioners.

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Hastening Death to Avoid Prolonged Dementia

By Norman L. Cantor

The scourge of Alzheimer’s is daunting. For me, the specter of being mired in progressively degenerative dementia is an intolerably degrading prospect. One avoidance tactic — suicide while still competent — risks a premature demise while still enjoying a tolerable lifestyle.

The question arises whether an alternative tactic — an advance directive declining all life-sustaining intervention once a certain point of debilitation is reached — might be preferable as a device to avert a prolonged, unwanted limbo.

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Reflecting on Dementia and Democracy: America’s Aging Judges and Politicians

By Gali Katznelson

This month, the Petrie-Flom Center collaborated with the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior  to host a panel entitled Dementia and Democracy: America’s Aging Judges and Politicians.” The panelists, Bruce Price, MD, Francis X. Shen, JD, PhD, and Rebecca Brendel, JD, MD, elucidated the problems, as well as potential solutions, to the challenges of America’s judiciary and elected politicians getting older. Reconciling dementia with democracy is a pressing matter. As Dr. Price explained, age is the single largest risk factor for dementia, a risk that doubles every five years after the age of 65, and America is a country with five of the nine Supreme Court Justices over the age of 67, a 71-year-old president, a 75-year-old Senate Majority Leader, and a 77-year-old House Minority Leader.

In his talk “Dementia in Judges and Elected Officials: Challenges and Solutions,” Dr. Shen defined the complex problem. While most other jobs are not retaining workers into old age, many judges and elected officials continue to serve well into their 80s. To complicate matters further, without widespread regulations or metrics to identify how dementia impedes one’s work, the media assumes the position of speculating the cognitive statuses and fates of judges and elected officials. Dr. Shen’s key point was, “Surely we can do better than speculation.”

Dr. Shen proposed several solutions to address dementia in elected officials and judges. Currently, we leave the open market and colleagues to regulate individuals, which remains a valid approach as we consider other options. Another default position is to diagnose based on publicly available data, a solution that introduces the specific ethical concerns that Dr. Brendel addressed in her talk (discussed below). There are, however, novel solutions. We could consider requiring cognitive testing and disclosure (which could be overseen by an internal review board), or we could simply impose an age limit for service. For judges, if such an age limit were imposed, we could create a rebuttable presumption in which a judge can continue to serve by completing an evaluation. Alternatively, perhaps judges can be limited to adjudicating specific cases based on their cognitive status.

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Biomarker Epistemology, Cognitive Decline, and Alzheimer’s Disease

By Matthew L Baum

This past Sunday, a group of researchers reported in the journal, Nature Medicine, a preliminary technique that uses variation in blood levels of 10 fats to predict the likelihood that elderly individuals would develop mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or Alzheimer’s Disease in the following 2-3 years. The sample size was small and the results may not generalize beyond the narrow age-range and demographics of the study group (i.e. the assay is far from ready for “prime time”), but the study is an important first step towards a lower cost (vs PET imaging) and less invasive (vs spinal tap) predictive biomarker of cognitive decline*. Its publication has also triggered a flurry of discussion on possible ethical ramifications of this sort of blood biomarker. I will not attempt to address these ethical issues specifically here. Rather, I seek to highlight that how ethically troubling one views the technology to be may depend partly on the sort of knowledge one thinks these biomarkers reveal (applied epistemology at its best).

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