Precisely because the brain lies at the center of our humanity and most valued capacities, brain diseases are particularly devastating and thus a focus of intense research efforts. While science is hard at work to defeat some of the cruelest conditions that afflict humankind, it is also providing important insights into human thought, emotion, and behavior, in health as well as illness. However, new technologies that permit us to observe the workings of the human brain and to influence its function also raise critical ethical and policy questions.
Advances in brain imaging have brought us closer to a time when we can make diagnoses objectively that today must rely on clinical observation alone. Advances in genetics and molecular biology give us hope that treatments can be developed, perhaps within a decade, that will slow the progress of neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
Along with genetics, advances in cognitive and social neuroscience suggest new approaches to schizophrenia and autism, with the goal of returning people to full heath and functioning. Progress at the interface of neuroscience with engineering points to a time when interactions between brain and computer will give meaningful motor control back to victims of paralysis. Early experiments with deep brain stimulation suggest that when we understand brain circuitry well enough, we may be able to better treat depression, anxiety disorders, and other ills affecting emotion and cognition.
Progress against diseases of the brain is and ought to be a central goal for our society. Progress will be hard-won because brains are so complex and because the highest levels of human cognition, for example, are not readily modeled in animals. But how to move more effectively against disease, how to engage the brightest young minds in the task, and how to give them the necessary tools are not the only challenges we face.
This year is the second time the Dana Alliance’s Progress Report on Brain Research has highlighted neuroethics (the first time was in 2003). Members of the Alliance have become deeply involved in writing and speaking on the ethical challenges that emerge from brain science. These concerns, emanating from the study of brain, behavior, and mental life, had been treated piecemeal in diverse venues, often in narrow communities of scientists, ethicists, and other scholars. A broad and lasting commitment to the questions that have been brought together under the term “neuroethics” was crystallized in a conference sponsored by the Dana Foundation in San Francisco entitled, “Neuroethics: Mapping the Field.”
Since that meeting in May 2002, a growing number of meetings, papers, and books have nurtured a vibrant interdisciplinary field with contributions from a diverse community that includes, among others, scientists, philosophers, physicians, lawyers, sociologists, political scientists, and policy makers. Given the growing interest, a group met in Asilomar, California, in May 2006 and decided to found a Neuroethics Society (www.neuroethicssociety.org).