Neuroethics Interviews: A Science that Opens Your Mind

September 5, 2017
Rémi Quirion

The following interview was first published in the International Neuroethics Society newsletter.

Rémi Quirion, the first Chief Scientist of Québec, will give a plenary lecture at the 2017 Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. His research lies in the field of neuropharmacology, specifically in relation to aging and neurological diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

How did you become interested in or involved with this type of research?

My research lab was based in a mental health hospital. There I was surrounded by many people suffering from various types of mental illnesses and neurological disease, so it familiarized me with different issues related to mental health and exposed me to the line between neuroscience and ethics, which I sought to understand more and more in the treatment of mental illnesses.

With this background, how do you see modern healthcare delivery being impacted by the neuroethics community?

I think neuroethics kind of exists because of particular issues related to brain disorders and neurological disease, which aren’t as straightforward as other types of disease like cancer or hypertension. Due to their inherent broadness, both neuroethics and mental health had challenging beginnings and required a different kind of practical and conceptual model.

For example, in cases of schizophrenia, psychosis, and dementia, the patient is placed at the very center of the process. He or she is the expert and there is a group of scientists, psychiatrists, neurologists, social scientists, social workers, and rehab persons around him or her. Instead of having the experts say “We know what’s best for you,” the treatment model changes a bit. All of us are a team working to support the patient.

Likewise, in neuroethics, you need teams of experts and the input of various individuals who may not be as needed in other disciplines. Nowadays, we call this model, in cancer and cardiovascular disease, personalized or precision medicine, but it’s kind of dated from a long time back. It’s always been precision medicine in mental health and neuroscience. The treatment model of mental health became a way of thinking for most of us doing brain research.

How can attending the INS Annual Meeting advance one’s research?

I think it’s critical to open your mind, in a sense, to be exposed to others who may ask the question a bit differently from you. Let’s say you want to find a new treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Of course, you think of the patient, but you also consider the types of impact the disease may have on the family and society. When you attend a meeting like the INS, you’re exposed to different types of experts who make sure that you’re quite open about the type of research you’re doing.

What will you be talking about in your plenary lecture at this year’s meeting?

I will basically go back to the beginning of the establishment of the [International Neuroethics] Society and try to summarize the progress that we have made over the past decade and where we stand now. Fifteen to twenty years ago, very, very few people were interested in the field of neuroethics, but now we have the rising field of neurotechnology, specifically brain imaging. Over the past 30 years, this has become a technology that is widely used in many parts of the world and of course that came with ethical issues such as misuse in courts. Brain imaging is a fabulous tool but at the same time these issues related to it made neuroethics very useful.

Where do you see the direction of neuroethics and mental health heading?

I think mental health and neuroethics will become more and more global as it continues to evolve. There will be more personalized treatment, that’s one piece, but the other piece is the technology—implanting various types of gizmos and electrodes, improving learning capacity, and artificial intelligence combined with human intelligence — that will be another area that brings ethical challenges related to patients, families, and also with society.