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The more we learn about how to change our brains and those of others, the more we need to think about what those changes mean to us, to the people we interact with and to the larger communities we live in. Rather than wait until a new drug or device changes everything, we should consider in advance what the effects of such a drug or device might be, and how we think and feel about that. Many of the questions we might ask come under the umbrella of neuroethics.
What is neuroethics?
Neuroethics asks two main types of questions: (1) How do scientists conduct neuroscience research in a responsible and ethical way, making sure we respect research participants and their contributions while producing research advances that improve the well-being of their users? And (2) As we learn more about our brains and consequently ourselves, how does that change the way all of us think about what it means to be human, and whether that means we should change the systems (legal, political, cultural) we live in? The first question is often referred to as “the ethics of neuroscience”; the second, “the neuroscience of ethics.”
The field of neuroethics—like its definition—is a work in progress. This is the perfect time to be talking with one another about what we want to do for and with our brains, and how we can practice brain science in a way that creates a better future for everyone. Part of the discussion is to decide together what values should guide us in the face of these discoveries and new technologies: What should our collective future look like?
For example, how do you feel about the idea of someone “reading” your mood or your thoughts? Do you feel cozy and connected, worried about being judged, curious about how it affects the moods and thoughts of others, or something else?
What scientists and researchers who study the brain and behavior are learning can be translated into positive change for societies and for individual people, but it also could be harmful. Who will make these decisions? Who could enforce those decisions? Will it be different depending on where in the world a person lives? How can you make your voice heard? How can you find out more?
Here are a few current areas where society affects neuroscience and neuroscience affects society:
Considering brain imaging
Today, brain imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can help scientists measure brain activity in a general way, seeing which areas are active when people perform different mental tasks. Some scientists and engineers think brain scans, sometime in the future, could be used to better understand emotions and desires—or even detect lies. As brain scanning techniques become more advanced, marketing agencies may want to use them to see how you really feel about a political candidate or to test out different ways to influence your shopping decisions. Crime investigators may want to use it to check your alibi or even test your potential to do harm. Everyone in a community needs a voice in how and where, exactly, brain scans should be used.
As we discover more about what is happening in the brain as we learn, we can use those discoveries to improve classroom instruction and other learning activities. A deeper understanding of the biology underlying the brain’s memory or motivation systems, for example, could help shape training for teachers or specific assignments for students. It also could influence the development of new educational policies that might unwittingly help some students at the expense of others.
For example, if some type of brain scan could predict performance, separating high-performing students from lower-performing students, would schools use the scans to select high-scoring students for more advanced enrichment programs, leaving other students, who might not have developed as quickly but still have the innate ability, with less? As we learn more about how the brain develops and what neural processes underlie learning, it is important that our knowledge be used to help the majority of students, not just a rare few, and to reduce social inequities rather than reinforcing them.
Scientists are hard at work developing drugs, brain-machine interfaces, and brain implants to help people cope with specific medical conditions. But these treatments could also give a boost to people who don’t have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, or a missing limb. As these brain-modifying devices and drugs become more commonplace, there may be opportunities for people without medical conditions to use them to help focus on final exams, cheer up after a bad break-up, or enhance their athletic performance. How do we decide who gets access to neuroenhancements? Should it be limited to those who can afford them, to those who have a medically defined need for them, or in some other way? Most important: who will decide who has access and why?
Considering biological models
Many scientists are using induced pluripotent stem cells (generated from a person’s blood or skin sample) to help them study neural function and disease. Some rely on new research models such as brain organoids, tiny clumps of neural tissue that can grow in a lab dish, or transplants, putting human neural cells into the brains of animals. (see Understanding New Brain Research Models). Although the use of these more advanced biological models has many overlapping ethical issues with other areas of science and technology, it also raises questions specific to neuroethics.
For example, did the people who volunteered to donate the skin cells used to make iPSCs know they would be used to make brain tissues—would they consider that different than using them to make liver or muscle tissue? What if their cells are used by researchers who will later make a profit on their discoveries? Also, what happens if chimeras (animals that have had human brain cells transplanted into them) gain new intellectual abilities or develop painful symptoms of the diseases that scientists are trying to understand?
While such questions may seem far-fetched given the limitations of today’s biological models, as the models become more sophisticated, they may not be. It’s critical that scientists, doctors, policy makers, lawyers, ethicists, all of us, consider them now.
Considering research participation
Today, many people with brain-based diseases agree to participate in clinical research studies to help determine whether a new drug or device is safe and effective. But many of those same people may find themselves unable to gain access to the product once it is approved for use, due to price, location, or other issues. For example, when people with life-threatening depression volunteer to join DBS research projects, they allow surgeons to open their skulls and insert wires and a deep-brain-stimulating device. With the device turned on, some of the volunteers find they can manage their mood and return to daily living.
But what happens after the project ends? Should the device be turned off, if it is helping people? Who should pay the high costs of maintaining it (including replacing old batteries)? Some medical insurance doesn’t cover experimental devices; should it? While there have long been ethical concerns about ensuring that participants truly understand the risks involved with research studies, some are now arguing that participants should also be given continued access to any treatment or intervention that they helped to develop.
Find out more:
The Fast-Moving Neuroprosthetics Frontier – 2022 column by Philip Boffey
Wearable Brain Devices: Buyer Beware – 2019 Dana article
How Brain Machine Interfaces Engage Neural Plasticity – 2017 Dana article
Neuroethics: Mapping the Field – 2002 Dana story about the conference that year establishing “neuroethics” as a field
The First Neuroethics Meeting: Then and Now – In 2017, 3 scientists revisited the 2002 conference and how far neuroethics has come
Neuroethics for the New Millenium – Short commentary in Neuron by Adina Roskies exploring the definition of neuroethics. (a basis for our definition, above)
Ethical, Legal, and Regulatory Issues Associated with Neural Chimeras and Organoids – Report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine
List of Educational Resources – hosted by the International Neuroethics Society
Neuroethics: A Journal – published by Springer