From the Archives: Neuroethics

The field of neuroethics has come a long way fast. This month, as part of the 2013 federal BRAIN Initiative, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released its first report, Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society. Only a dozen years ago, more than 150 scientists, philosophers, lawyers, and other policy experts were meeting in San Francisco at the first formal conference to “project the boundaries, define the issues, and raise the initial questions appropriate to a field that probes the ethical implications of advances in brain science.”

The Dana Foundation sponsored that meeting, titled “Neuroethics: Mapping the Field”; we published the conference proceedings in book form and also published excerpts in our Cerebrum journal. This is where our president at the time, the late William Safire, proposed the working definition of neuroethics: “the examination of what is right and wrong, good and bad about the treatment of, perfection of, or unwelcome invasion of and worrisome manipulation of the human brain.” (The word itself is said to have been coined by the Harvard physician Anneliese A. Pontius, who used it in a paper title in 1973.) From Safire’s introduction to the conference:

Neuroethics in my lexicon is a distinct portion of bioethics, which is the consideration of good and bad consequences in medical practice and biological research. But the specific ethics of brain science hits home as no other research does in any other organ. It deals with our consciousness, our sense of self, and as such is central to our being. What distinguishes us from each other, beyond our looks? The answer: our personalities and behavior. And these are the characteristics that brain science will soon have the ability to change in significant ways.  …

When we examine and manipulate the brain, unlike the liver or the pancreas—whether for research or treatment of disease, or for more sinister personal or political ends—when we do this, we change people’s lives in the most personal and powerful way. The misuse, or abuse, or failure to make the most of this power raises ethical challenges unique to neuroscience.

What’s more, neuroscientists have a built-in conflict of interest that sets them apart from all other ethicists. Everybody’s brain has a personal, selfish interest in the study of the brain. It is the ultimate in self-dealing. Won’t a human brain tend to do what’s best for itself and take charge and take chances, plunging ahead to treat or improve the brain, as the brain might not do for the same body’s liver? In that regard, we know that our ethical sense arises from the brain. To stretch a point, one day imaging might find right underneath the emotion of fear in the almond-shaped amygdala, a conglomeration of neurons acting as a conscience. The discoverer could shrink it, drug it, remove it, manipulate it in any which way, but how would this affect his or her decisions afterward? In possession of this power, how will we define and protect the integrity of our ability to judge morally and conduct ourselves ethically? …

The Foundation has tracked the progress of neuroethics research and discussion since, including a Cerebrum essay two years later by Dana Alliance member Martha J. Farah, “Neuroethics: A Guide for the Perplexed”:

The practical and metaphysical issues of neuroethics differ in terms of the immediacy and concreteness of the ethical problems raised, but even the issues classified as metaphysical have clear implications for society.

For example, just as the classical bioethical issues of neuroethics have useful precedents from other areas of biomedical research, so, too, are helpful precedents to be found for the distinctive neuroethical issues I described, although the correspondences and analogies may be less exact. Similarly, the practical and metaphysical issues of neuroethics differ in terms of the immediacy and concreteness of the ethical problems raised, but even the issues classified as metaphysical have clear implications for society. For example, our laws and mores are based on an understanding of why humans behave for good or ill, and the thoroughly materialist account of behavior offered by neuroscience will undoubtedly influence our legal systems and social norms. Similarly, the existence of an immaterial soul is a matter of religious belief that, like the origin of the human species, has the potential to divide society and incite conflict. Everything we can do to “think well” about all these dilemmas—classical, practical, and metaphysical—will help us reduce their divisive potential in our lives as individuals and as a society.

In 2007, our annual Progress Report included a review of neuroscience research and also an essay by Dana Alliance member and Dana Foundation Board member Steven Hyman, “Neuroethics at Age 5”:

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. …

This nascent society is hardly alone in bringing attention to the field. The American Association for the Advancement of Science has regularly featured neuroethics topics at its meetings. The Society for Neuroscience has featured a neuroethics lecture at its yearly conference since 2003 and has had three symposia on neuroethics, including one in October 2006 that focused on a wide range of international issues, from researchers educating volunteers and communities in poorer countries to wealthier governments formulating ethical guidelines as brain research progresses. This year the Cognitive Neuroscience Society and the Association for Psychological Science will feature symposia on neuroethics. The Wellcome Trust Bioethics Summer School has focused on neuroethics for the past two years. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is planning a symposium on the use of neuroimaging in lie detection for early 2007.

The International Neuroethics Society held its first annual meeting in 2008, just before the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. We attended and blogged about it, and also did Q&As with some of the speakers: Dr. Hyman (“What is Neuroethics?”); Dr. Farah (“The Business of Neurotech”); Hank Greely (“The Ethics of Forensic Neuroscience”); and Dana Alliance member Judy Illes (“Incidental Findings”). Here’s a bit from Dr. Illes’s piece:

In the clinical environment, when we have medical findings that occur apart from what the physician is looking for clinically, there is a duty to report that to the patient. But when we began our research, there was no such protocol or professional guideline for knowing what to do with this kind of discovery in the research setting.

We began by rigorously trying to understand the nature of this challenge—how often are these things identified, how significant are they (that is, how many are medically significant), how are different laboratories dealing with them, was there an accepted standard or were people just winging it, and what participants themselves expect in terms of being informed about these findings.

Then I brought together an interdisciplinary group of people for a consensus meeting to see if we could establish a first pass of recommendations for people to adopt and for laboratories to adopt.

We continue to attend each annual meeting for blogs and interviews; the debate is always lively and the questions critical. Its next annual meeting is Nov. 13–14 in Washington, DC.

In addition to Neuroethics: Mapping the Field, many of the books published under the Dana Press imprint cover topics in ethics: The Ethical Brain by Michael Gazzaniga (2005, new edition by Harper in 2006); Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military by Jonathan Moreno (2006, new edition by Bellevue in 2012); Neuroscience and the Law edited by Brent Garland (2004); The Neuroscience of Fair Play by Donald Pfaff (2007); and Defining Right and Wrong in Brain Science: Essential Readings in Neuroethics edited by Walter Glannon (2007).

—Nicky Penttila

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