Neuroethics Seminar Series: Seeing Consciousness

shutterstock_221470261How is new technology helping us gain a better understanding of consciousness in patients with severe brain damage? If a patient is unable to communicate or even blink, does that mean he or she is completely unaware? At what point should the intentions stated in a living will be determined by the patient’s family or surrogate?

These questions were among the issues discussed at Harvard Medical School’s most recent neuroethics seminar, titled “Seeing Consciousness: The Promise and Perils of Brain Imaging in Disorders of Consciousness.” The school’s  Center for Bioethics invited Joseph Giacino, Ph.D., director of Rehabilitation Neuropsychology at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital; Joseph Fins, M.D., chief of the Division of Medical Ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College; and James Bernat, M.D., Louis and Ruth Frank Professor of Neuroscience at The Dartmouth Institute to share the stage and give a brief talk for its Neuroethics Seminar Series.

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Mental Health Disorders in Prison: Neuroethical and Societal Issues

Guest post by Barbara Sahakian, FMedSci, DSc, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, and president of the International Neuroethics Society.

INS LogoMore than half of all prison and jail inmates have a mental health problem.[i] In addition, according to a 2010 report released by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs’ Association,[ii] more mentally ill persons are in jails and prisons than in hospitals, and many of those remain untreated. Those in prison have a higher risk of substance abuse, and suicide rates are four to five times higher than within the general population.[iii] Deaths are also increased upon release, with the most common reasons being drug overdose, cardiovascular disease, homicide, and suicide.[iv]

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Sir Colin Blakemore and the Importance of Neuroethics

The International Neuroethics Society (INS) defines neuroethics as “a field that studies the implications of neuroscience for human self-understanding, ethics and policy.” Though it is oftentimes the subject of controversy, the field is crucial for understanding the significance of science and personal responsibility, and it’s also something that is vital to all criminal justice systems. Among the many advocates for responsible neuroscience, the University of London’s Sir Colin Blakemore was recently invited to speak at the International Brain Research Organization’s (IBRO) global congress to address this topic.

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Neuroscience and Human Rights

Can human rights principles and neuroethics become more integrated in future discourse?

During the final panel of the International Neuroethics Society (INS) annual meeting, moderator Stephen Marks, from the Harvard School of Public Health, noted the absence of the human rights framework from key literature in the neuroethics field, and challenged the panelists to address this gap and identify areas where neuroscience and human rights overlap.

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Robots as Soldiers and Caretakers

INS Robots in Society

L to R: Ronald C. Arkin, Goldie Nejat, and INS President Barbara Sahakian

The International Neuroethics Society opened its annual meeting last night at AAAS in DC with a thought-provoking public program on robots in society. Though the title conjures up images from the Terminator movies (at least for me), the two speakers avoided wading too far into a futuristic, science fiction universe, and instead focused on the impact of robots in warfare and healthcare, and the ethical considerations involved.

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