Debating the ethics of neuroscience

Along with some 30,000 brain scientists, I’m heading to San Diego at the end of this week for the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting (SfN); five days of posters, presentations, and conversation about cutting-edge science. But first, on Friday, I’m going to hear what our progress in science might mean morally at the one-day annual meeting of the Neuroethics Society, also in San Diego.

At the society’s last meeting, in 2008 in Washington, DC, I heard some thought-provoking discussions on topics including the potentials and dangers of neurotechnologies, how far we are from truth-detecting via brain imaging, and what it means to label a child mentally ill (see posts from that meeting). The focus was on what questions to ask and how to frame debates on matters of ethics in neuroscience.

This time, it looks like the focus will be on getting the message out, with sessions called “Setting the Agenda for Global Brain Health and Neuroethics” and a keynote address by Tom Insel, a Dana Alliance member and chief of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, titled “Grand Challenges in Global Mental Health.” Fellow Dana Alliance member Patricia Churchland will give the opening address, on “What Role do Rules Play in Navigating the Social World?” Other speakers include Alliance members Judy Illes, Steve Hyman, and Martha Farah, as well as Gonul Peker, Wayne Hall, George Koob, Adrian Carter, Kathleen Michels, Adriani Gini, and Elana Brief.

One speaker, researcher Gladys Maestre, also spoke at the first SfN I attended, in Atlanta in 2006, on the challenges of global neuroscience, including convincing people that Alzheimer’s is not just a disease of rich Western countries (see story). She is running a longitudinal study of aging populations in Maracaibo, Venezuela, and it will be interesting to hear how she and her colleagues are meeting the challenges now, four years on.

We’ll post a story on the meeting in the coming month, but you can listen to podcasts from the 2008 event now, available on the Neuroethics Society’s website.

–Nicky Penttila

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