The Ethics of Genetic Technologies

On Thursday, Dana Alliance member Steven E. Hyman helped the International Neuroethics Society (INS) kick off its annual meeting in San Diego. INS President and fellow Dana Alliance member Judy Illes welcomed attendees and introduced Hyman, who opened the program with his presentation titled, “Emerging Genetics of Human Cognition and Behavior: New Challenges for Ethics and Policy.”


Steven Hyman, M.D.

“Scientists always knew that genetics would help us,” he began, “but the trouble was that it is fiendishly complex, and the technology was, at the time, unavailable…I truly didn’t expect to live long enough to see [it] develop.”

With the commencement of the Human Genome Project, technologies were suddenly available that allowed scientists to yield information crucial to the sequencing and mapping of all genes. In that same decade, he commented, the BRAIN Initiative and stem cell technologies were also developed, adding another feat to neuroscience research. With this, Hyman said, it suddenly became possible to fundamentally try to understand schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other nervous system diseases, such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and so on.

Hyman also considered the ethics of studying diseases and the potential controversies of emerging genetic technologies being misapplied when straying into the “off-limits” topic of phenotypes. (A phenotype is an individual’s set of observable characteristics that results from the interaction of its genotype with the environment. e.g., cognitive ability, educational attainment) “We have to build ethics in [neuroscience investigations] right from the very beginning because we’re now increasingly able to touch on aspects of our humanity scientifically that we have to be very careful to think about and not misuse what we’re learning,” he said.

Emphasizing that the goals of medical genetics are to understand disease biology with a view to treatment, Hyman cautioned that if results are poorly understood outside of the genetics community, that knowledge can be misapplied in harmful ways. He often used schizophrenia as an example of a mental illness that researchers have been able to better understand because of such technological advancements. He added that our understanding has progressed because the schizophrenia community has been able to collaborate through trust and share data about the disease.

He left the audience with a few questions to consider when thinking about the ethics of the emerging technologies: “How will this all be used or misused?” and “What are we learning about how our different cognitive, personal, and emotional styles are encoded in our genomes?”

Hyman is the founding president of INS, currently serves as the president of the Society for Neuroscience, and is on the executive committee of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. For more on Hyman’s research on neuroethics, read our article, “Will Neuroscience and Law Collide?” Stay tuned for more articles on lectures and events happening from the 2016 Annual INS Meeting, as well as the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting, here in San Diego.

– Seimi Rurup


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