Neuroscience “is the science that is going to change the way people live, die, and think about themselves,” said Stanford Law professor Hank Greely during the third annual BRAIN Initiative investigators meeting, held in Bethesda, Md., last week. Research into the workings of the brain raises many ethical questions, some common to bioethics and others—such as questions of agency, consciousness, and identity—that are unique to the brain and central nervous system.
Neuroethics has been mentioned from the first public announcement of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative in 2013; a BRAINI workgroup is devoted to the topic. It is one of nine BRAIN Initiative priority funding areas for the coming fiscal year (grant info). At this meeting, a regular session was devoted to the topic, featuring five of the members of the workgroup, and it also came up in other sessions.
“What we produce we want to benefit society,” said Walter Koroshetz of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (and a member of the Dana Alliance) at the meeting. “We want to make sure ethical principles govern the research going forward.”
“As we develop technologies to intervene in the circuits of people, and to monitor circuit activity, we’re entering new areas and need to consider their ethical implications,” he said. “What often derails the science is often an ethical problem that comes up, sometimes unexpected, sometimes un-prepared-for.”
For example, offered Greely, “If you’re controlling [a patient’s] brain in a way that keeps them from having seizures, that is beneficent… but if you’re controlling their brain to get them to vote for a certain candidate,” then maybe not. And if scientists don’t explain clearly what they’re doing, to patients and to the public, others will do it for them.
Panelist and NIH workgroup member Khara Ramos said people already have images, often negative, from movies and books that treat “mind control” and other subjects. “We’re not communicating onto a blank slate,” she said. On the other hand, suggested researcher Winston Chiong of UCSF, stories from science fiction could challenge researchers to answer questions they hadn’t yet considered.
As a field, neuroscience should create a code of conduct, suggested Rafael Yuste, a researcher at Columbia University and a workgroup member. “We’re at a moment when it’s a good time to think about creating those guidelines,” he said. “That’s something that’s missing in the BRAIN Initiative” and also the field in general. Perhaps the code could be modeled on the one used in medicine, considering medicine as technology that affects the body. Perhaps it could update and build from the Belmond Report, published in 1979 as advice on protecting human subjects of research.
Stanford and another dozen universities offer researchers and other interested groups advice via clinical ethics collaboratives, and the BRAINI workgroup has advised one research group (confidentially) and is open to helping others. For general help, panelists recommended reports from the workgroup and from the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. The European Human Brain Project also has resources on neuroethics, as does as the International Neuroethics Society.
“Ask for help and advice,” Greely suggested to the researchers in the audience. “It’s a complicated world. The human brain is complicated. The only thing more complicated is the society that 7.3 billion brains have created.”
– Nicky Penttila