Neuroethics and the BRAIN Initiative

brain-initiative-neuroethicsNeuroscience “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.

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Progress in BRAIN Initiative Research

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President Barack Obama fist-bumps the robotic arm of Nathan Copeland during a tour at the White House Frontiers Conference at the University of Pittsburgh, Oct. 13, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In the less than three years since the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative was announced, researchers have made measurable progress towards creating new tools and sharpening existing ones to study the brain. Though its goals are long-term, in a few cases this progress already has shown promise in helping people.

These tools “allow us to do things that, in the past, were unimaginable,” said Nora Volkow of the National Institute of Drug Abuse during the third annual BRAIN Initiative investigators meeting, held in Bethesda, Md., this week. For example, imaging tech such as fMRI and PET have enabled us to make maps of brain activity and create a brain atlas of the concentration of serotonin transporters and receptors. But to reach goals as ambitious as characterizing the many types of neurons and other cells in the brain—or even to get a good count of how many types there are—we need to improve both the speed and the resolution of our tools.

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The Ethics of Emerging Technologies

Large crowd for the event, which was open to the public.

Large crowd for the event, which was open to the public.

At last night’s International Neuroethics Society public program, we heard from eight speakers on the ethics of emerging technologies, addressing the potential benefits and risks they raise when applied to health care.

Kate Darling, a specialist in human-robot interaction at MIT, talked about her experience with robots and her hopes and concerns for mainstream integration. She opened her presentation with a personal story from 2007, when she became the owner of a baby dinosaur robot, the size of a small cat, that responded to touch. She would often show it off to friends, demonstrating how it cried when she held it upside down. After a while, though, Darling began to notice that it upset her to hear it cry.

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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.”

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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.

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Dana Grantee Aims to Offer a More Personalized Treatment for Depression

DrEtkin_Jan2013_8880_5x7eIn an effort to create a more personalized approach to treating depression and to better understand its underlying circuitry, Amit Etkin of Stanford University is studying the use
of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) in combination with whole-brain EEG and functional MRI. According to Etkin:

By stimulating brain activity and assessing circuit-level changes as they happen, we can garner important insight into what is wrong in depression and how to fix it in an optimized, personalized matter.

I’ll give you one concrete example: It matters whether stimulation is done to an area in the patient’s brain that is abnormal or normal. For any treatment in any psychiatric disorder, we don’t actually know whether the goal of treatment is to normalize abnormal brain activity or to engage compensatory circuitry. It’s a fundamental question that we cannot answer without a direct tool for manipulating brain systems and assessing the effects.

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