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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Ethics in Practice: DBS for Depression

new-ins-logo“When I am depressed, everything—standing, stepping, speaking, moving, pursuing a train of thought—gets hung up on that loop…that ends up feeling like paralysis. I can’t. I want to. I can’t. If I finally do break free, my sense of self gets left behind. It’s as if momentum comes at the cost of identity.”

Neuroscientist Helen Mayberg gave this quote, from an anonymous patient trying to describe what life was like before her depression was treated with deep brain stimulation (DBS), at the final session of the 2016 International Neuroethics Society (INS) meeting, in San Diego on Friday. Mayberg was one of three panelists offering the audience different perspectives of using the experimental and invasive implantation (it requires surgery deep into the brain) for depression. Philosopher Sarah Goering spoke about the ethical concerns from patients who utilize DBS devices, and neuroscience writer Mo Costandi discussed how DBS is represented in mass media.

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Competing Perspectives in Neuroethics

new-ins-logoThe Friday morning panel at the International Neuroethics Society (INS) annual meeting invited four speakers from four backgrounds–medicine, law, social sciences, and philosophy–to discuss the competing perspectives in neuroethics. Each panelist gave a short presentation on how their discipline approaches neuroethics, but the heart of the discussion came in the question and answer session with the audience where they delved into the opportunities and pitfalls of having such a highly diverse field.

Because it’s a relatively new field with impressive disciplinary diversity, there is no defined career path for a neuroethicist. A graduate student looking to pursue a neuroethics career earnestly asked the panel how he should do so, since many established in the field had rather circuitous paths to the profession.

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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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Tomorrow’s World Today: The 2016 International Neuroethics Society Meeting

Guest blog by Moheb Costandi.

am16-square-regearlyIn November, some of the world’s leading bioethicists and neuroscientists will convene in San Diego for the annual meeting of the International Neuroethics Society (INS).

The 2016 meeting marks the tenth anniversary of the INS. In that time, we have seen unprecedented advances in neuroscience and, consequently, a plethora of new technologies developed to further our understanding of the brain, and to fix it when it goes wrong, have emerged.

Even so, our understanding of this complex organ is far from complete. We still know very little about the causes of Alzheimer’s disease, for example, and it is widely believed that the incidence of this debilitating neurodegenerative condition will reach epidemic proportions in the years to come. Similarly, the global burden of mental health issues is expected to grow, and has been projected to affect 15% of the world’s population by the year 2020–disabling more people than AIDS, heart disease, traffic accidents, and wars combined.

Faced with these grim prospects, the U.S., Europe, China, Japan, and other countries have launched, or are set to launch, national large-scale neuroscience initiatives. Leading figures from some of these initiatives will discuss their country’s brain research efforts and the ethical issues they raise in a panel discussion and breakout sessions at the INS meeting.

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