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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Cruel and Unusual Punishment

“Prison should not actually do things that are knowingly going to make people worse,” replied Hank Greely when asked about the ethical issues of solitary confinement. Greely, who is director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University, pointed out that the United States houses 25 percent of the world’s prison population. “So in that sense,” he quipped, “we’re number one!” Sitting alongside a panel of experts, Greely was one of three speakers to open up the discussion of mental health and safety for prison inmates at the annual International Neuroethics Society (INS) meeting.

From left to right: Hank Greely, Alan Leshner, James Blair, James Giordano. Photo credit: Gillian Hue

From left to right: Hank Greely, Alan Leshner, James Blair, James Giordano. Photo credit: Gillian Hue

The panel addressed prison system policy in the U.S., as well as the world’s growing mental health crisis. Alan Leshner, chief executive officer emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and a Dana Alliance member, introduced the topic as a “criminal-justice issue, a human-rights issue, and a neuroethics issue of the highest order.” The prevalence of mental illness in criminal justice is tremendous, he added, and rhetorically asked if it can be seen as a direct consequence of incarceration.

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Iconic Law Cases Revisited at the International Neuroethics Society Meeting

The 2011 Annual Meeting of the International Neuroethics Society is coming up on November 10 and 11 at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. and I think it's going to be a terrific meeting. I particularly want to draw your attention to the law panel, scheduled for 2:45 to 4:00 on Friday, November 11. This panel will focus on neuroscience in real cases. We've got three speakers, each of whom was involved as a professional in one of the iconic cases involving law and neuroscience.

Steve Greenberg is the lawyer who introduced fMRI evidence of psychopathy into a capital sentencing case (the Dugan case in Illinois). There's a fascinating write-up of that case in Nature magazine

Houston Gordon is the lawyer who tried, unsuccessfully, to introduce for the defense some fMRI lie detection evidence (from Cephos, one of the two companies in this market) into a federal criminal trial. This led to a two-day evidentiary hearing and an extensive written opinion (United States v. Semrau, in Westlaw or Lexis).

Russell Swerdlow is a neurologist who was the treating physician for a man who pleaded guilty to the sexual molestation of his 12 year old stepdaughter after a year or so of increasing interest in pornography. Just before sentencing, the man was found to have a tumor the size of a chicken egg pressing on his left frontal lobe. When the tumor was removed, the defendant reported that his urges disappeared. He was released on probation; about 10 months later, his urges returned. So had the tumor. When the tumor was surgical removed again, so were the urges. See the case report at 60 Arch. Neurol. 437 (2003) (PDF).

Each speaker will briefly present his thoughts on the case and then participate in a question and answer period. This kind of chance to question people involved in seminal cases is rare; I think that, at least for those of us interested in law and neuroscience, it should be fascinating. Oh – and there are also a lot of other great panels and speakers on the program, including a panel on neuroscience and national security, a panel on novel treatments in neuropsychiatry, and a talk by Michael Chorost (great speaker) on neurotechnologies and humanity. (His first book, "Rebuilt: How Being Part Computer Made Me More Human," is about his own cochlear implant; I highly recommend it. He has a new book that I haven't read yet.)

–Henry T. Greely, J.D., director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford Law School and executive committee member of the International Neuroethics Society

Professor Greely has written and been featured in several neuroethics articles for the Dana Foundation. A sampling:

Enhancing Brains: What Are We Afraid Of?
Lie Detection Services Remain Premature, Neuroethicists Say
The Ethics of Forensic Neuroscience: Neuroethics Q&A: Hank Greely
Seeking More Goodly Creatures

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