The blog of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Laying an Ethical Foundation for the BRAIN Initiative

In the final session of today’s meeting of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (the Bioethics Commission), Commission members heard from Deborah Johnson, Ph.D., M.Phil., M.A., Anne Shirley Carter Olsson Professor of Applied Ethics, of the Science, Technology, and Society Program in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia; Thomas Murray, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of the Hastings Center; and Anjan Chatterjee, M.D., F.A.A.N., Professor of Neurology at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and Center for Functional Neuroimaging at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

The three speakers brought up different models for integrating ethics and science in a foundational manner as the Bioethics Commission considers neuroscience and related ethical issues as a part of the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative.

Johnson emphasized the importance of working together with those conducting the research as it is designed and goes forward. “If what you want is a group of people who keep alive the issues and write about them and think and develop expertise in ‘neuroethics’ that’s one thing, but if what you want to do is sort of impact the [BRAIN] Initiative, you have to get inside,” she said. “You have to have people who aren’t in an enclave of expertise…you have to get in there with them.”

Murray brought his experiences with the Human Genome Project to inform how the Bioethics Commission might approach the ethical issues related to neuroscience research as the BRAIN Initiative goes forward. He emphasized the three kinds of ethical models used during the pursuit of the Human Genome Project:

  1. 1. Ethics performed after the planning and initiation of research. “Think of people who do ethics as the fellow in the parade who follows behind the elephant and cleans up. We’d like to at least walk alongside the elephant,” said Murray.
  2. 2. Ethics performed immediately prior to the initiation of research. “If you know the sport of curling,” said Murray, “The [ethicist is the] person who sweeps in front to make sure the puck goes where you want it to go.”
  3. 3. Putting an ethical framework in place before the planning of research begins, the model which Murray himself prefers: “Figuring out when your community is falling short of its own values, and telling them that,” he said.

He also spoke of his experiences as a member of the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ESLI) group during the Human Genome Project, and the difficulties the group encountered as they attempted to address ethical issues. He noted that the chief criticism the ESLI group faced was that it was insufficiently effective in policy issues, saying that “you need many voices and many venues if you want to stay engaged with controversial issues.”

Chaterjee spoke of the current ethical challenges facing neuroscience, and the importance of developing ethical frameworks and educating the public as the BRAIN Initiative goes forward.

He pointed out that neuroscience is “being sold right now,” including products such as ‘brain games,’ which are plausible, but have little evidence to support their efficacy, and the flawed logic of using neuroimaging technologies to diagnose psychological and psychiatric illness.

He also noted the presence of new ‘wearable technology’ developed for cognitive enhancement, which is already being developed and sold as neuroscience is translated into cultural norms.

Ethical issues arise from these developments and others, in the form of safety, justice, fairness, character (for example, undermining the link between effort and achievement), and autonomy, said Chaterjee. “What, if anything should we do about this?” he said.

Chaterjee also emphasized the need for education. There is now greater access to ethical education for scientists and medical students, but he notes, it is still “very clunky.”

“We do not think of ethical deliberation as a core competency for what it means to be a scientist and what it means to be a clinician,” he said. This is an important issue to address when thinking of the development of neuroscience technologies and their related ethical concerns, according to Chaterjee.

Chaterjee also anticipated another ethical issue that could arise as neurotechnologies develop: that of intellectual property and commercialization.

Together, the speakers emphasized the need for addressing ethical issues and promoting an ethical framework as a project is designed—to build scientific questions on a strong ethical foundation. They also called for communication and education to be addressed in addition to the ethical issues related to neuroscience as the BRAIN Initiative advances.

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