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

Bioethics Commission Releases First Neuroscience Report as Part of BRAIN Initiative: Calls for Explicit Integration of Ethics Throughout Neuroscience Research

Earlier today, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released its report, Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society (Gray Matters, Vol. 1), the first of two reports it will produce in response to President Obama’s charge to consider the ethical issues associated with neuroscience research and the application and implications of neuroscience research findings.  Gray Matters, Vol. 1 examines the integration of ethics into neuroscience research across the research endeavor. Early integration of ethics and neuroscience will help researchers, policymakers, and the public to recognize and address the ethical and societal implications of neuroscience research and its applications, which the Bioethics Commission will consider in more detail in a later report.

In this report, the Bioethics Commission noted that many of the ethical implications that neuroscience researchers and funders will encounter are not unique to the field, but might be expressed in sharper relief in neuroscience.  For instance, there are privacy implications in many types of biomedical research.  In neuroscience, however, privacy concerns can extend beyond medical information to include the privacy of one’s thoughts if, for example, neuroimaging is ever able to make inferences about truth telling or criminal intent, as some predict it might. Identifying and addressing ethical issues early and throughout the research process reduces the likelihood of ethical pitfalls and can assure the public that research will not be impeded by ethical lapses.

The Bioethics Commission wrote that ethics integration entails collaboration between scientists and ethics professionals. Done well, the process of integration is an iterative and reflective process that enhances both scientific and ethical rigor.

Examples of approaches to integrating ethics into science exist already and provide a starting point for institutions, funders, and researchers to build their organizational plans for integrating ethics into neuroscience research. Examples examined by the Bioethics Commission include ethics integration through all levels of education; dedicated institutional infrastructure; direct consideration of ethical, legal, and social implications of research; research ethics consultation; stakeholder engagement; and inclusion of an ethics perspective on the research team.

The Bioethics Commission recommended that institutions and individuals engaged in neuroscience research integrate ethics throughout research, identifying ethical considerations relevant to their research and making explicit their systems for addressing those issues. It emphasized that sufficient resources—including financial resources, human capital, and expertise—should be dedicated to ethics integration.  It also called for evaluation of innovative and existing approaches to ethics integration, and recommended the development and evaluation of new and existing models for integrating ethics and science education at all levels. Finally, the Bioethics Commission recommended the inclusion of professionals with experience in ethics on BRAIN Initiative-related advisory and review bodies, particularly for the major public and private sector partners.

The report is available at Bioethics.gov. Look for additional blog posts about each of the report’s recommendations to be posted to blog.Bioethics.gov.

Next the Bioethics Commission will consider the ethical and societal implications of neuroscience research and its applications more broadly.  The Bioethics Commission will examine implications that stakeholders, including scientists, ethicists, educators, public and private funders, advocacy organizations, and the public should be prepared to handle.  A strongly integrated research and ethics infrastructure—as recommended in Gray Matters, Vol. 1—will be well equipped to address such ethical and societal implications.

The Bioethics Commission plans to have at least two more public meetings on this topic before releasing its next report.

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1 Comment to Bioethics Commission Releases First Neuroscience Report as Part of BRAIN Initiative: Calls for Explicit Integration of Ethics Throughout Neuroscience Research

  1. May 14, 2014 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Volume 1 of “Gray Matters…” provides important points about the integration of (neuro)ethics and the articulation of neuroscience research and its translation in medicine, public life and national security. It is a first, albeit solid, first step, in what is sure to be an iterative – and hopefully dialectical -discourse.
    Fueled, at least in part by funding by programs such as the BRAIN initiative, (and other, international endeavors, such as the EU’s Human Brain Project) neuroscientific research is progressing at a rapid pace to encompass a broad palette of potential uses in the aforementioned domains. While offering the promise of great benefit by decreasing the burdens of neuropsychiatric disorders, and perhaps being able to mitigate individually and socially harmful behavior(s), advances in brain science are also sure to give rise to ethical, legal and social issues, questions, problems and concerns, which may be burdensome in their own right.
    Key to any valid progress in achieving a meaningful balance of expected benefit and possible burdens, risks and harms is the development of a truly integrative neuroethics. To be integrative, neuroethics must be integral to the process of formulating, planning and articulating neuroscientific research, and conceptualizing and enacting the contexts in which research results and products can, might and should be used (and should not be misused).
    Many of the issues spawned by brain research and its translation will be familiar to bioethics, yet others may not, as neuroscience extends the boundaries of what is known about the brain and its functions, and in so doing, prompts new views – if not revision – of long-standing ideas about “mind”, “free will”, “self”, “normality” and the parameters of human capability and flourishing. Each and all pose challenges to philosophical, social and legal precepts, and in so doing may necessitate revision of existing ethical principles and ideals, if not discourse about if and how certain ethical notions might need to be considered anew in light of a growing body of neuroscientific information.

    As well stated in “Gray Matters…”, ethics can serve as a lens through which to look upon the concepts and conduct of science. Perhaps neuroscience – and neuroethics (if/when taken together as “the neuroscience of moral thought and action”, and “the ethics of neuroscientific research and its translation”) – obtain both such lens with which to peer into the brain as an object of study, and also mirror that allows us to turn that lens back onto humanity as the subject of scientific responsibility…and those who must be responsible for the ways that any such science is enacted and employed as a human enterprise within ever more globalized settings.

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This is a space for the members and staff of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to communicate with the public about the work of the commission and to discuss important issues in bioethics.

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