The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) today discussed the possibility of issuing a preliminary report on the Commission’s discussion of integrating ethics early into neuroscience research. Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., President of the University of Pennsylvania and Chair of the Bioethics Commission, said that a preliminary report would allow the Commission “to give a timely response to President Obama’s charge.” Last summer the President asked the Commission to both “identify proactively a set of core ethical standards… to guide neuroscience research.” In addition, he requested that the Commission “address some of the ethical dilemmas that may be raised by the application of neuroscience research findings.” A preliminary report would address the President’s initial request.
This morning some members of the Bioethics Commission reported on preparatory work that they undertook to inform the Commission’s discussions today. Member Christine Grady, R.N., Ph.D., suggested that the Commission consider releasing the initial report, or report Part I, on ethics integration into neuroscience research. The Members discussed several ideas including early integration of ethics into scientific education to foster robust science.
Dr. Gutmann framed the issue and the need for such a report by saying, “We are not saying or implying that there is more concern about ethics in neuroscience than in any other scientific endeavor.” Rather, she said that these ethical issues may be heightened in the public discourse, especially given that neuroscience research investigates a part of the body that helps make people who they are. In addition, Gutmann pointed out that in the United States the burden of neurological disorders is high and it is expected to increase, and yet the brain is the least understood organ. She said it would be helpful if the report laid out a model for how it is possible to integrate ethics early on into the practice of neuroscience.
Commission Member Anita Allen, J.D., Ph.D., went on to update the Bioethics Commission on preparatory work regarding the second component of the President’s charge, to “address some of the ethical dilemmas that may be raised by the application of neuroscience research findings.” Members of the Commission discussed case studies that could serve as models for approaching bioethical issues that neuroscience research applications might raise. These case studies helped identify important ethical issues that may come up in real-world settings. For instance, Allen mentioned neuroscience studies on drugs to reduce aggressiveness in humans may involve ethical issues pertaining to free will. Studies into whether neuroimaging can predict whether a person might engage in criminal behavior might raise ethical issues concerning intellectual and emotional privacy, coercion, and free will.
Bioethics Commission members used these case studies to create “buckets of analysis” for neuroscience applications. Scientists must try to not exaggerate or mislead the public on their findings, Allen said. She also said that ethical issues raised by new science that scientists find to be accurate should be cataloged and assessed. Finally, she noted that both positive and negative applications of the science should be taken into consideration. Commission members hope to consider more case studies at future meetings.