The blog of the 2009 – 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

At the Forefront of Neuroscience Technology

At today’s meeting of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (the Bioethics Commission), Commission members turned their attention to neuroscience and related bioethical issues. As part of the new BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative announced in April, President Obama has asked the Bioethics Commission to play a critical role in ensuring that neuroscientific investigational methods, technologies, and protocol are consistent with sound ethical principles and practices.

During today’s hearing, Walter Koroshetz, M.D., the Deputy Director of the National Institute of Neurologic Disease and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health, spoke to the Bioethics Commission on the most recent advances in neuroscience-related technologies.

Neuroscience has come a long way from the early days of polygraph tests and electroconvulsive therapies (ECT). Koroshetz discussed some of the more recent technological advances, and their potential uses in the BRAIN initiative, which will develop and use new technologies to construct accurate pictures of brain connectivity and function, involving data collection and interpretation on a massive scale.

The first and most well-known of the techniques discussed were functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and electrical stimulation. MRI was originally developed for its high resolution anatomical mapping capabilities, but the addition of measurements for blood oxygen levels during anatomical mapping (BOLD signaling), has made fMRI a valuable tool for examining activity levels in the brain as conscious participants perform tasks or react to stimuli. Electrical stimulation of the brain has evolved from the crude, seizure-inducing ECT to carefully calibrated electrodes implanted in specific brain regions, capable of alleviating the symptoms of Parkinson’s, Major Depressive Disorder, and chronic pain. But these effects are still quite crude, as Koroshetz notes, “throwing electrodes in the brain and seeing what happens.”

Advances in neuroscience techniques are even more diverse in animal models, and Koroshetz spoke on where current techniques are leading in the field of neuroscience. Many new techniques have been developed that allow neuroscientists to examine neuronal activity in nearly real time. New studies have developed voltage sensitive dyes that can be encoded into a neuron’s DNA, and are able to show the neuron as it fires in real time. Tools such as optogenetics allow neurons to be selectively stimulated with the shining of a light. Micro- and nano-electrodes allow neuroscientists to record thousands of neurons firing at a time.

Other techniques have focused on the careful mapping of the anatomy of the brain. The Brainbow technique allows individual neurons to be tracked as they are born, develop, and form connections within the brain. Diffusion imaging is being used to map out all of the connections within the brain, creating what some call a “connectome”, highlighting anatomical features never seen before.

An image of the Brainbow technique from Koroshetz's address to the Bioethics Commission.

An image of the Brainbow technique from Koroshetz’s address to the Bioethics Commission.

“Humans with diseases will push scientists to move these techniques into humans,” Koroshetz said. These techniques are part of a tool-driven revolution that will not only help to map the brain and understand its function, but to lead to therapies and interventions, including brain-machine interfaces for the paralyzed and deep brain stimulation for severe disorders. While Koroshetz showed that neuroscience is a rapidly developing field of new techniques, suited to tackle some of the greatest challenges in science, those techniques and their capabilities also raise many ethical questions.


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This is a space for the members and staff of the 2009 -2017 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.

As of January 15th, 2017 this blog will no longer be updated but continues to be available as an archive of the work of the 2009-2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

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