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

The Role of the Bioethics Commission as it Examines the Field of Neuroscience

On December 18, 2013, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (the Bioethics Commission) will hold a public meeting to discuss neuroscience and related ethical issues.

In July 2013, as part of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, President Obama charged the Bioethics Commission to review and make recommendations on ethical standards to guide the field of neuroscience. Specifically, President Obama requested that the Bioethics Commission “identify proactively a set of core ethical standards – both to guide neuroscience research and to address some of the ethical dilemmas that may be raised by the application of neuroscience research findings.”

While President Obama gave the current charge to the Bioethics Commission as part of the BRAIN Initiative, the Bioethics Commission’s work on this project will consider neuroscience more broadly. President Obama asked the Commission to review the ethical considerations of neuroscience as part of the BRAIN Initiative, but also to address the considerations of both neuroscience research and the application of neuroscience research findings.

In the Executive Order that established the Bioethics Commission in 2009, President Obama brought together this body of experts to advise him “on bioethical issues that may emerge as a consequence of advances in biomedicine and related areas of science and technology.” The advisory role played by the Bioethics Commission intends that it will not directly oversee any individual research protocols. Instead, the Bioethics Commission, as it has approached previous projects, will work to “identify and examine specific bioethical, legal, and social issues related to the potential impacts of advances in biomedical and behavioral research.” This is particularly important to neuroscience because of the quick moving nature of this emerging field. The current charge from President Obama asks the Bioethics Commission to turn its attention to how to successfully integrate ethics into the field of neuroscience.

Over several public meetings, the Bioethics Commission will consider current and future advances in neuroscience, including neuroscientific training, investigational methods, and neuroscience technologies, and discuss potential ways to integrate ethical principles into neuroscience research in a foundational manner. Based on this review, the Bioethics Commission will make recommendations for how to address some of the ethical dimensions associated with neuroscience research and its application.

The Bioethics Commission began this review at a public meeting last August when it heard from experts describing the most recent innovations at the forefront of neuroscience research. The Commission also began to consider the potential ethical issues associated with neuroscience research, hearing from David Chalmers, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness at New York University and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Consciousness at Australian National University, as he discussed whether advances from the BRAIN Initiative might help us to “better understand who we are.” Experts from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency discussed the ethical challenges that arise in neuroscience research. The Bioethics Commission also 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., President 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, as they spoke on different models that might allow for the integration of ethics into neuroscience.

The upcoming public meeting will continue these discussions, focusing on models to integrate ethics into the foundations of neuroscience training, considering how the neuroscience private sector identifies and addresses ethical issues in neuroscience research, and looking into international perspective on addressing ethical issues in neuroscience.


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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.

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