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

How Some Private Sector Representatives Address Ethical Issues

The second session in today’s meeting of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) brought together representatives from the private sector to discuss how they identify and address ethical issues in neuroscience research.  The question before the panel: ‘How does your institute currently address ethical issues related to neuroscience research?’

Terrence J. Sejnowski, Ph.D. of the Salk Institute of Biological Sciences, noted that working with a group of human patients changed how he thought of the ethical issues surrounding neuroscience research. “Somehow when you start tinkering with the brain,” he said, “people get more concerned because it’s tinkering with who you are.” It is not like other biomedical research, he said. For example, Dr. Sejnowski said, “The liver can’t think, or if it does, it doesn’t talk.” He noted that now is “the right time to start thinking about this.”

Christof Koch, Ph.D. of the Allen Institute for Brain Science also expressed a sense of ethical responsibility. “Your active brain is who you are,” he said. “We have responsibility to our own science directly, a responsibility to our field, and to society at large.” When asked directly about whether ethical issues have affected how the Allen Institute conducts its research, Dr. Koch noted that due to ethical concerns regarding privacy, the Allen Institute has not put the genomic sequencing information online for its human brain maps. He recognized that the ethical issues absolutely have to be clarified. Dr. Koch spoke of new work that produces ‘organoids’ in a petri dish. The layers of cells show organization and some show electrical activity. The ethical implications of this work needs to be understood, Dr. Koch said, because neuroscience advances may mean that “we need to begin to think about sentience in a dish.”

Anita L. Allen, J.D., Ph.D. Vice Provost for Faculty at the University of Pennsylvania and the Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy and a member of the Bioethics Commission noted, “we care about controlling or interfering with the brain because it is the substrate of the mind.“ Today’s discussions on addressing and identifying ethical issues in neuroscience, will inform the Bioethics Commission as it moves forward with the request from President Obama related to the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative.

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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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