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

Integrating Ethics and Neuroscience Through Education

Today’s meeting of The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) began with a session on how ethics are integrated into science education in general, and into neuroscience education in particular.

The Commission members heard first from Mildred Z. Solomon, Ed.D. President of the Hastings Center. Dr. Solomon emphasized that scientists are professionals, and that as such, they should “consider the purposes and implications of their work.”

Science and technology hold great power in our society, Dr. Solomon said, and therefore “self-reflection is important.” She noted that scientists, as experts, are best positioned to constrain the hyperbole that can arise from the misinterpretation of neuroscience findings, but also pointed out that bioethicists and scientists need one another: Ethicists might miss problems or estimate incorrectly the magnitude of ethical issues. On the other side, scientists cannot engage closely with ethicists unless they “develop the ability to discriminate between ethical and normative questions.”

Dr. Solomon proposed a model of “transformational learning,” the type of shared learning experience that is “something you do for yourself,” with basic bioethics literacy for early researchers and undergraduates and deeper engagement for professionals. She proposed actions including an Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ESLI) program for brain science, such as that associated with the Human Genome Project; a learning community approach to bioethics; annual symposia on bioethics; bioethics intensives for neuroscientists; surveys that can be utilized to examine the efficacy of bioethical education; and for BRAIN awardee institutions to build the capacity to address ethical questions into their grant work.

Steven E. Hyman, M.D., of the Broad Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, spoke to the Bioethics Commission about the importance of encouraging young neuroscience students to think about “the purpose of their work in the deepest sense.” He commented that the young scientists he works with “are so deeply engaged in the intellectual and technological aspects of their work that often they do not find themselves able to lift their heads to engage in ethical reflections.” By engaging students with ethical questions early in their scientific careers, Dr.  Hyman proposed a goal of achieving “curiosity about ethics concerns, and habits of ethical reflection.”

The next speaker before the Bioethics Commission was Pat Levitt, Ph.D. of the  University of Southern California. Dr. Levitt noted that “people come to the table with a belief system, and we have to recognize that as scientists.” He stated three main areas that he feels “demand greater emphasis in ethics training:”

First, the challenge of “conveying promises of neuroscience discoveries leading to disease and disorder cures.” Neuroscience holds a special place, he said, because “we believe that through our capacity to gather an unending amount of information, we eventually will discover the signature patterns of mental and physical states.” Second, Dr. Levitt stated that the current emphasis on translational technologies might have led to “misrepresenting research ‘deliverables’ to trumpet discoveries that provide high science currency.” Finally, Dr. Levitt notes that neuroscience advances have led to evolution in the concept that human brain disease results from a developmental etiology. He concluded, “it is about training the current and next generation to recognize when they are participating in building a bridge too far, which is an issue of personal and disciplinary ethics, and when they are being true to both the promises and limitations of neuroscience.

The final speaker was Paul Root Wolpe, Ph.D. of Emory University. He noted that the bioethical issues inherent in neuroscience are more personal than those in other research areas. “I don’t care if you have my genome,” he said. “It isn’t the genome that most defines who I am. The sense of myself, my memories, my personality, my quirks…reside in my brain, not in my genome.”

Neuroscience has been experimenting in areas that have profound ethical implications.  “I keep thinking we’re going to hit a wall,” Dr. Wolpe said, “and be able to go no further, and neuroscience keeps pushing through that wall.” Because of this, Dr. Wolpe said, now is the time to think about the implications of neuroscientific advances. He recommended three courses of action: a re-prioritization so that there is funding to systemically consider ethical issues in neuroscience, encouraging a different orientation for graduate students to address ethical issues in neuroscience, and encouraging scientists to speak publicly about their research topics. “They are the ones,” Dr. Wolpe said, “who not only have the expertise, but who have a right to advocate for the science itself.”

In the discussion that followed, Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., President of the University of Pennsylvania and the Chair of the Bioethics Commission, pointed out, “you can’t begin ethics education at the professional level.” She emphasized that “science is a professional and a public calling,” and this makes it important to engage students in bioethical discussions early in their careers. Bioethical education is, she said, “going to be more effective and more stimulating if it’s taught to undergraduates who are less jaded than professionals.”

Overall, the session speakers emphasized the need for deep consideration of ethical issues in neuroscience. They stressed the importance of early education on bioethical issues to spark curiosity and to encourage deep thinking, without creating the perception that bioethical considerations could unduly fetter scientific pursuits. These points will help guide the Bioethics Commission as it considers the ethical issues inherent in neuroscience research and neuroscientific training.

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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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