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

Identifying the Ethical Considerations in Neuroscience Research, Clinical Innovations and Applications

As it continued today’s meeting on neuroscience, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) turned its attention to potential clinical applications and innovations that may stem from neuroscience research. President Obama asked the Bioethics Commission to consider the ethical issues associated with neuroscience as part of the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative.

This panel included Steven L. Small, Ph.D., M.D., the Stanley van den Noort Professor and Chair of the Department of Neurology, Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior, Professor of Cognitive Sciences, and Director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California, Irvine; Paul J. Ford, Ph.D., the Director of the NeuroEthics Program and Education Director for the Department of Bioethics at the Cleveland Clinic and Associate Professor at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University; and Helen Mayberg, M.D., a Professor of Psychiatry, Neurology, and Radiology and the Dorothy C. Fuqua Chair of Psychiatric Neuroimaging and Therapeutics at the Emory University School of Medicine.

Small offered an overview of the current science and began by highlighting the emergence of high performance computing that can crunch vast amounts of data, demonstrating the advances currently being made in the field. Small then identified areas he believes should become research priorities including brain circuit analysis, a field with the potential to help patients with epilepsy or those who have suffered a stroke or spinal cord injury; personalized medicine based on biomarkers or anticipating how an individual’s brain might react to a treatment; brain circuit alterations, using both invasive and non-invasive technologies; and brain computer interfaces. With these various technologies, Small listed several ethical concerns that must be considered, including irreversible changes, new understandings of data, and how these tools and the results they could produce might be used.

Ford turned the conversation to research participation, emphasizing a need to identify the factors that allow researchers to ethically select participants in scientific studies on clinical neuroscience innovations.  Specifically, Ford argued for ethical guidelines to allow for the inclusion of vulnerable patients in research, especially those who might benefit from participation. Ford also emphasized that in this type of research it is essential to view patients as collaborators. For example, he described research on Parkinson’s disease and deep brain stimulation in which a research participant asked for less control over an implanted neurological device than what researchers initially had assumed.  “If we hadn’t asked, we wouldn’t have known,” Ford reflected.

Mayberg concluded this panel’s presentations with “Research Design Considerations for Studies Using Invasive Brain Devices.”  She explored ways to ensure that research using invasive brain technologies was both ethical and scientifically rigorous.

“With brain imaging we have more information than we want,” said Mayberg. “And we are trying to reduce down the necessary and sufficient amount so that we can think about why we might want to invade the brain and tune it in some way, where we might do that, how we might do that, and who we might do that to.”

Additionally, Mayberg spoke about the need to be able to refine human subjects research that uses neurological implants, noting that a key step is identifying at what point researchers should end the study rather than continue to revise and iterate. “The question is how to know the difference. You need a framework to go in either direction.”

Up next, the Bioethics Commission discussed the issue of capacity to consent to research.

Share this article

Leave a Reply

Read the comment policy before posting your comment.


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

Learn more about the 2009 - 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.