neuroethics – The blog of the 2009 - 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues Mon, 09 Jan 2017 23:23:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Discussion Highlights on Ethical Issues Related to Neuroscience Wed, 18 Dec 2013 21:48:47 +0000 In a roundtable discussion that ended today’s meeting, Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., President of the University of Pennsylvania and the Chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission), emphasized that “we have two big buckets here, one is the ethics of neuroscience research, and the other is the potential applications and ethical implications of the research findings themselves.” She asked each of the meeting presenters for their advice on what the Bioethics Commission should recommend as it examines the ethical issues related to neuroscience.

“I’d like to recommend that there be serious financing incentives and accountability to develop ethics scholarship in neuroscience, and to do it in a way that is very mindful…so the scholarship is structured in a way so that it itself is educational.”  – Mildred Z. Solomon, Ed.D. President of the Hastings Center

“[Bioethics] is the only field where everyone seems to think they are qualified…because everyone believes they are ethical…and they believe that’s all that’s needed.” – Paul Root Wolpe, Ph.D. of Emory University

“As a working scientist, there is already a very large regulatory burden on us, and we now in the case of my institution have several people who are full time doing nothing but the paperwork associated with any one experiment. And I would urge you, if you make recommendations, to give some thought to…the regulatory burden.” – Christof Koch, Ph.D. of the Allen Institute for Brain Science

Bioethics Commission members responded:

“I think it’s really important to recognize that ethical considerations do not equate to regulatory burdens.” – Amy Gutmann, Ph.D. President of the University of Pennsylvania and the Chair of the Bioethics Commission

“We know there are scientists that will be ethical failures…How do we prepare for [ethical failure]…how do we disincentivize it? What sort of sanctions should be in place? What sort of protections for research subjects…should be in place? We can’t pretend like it’s not going to happen; it’s going to happen. What do we do about that?” – 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

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Neuroscience: What’s Going On Around the Globe? Wed, 18 Dec 2013 21:13:46 +0000 At today’s meeting examining the ethical issues surrounding neuroscience research and neuroscientific advances, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) turned its attention to neuroscience and bioethical initiatives taking place around the world.

Nikolas Rose, Ph.D. is a member of the European Union’s Human Brain Project’s Social and Ethical Division Steering Committee. He said the Project aims to “simulate the human brain, cell by cell, in a neuromorphic supercomputer.” He told the Bioethics Commission that bioethics has been a central tenet in the Project since its beginning, with funding devoted to social and ethical programs. One of the central themes, Dr. Rose said, was “the idea of responsible research and innovation.”

He emphasized five streams of the E.U.’s Human Brain Project:

  • First, a foresight lab to anticipate neuroscientific developments and work out scenarios of what would happen if certain developments came to fruition.
  • Second, a conceptual and philosophical analysis of what a simulation of the human brain would entail.
  • Third, a public dialogue with stakeholders. “Everything suggests that the more open, transparent, and dialogic the researchers are,” Dr. Rose said, “…the better it should be.”
  • Fourth, the Human Brain Project encourages ethical reflection among the researchers.
  • Finally, the Human Brain Project is concerned with governance and regulation of the Project as it moves forward.

Jonathan Montgomery, LL.M., Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics spoke about a recent Nuffield Report on Bioethics, which made recommendations relevant to neuroscience. He said that the Council was able to identify three main virtues: inventiveness, humility, and responsibility. Within these tenets, the Council addressed a series of ethical challenges, including investigations into hype and research culture; engaging younger students in bioethical thinking; registries and data collection; and working with ethics research panels on difficult issues such as sham surgery.

The Bioethics Commission also heard from Stefano Simplici, Ph.D., of the International Bioethics Committee, United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization about the issues of discrimination and stigma in bioethics. Dr. Simplici emphasized that “the lottery of social and biological life should not be grounds for disadvantages or advantages.” He expressed concerns about advances in neuroscience that might affect criminal law, in particular the concept of “mens rea,” or guilty mind, the idea of criminal intent.

The Human Brain Project’s Dr. Rose responded to Dr. Simplici’s concern: “A lot of what happens in new and emerging technologies, especially from the ethical point of view,” he said, “is highly speculative and overestimates what the neuroscience can actually do.”

The Bioethics Commission will take this international work into account as it considers how best to integrate ethics into neuroscience research.


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How Some Private Sector Representatives Address Ethical Issues Wed, 18 Dec 2013 19:55:18 +0000 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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Integrating Ethics and Neuroscience Through Education Wed, 18 Dec 2013 17:13:56 +0000 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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