neuroscience – 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 New Educational Module from the Bioethics Commission on Vulnerable Populations in Neuroscience Research Now Available Wed, 15 Jul 2015 16:39:33 +0000 The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) has posted a new educational module on its website, The module on vulnerable populations accompanies the Bioethics Commission’s two-volume report Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society (Gray Matters, Vol. 1) and Gray Matters: Topics at the Intersection of Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society (Gray Matters, Vol. 2). Additional educational materials on vulnerable populations include a background module, as well as report-specific modules that accompany the Bioethics Commission reports: Safeguarding Children: Pediatric Medical Countermeasure Research and “Ethically Impossible”: STD Research in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948. Other topics covered by the Bioethics Commission’s educational modules include community engagement, compensation for research-related injury, informed consent, privacy, and research design.

The Vulnerable Populations in Gray Matters module focuses on vulnerability specifically in the context of neuroscience research. The module provides instructors with a description of the ways in which individuals with impaired consent capacity might be vulnerable. It describes circumstances that might make potential participants vulnerable, including desperation and imprisonment, which merit ethical consideration in neuroscience research. It also addresses additional protections researchers can employ to protect potentially vulnerable populations in research, including those with impaired consent capacity.

The educational modules produced by the Bioethics Commission are based on the contemporary ethical issues addressed by the Commission, and are designed to provide instructors with foundational information, ethical analysis, discussion questions, problem-based learning scenarios, exercises, and additional resources to support ethics education and the integration of bioethical analysis into coursework across disciplines.

All Bioethics Commission educational materials are free and available at The Bioethics Commission encourages feedback on its materials at

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Bioethics Commission Finalizing Work on Neuroscience Fri, 06 Feb 2015 15:15:51 +0000 On July 1, 2013, President Obama requested that the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (the Bioethics Commission) review the ethical considerations of neuroscience research and its application as part of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative.

Specifically, the President instructed the Bioethics Commission to “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.”

Today, during its public meeting in Washington, D.C., the Bioethics Commission worked to wrap up its work on neuroscience and related ethical issues and to finalize its recommendations to the President.

The Bioethics Commission has held (counting today’s gathering) nine public meetings in five cities — Washington, D.C., Salt Lake City, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and San Francisco — that have focused on neuroscience. They have featured extensive discussions with experts from a wide array of disciplines, including neuroimaging, cognitive neuroscience, neurology, computational neurobiology, nanotechnology, psychiatry, ethics, philosophy, computer science, behavioral health, engineering and law. The Commission also has heard detailed public comments from affected communities, including advocates for patients with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, depression and bipolar disorders.

The Bioethics Commission provided its initial recommendations to President Obama last year in volume one of its Gray Matters report, in which it stressed the importance of integrating ethics early and throughout neuroscience research.

Today’s deliberations will inform the Bioethics Commission’s recommendations for Gray Matters, Volume two, which will focus on three areas: cognitive enhancement and other neural modifications, capacity and the consent process, and neuroscience in the legal system.

Bioethics Commission Chair Amy Gutmann noted that these three areas “illustrate the ethical tensions and societal implications that can arise as neuroscience and technology advance.”

“Our Commission is well situated to clear a path for productive discourse and conduct policy making on these topics,” she added.

The Commission expects Gray Matters, Vol. 2 to be released this spring.

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Back Live for Day 2 of the Bioethics Commission Meeting in D.C. Fri, 06 Feb 2015 14:07:52 +0000 We are back live and blogging in Washington, D.C. for day 2 of the 20th public meeting of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission).

The Bioethics Commission is continuing the discussion initiated at its November meeting in Salt Lake City focusing on issues arising at home and abroad from U.S. engagement in the global response to the current Ebola epidemic. Members today also resume consideration of ethical issues associated with neuroscience research and the application of neuroscience findings, as requested by President Obama.
You can follow the proceedings of the Bioethics Commission’s meeting here at this blog, and on the live webcast. The webcast and transcripts from the meeting will be archived and available following the meeting at

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The Bioethics Commission’s Neuro Double-Header Fri, 21 Nov 2014 16:14:51 +0000 Since President Obama’s April 2013 launch of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) has worked to ensure that ethics is an integral part of the conversation when discussing neuroscience. This past week, the Bioethics Commission was busy discussing its work at two annual neuroscience conferences in the Washington, D.C. area: the International Neuroethics Society (INS) Annual Meeting and the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) Annual Meeting.

Bioethics Commission Member Stephen L. Hauser, M.D., represented the Commission at INS on November 14, where he took part in the panel “The BRAIN Initiative & the Human Brain Project: An Ethical Focus.” Dr. Hauser was joined by fellow panel participants Walter Koroshetz, BRAIN Initiative, and Henry Markram, Human Brain Project, for a discussion on the ethical issues surrounding neuroscience research. Following the panel, each participant gave a brief interview for the University of Cambridge’s podcast The Naked Scientists.

“There are a whole host of issues that the Commission and society at large needs to undertake and tackle. These include such areas as brain privacy, particularly as our imaging tools become more sophisticated; cognitive enhancement; things like personality, sociability, violent impulses, etc.” said Hauser during his podcast interview. “What we need to have is a two-fold mission: first, to communicate clearly the true value of the therapies that we now have available; and second, anticipate and prepare for those that will perhaps be transformational but that are not yet currently available,” he explained. To listen to the full podcast, visit

The Bioethics Commission then went on to participate in SfN’s Annual Meeting exhibition, visited by more than 31,000 attendees. The exhibition, which took place November 16-19, 2014, allowed the Commission to discuss its role in the BRAIN Initiative and related reports. The Commission promoted the reports Anticipate and Communicate: Ethical Management of Incidental and Secondary Findings, because so many neuroscience researchers often deal with these issues, and Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society, the Commission’s first of two reports in response to President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative-related request.

It was wonderful to engage with so many neuroscientists eager to discuss ethics over the past week!

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The Bioethics Commission’s Work on Incidental and Secondary Findings and the Applications for Neuroscience Wed, 08 Oct 2014 16:39:38 +0000 Today, Senior Policy and Research Analyst Elizabeth Pike will present on behalf of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) at the conference “Emerging Ethical and Legal Challenges in Chronic Neurological Conditions.” The presentation is part of a two-day conference held at the Cleveland Clinic’s Global Center for Health Innovation and at the Cleveland Convention Center. Its goal is to explore dilemmas that arise in outpatient settings relevant to clinicians, ethicists, and public health scholars, and to provide practical ethical frameworks and tools to navigate these dilemmas.

Pike’s presentation will focus on the Bioethics Commission’s December 2013 report Anticipate and Communicate: Ethical Management of Incidental and Secondary Findings in the Clinical, Research, and Direct-to-Consumer Contexts. She will discuss how the Commission’s work on incidental and secondary findings can be applied specifically to neuroscience, and will reference two cases first presented at the Commission’s thirteenth public meeting on April 30, 2013. Sarah Hilgenberg and Carol Krucoff, both received incidental findings as a result of neuroimaging, one in a research setting and one in a clinical setting. Their cases help illustrate the practical, legal, and ethical implications of incidental and secondary findings. These implications vary depending on the context in which they arise and demonstrate the importance of preparing for both incidental and secondary findings when engaging in neuroscience clinical care or research.

Attendees at today’s conference include neurologists, neurosurgeons, psychiatrists, lawyers, advance care nurses, physician assistants, ethicists, psychologists, health services specialists and social workers. It is part of the larger “23rd Annual International Epilepsy Symposia” currently taking place in Cleveland, Ohio through October 11, 2014.

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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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Beyond BRAIN: Bioethics Commission to Look Broadly at Ethical Issues in Neuroscience Wed, 18 Dec 2013 14:15:37 +0000 On July 1, 2013, President Obama requested that the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) review the ethical considerations of neuroscience research and its application. The impetus for this request was the launch of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative.

Dr. Amy Gutmann, the President of the University of Pennsylvania and the Chair of the Bioethics Commission, opened today’s meeting, the fifteenth public meeting of the Bioethics Commission with a clarifying note: that the deliberations of the Bioethics Commission will go beyond the scope of the BRAIN Initiative alone. “While we received our charge as part of the President’s BRAIN Initiative, our focus is wider than the Initiative…President Obama asked us to review the ethical consideration of neuroscience more broadly,” she said, “[including] considerations of both neuroscience research and the application of neuroscience research findings.”

Dr. Gutmann explained that the Bioethics Commission is not tasked with the review of institutional research protocols. As such, the Bioethics Commission will “consider how best to integrate ethics into neuroscience broadly – and the BRAIN Initiative specifically– but this Bioethics Commission will not be the ultimate locus of that integration.”

Over the coming months, the Bioethics Commission will review different ethical issues associated with neuroscience research and how ethics might be integrated into neuroscience training and practice. The Bioethics Commission will then, Gutmann said, “make ethical and practical recommendations that will inform the conduct of the BRAIN Initiative.”

Today’s meeting will build upon previous discussion of the ethical issues related to neuroscience. The Bioethics Commission will hear from experts on how to integrate ethics into every step of neuroscientific training and practice. They will also discuss the topic of  private sector partners in the BRAIN Initiative, to understand how they go about identifying and addressing ethical issues. Finally the Bioethics Commission will hear from international neuroscience research initiatives, to hear how groups already pursuing large neuroscience research projects are dealing with ethical issues in their work.

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