Hype Can Prevent Ethical Advancement of Neuroscience – Ethics Can Pave the Way for Productive Discourse

Commission Releases Gray Matters, Vol. 2 – final response to President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative related request

Commission focuses on three controversial issues that must be addressed if neuroscience is to progress and be applied ethically

March 26, 2015

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) released the second volume of its two-part response to President Obama’s request related to the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Gray Matters: Topics at the Intersection of Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society, seeks to clarify the scientific landscape, identify common ground, and recommend ethical paths forward. Cautioning against hyperbole and misinformation when discussing the promise of neuroscience, the report offers 14 recommendations to help clear a path to productive discourse.

“Alongside well-informed and well-intentioned discussion, when it comes to neuroscience, hyperbole and misinformation permeate the conversation,” Bioethics Commission Chair Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., said. “This exaggeration or hype can mislead the public, cause the misdirection of resources, and instill misplaced fears. It is easy to get carried away by exciting scientific frontiers and to lose sight of the fact that we are talking about people—not just colorful images of the brain.”

With that in mind, the Bioethics Commission addresses three controversial topics in Gray Matters, Vol. 2 that have captured the public’s attention at the intersection of neuroscience, ethics, and society.  They are: cognitive enhancement, consent capacity, and neuroscience and the legal system.

“There are many topics at this intersection, but these three are among the most hotly debated by scholars and the public alike and illustrate the ethical tensions and societal implications of advancing neuroscience and technology,” Gutmann added. “By collaborating with philosophers and ethicists, scientists will keep the full picture of personhood in view.”

As part of the BRAIN Initiative, a White House Grand Challenge announced in April 2013, President Obama asked the Bioethics Commission to review the ethical issues associated with the conduct and implications of neuroscience research. In Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society, released in May 2014, the Commission focused on the importance of integrating ethics and neuroscience early and explicitly throughout the research endeavor.

In Gray Matters, Vol. 2, the Bioethics Commission’s recommendations serve to guide the ethical progress of neuroscience and its applications. Commission recommendations are geared toward fostering informed conversations, and include:

  • Prioritizing research into the treatment of neurological disorders, as well as research into existing low-technology strategies to improve neural health;
  • Responsibly including participants with impaired consent capacity in research, with ethical protections in place;
  • Avoiding overstatement or overreliance on neuroscientific evidence to draw legal conclusions.

Recognizing that throughout the report it called for research on a number of critical topics, and that such research requires adequate support and other resources, the Bioethics Commission recommended that the BRAIN Initiative be responsible for establishing and funding organized, independent, multidisciplinary efforts to support neuroscience and ethics research and education.

“As a White House Grand Challenge, the BRAIN Initiative is uniquely positioned to establish and support an effort that brings together diverse expertise from neuroscience, ethics, law, policy, and other disciplines to advance research and education at the intersection of neuroscience, ethics, and society,” the Bioethics Commission wrote in the second volume of its report.

Gray Matters: Topics at the Intersection of Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society is the Bioethics Commission’s ninth published project and its second volume on neuroscience. The Bioethics Commission seeks to identify and promote policies and practices that ensure that scientific research, health care delivery, and technological innovation are conducted by the United States in a socially and ethically responsible manner. The Bioethics Commission is an independent, deliberative panel of thoughtful experts that advises the President and the Administration, and, in so doing, educates the nation on bioethical issues.

To date the Bioethics Commission has:

  • Advised the White House on the benefits and risks of synthetic biology;
  • Completed an independent historical overview and ethical analysis of the U.S. Public Health Service STD experiments in Guatemala in the 1940s;
  • Assessed the rules that currently protect human participants in research;
  • Examined the pressing privacy concerns raised by the emergence and increasing use of whole genome sequencing;
  • Conducted a thorough review of the ethical considerations of conducting clinical trials of medical countermeasures with children, including the ethical considerations involved in conducting a pre-and post-event study of anthrax vaccine adsorbed for post-exposure prophylaxis with children;
  • Offered ethical analysis and recommendations for clinicians, researchers, and direct-to-consumer testing companies on how to manage the increasingly common issue of incidental and secondary findings;
  • Deliberated on the ethical issues associated with the conduct and implications of neuroscience research; and
  • Reviewed the ethical considerations and implications of U.S. public health emergency response in the context of the western African Ebola epidemic.


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