Right now, a massive effort is underway to map and understand the human brain to a degree that has never been accomplished before, with the goal of “revolutionising our understanding of the human brain” — and by doing so, perhaps revealing more about our thoughts, behaviours, and who we are than we’ve ever known.
This project, the BRAIN initiative, has the potential to transform the way we treat neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia and could even help us figure out how technology might enhance our own cognitive abilities, “supercharging” the brain.
But all this potential has a dark side too. Aside from the fact that it’s easy (and tempting) to overhype what we will learn from all this, there are three ethical issues that researchers are particularly concerned about.
The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethetical Issues detailed those concerns in a 168-page report released March 26, the second volume of a two-part report on how neuroscience, ethics, and society intersect. The expert panel also included recommendations on how this research should proceed in the most responsible, ethical way possible.
After all, we’re not just talking about colourful pictures of the brain. As Dr. Amy Gutmann, chair of the Bioethics Commission pointed out on a press call about the report: “We’re talking about people,” and it’s important to make sure this research works to everyone’s benefit.
Here are the commission’s three main ethical concerns.
1. How to deal with what we learn about cognitive enhancement.
Some of this research is likely to reveal the best ways to make our brains work even better than they do now — using drugs, electrical stimulation, or other tools that modify the way brain networks work.
While the commission concludes there’s nothing inherently unethical about this research, they want to make sure that scientists prioritise a focus on ways to treat neurological disorders as they continue this work. The commission also wants researchers in this area to make sure people have equal access to tools that could enhance brain function so as not to worsen social and economic inequality.
2. How to deal with the need to do research on people who can’t properly consent, including patients with traumatic brain injuries and dementia.
People with brain injuries and conditions like Alzheimer’s may have the most to gain from what we’re learning about the brain right now. The hard part is, in order to learn more about these conditions these patients need to be included in studies — even though the nature of their conditions may mean they are unable to give their own consent. The commission wants clear guidelines outlining exactly how researchers can responsibly include these patients in studies, including a way to make sure that patients have legally authorised representatives who can speak for them.
3. How to incorporate what we learn about neuroscience into the legal system.
The more we know about the brain, the more we can use that knowledge to understand behaviour — including criminal behaviour. But that could also lead to relying too much on neuroscience in courts, especially if what we know is overhyped or taken to be unequivocally true. That’s likely to happen unless the general public is better educated on the workings of the brain.
These three ethical controversies aren’t the only issues that will come up as we learn more about how the brain works, but they’re three of the most prominent issues we can see right now. It’s important to get them right.
As Dr. Stephen Hauser, a neuroimmunologist and member of the Bioethics Commission said on the press call while discussing what we’re learning about people with neurological conditions, “the stakes could not be higher — because the promise is so great.”
For more details, check out the full report.
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