Ethical Care Required as Neuroscience Advances, Government Report Says

brain image
Ethics should be integrated with neuroscience research throughout every step of the way, bioethicists say. (Image credit: Image courtesy of MGH-UCLA Human Connectome Project)

Advances in neuroscience raise a slew of ethical questions, and ethics should be integrated into this research, bioethics experts said in a report made public today (May 14).

The report is the first of a two-part response to a request to review ethical issues in neuroscience research, issued by President Barack Obama in conjunction with the government's BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), a project to develop tools for understanding the human brain in health and disease.

"Research on the brain strikes at the core of who we are, and the ethical stakes of neuroscience research could not be higher," Amy Gutmann, chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, told reporters in advance of the report's release. [Top 10 Mysteries of the Mind]

Ethics of neuroscience

Neurological conditions — such as addiction, depression, stroke and traumatic brain injury — affect more than a billion people worldwide. Research meant to help understand and treat these conditions brings up a host of ethical issues. Though these issues aren't necessarily unique to neuroscience, they deserve special attention, the commission said.

For example, advances in brain imaging raise the issue of mental privacy and agency, and dementia research raises issues of informed consent.

Neuroscience research has great potential for doing good, but scientists must be careful to "separate the hope from the hype," Gutmann said. For instance, deep-brain stimulation is an invasive treatment that has shown promise in the treating people with Parkinson's disease and other conditions. But lobotomy was once thought to be a promising treatment, too, and it caused irreparable harm to many people, Gutmann said.

Report recommendations

To address ethical issues in neuroscience, the commission issued a series of recommendations in Part 1 of their report.

First, the commission called for ethics to be integrated early and explicitly throughout research. Institutions and researchers should identify the key ethical questions associated with their studies, and take immediate steps to address these issues, the report said.

"It's important to integrate ethics from the get-go," Gutmann said, adding that ethical lapses could have tragic consequences on both patients and scientific progress.

Next, government agencies and research funders should choose the most effective approaches to integrating ethics into their research, the commission said.

The commission also recommended that government agencies and researchers integrate ethics into all levels of science education.

Finally, the commission recommended including ethics experts on research advisory groups, including those overseeing the BRAIN Initiative.

In the second part of their report, the commission plans to consider the ethical and societal implications of neuroscience research more broadly.

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.