Neuroethics

I often like to say that, in my line of work in computational neuroscience, they don’t let me deal directly with other humans. This is jokingly said to reflect the fact that I have no interpersonal skills or rather to suggest that the results from my mathematical models are narrow in scope and likely not to have direct implications on human health, for a variety of reasons. One reason for this is because the data I use to constrain my models comes primarily from experiments from animals and are often used in a qualitative fashion. This is because I am often more interested in general dynamical principles of networks that may exist in the brain, since the real problem of full understanding is quite a bit less tractable (but not necessarily impossible). Another reason is that all computational models — from neuroscience to genetics to economics — have numerous simplifying assumptions that must be understood carefully in order to interpret the model results appropriately. There is a great deal of responsibility that accompanies the communication of model results, since these explicit and implicit assumptions must be carefully specified.

Yet, despite these reasons for not marketing my work in a way that suggests it has direct implications for human health, I recognize that the study of brains and nervous systems has wide ranging implications on so many issues that will impact human health fundamentally. Perhaps even moreso than genetics, brain science is widely believed to be addressing many secrets of who we are as humans and as individuals. While both are complex molecular machines, the implications of altering brains seems to have an immediacy that may be unique. I believe that neuroscientists have a professional responsibility to understand how the greater public, policy makers, health care providers, businesses, and the law will use and interpret our findings and to help ensure that these societal decisions are supported by science. Since we admittedly know so little (as a field, we are full of factoids), we currently need to be clear when there is not enough evidence to support these decisions.

Among the issues, some of which are unique to neuroscience, include cognitive enhancement, incidental findings of maladies that might come up in a subject who is involved as a research participant, implications on neuroscience-based evidence in court, predispositions for a profile of a person’s brain toward certain decisions or actions, rights and access of a patient’s brain-related health care records, and a host of other privacy issues that may speak to core personality issues that may be exploited one day for marketing. This is not at all an exhaustive list.

There is an emerging field of neuroethics that helps to address many of these issues, with organizations that are attempting to establish guidelines that help researchers and the public make good decisions. In fact, there exists a Presidential Commission For The Study Of Bioethical Issues that in part focuses specifically on neuroscience-specific issues. They just finished up a meeting that facilitated discussion of several of these issues. My hope is that all of us as professionals take this responsibility seriously and that we engage our friends and the public in discussing these important issues openly in order to educate each other.

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