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Bioethics Commission Releases Neuroscience Ethics Report

In response to President Obama’s request to “identify proactively a set of core ethical standards” for neuroscience research and applications, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released its report “Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society” in May 2014 [1]. The President’s call for ethical considerations is linked to the Administration’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative, announced in April 2013.

According to the report, ethics need to be made relevant and pragmatic in order to play a meaningful role in scientific research. As the report notes, “ethics education has a better chance of informing action when it is continually reinforced and connected to practical experience.” [1] The report provides several recommendations for institutions to build an ethical infrastructure that enhances best practices at all stages of research.

First, institutions should work to integrate ethical standards at all stages of research; ethics should play a key role in the earliest conception of a study to the final stages of results and impacts. Second, institutions should build an effective infrastructure that systematically evaluates its own ethical standards and considers innovative approaches towards better integration. The report lauds the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) for its innovative ethics program for the BRAIN initiative, which includes an independent review panel of leading bioethicists from outside the organization. Third, institutions should incorporate routine ethics educational programs for researchers at all levels. Lastly, they should ensure that advisory and review boards include individuals with an expertise in ethical practices. Research teams should include researchers with an experience in ethics as well.

The report recommends several strategies for better integration of ethics into the scientific community. Ethics education should start early—ideally before students enter college—and continue through advanced degrees and professional research environments. In fact, the inclusion of ethics in high school classes engages students and sparks greater interest in science. The report also emphasizes that proper implementation of ethics into scientific research and education demands adequate funding. It commends an emerging model of independent ethics consultation services offered to research teams, and the positive impact of engagement with stakeholders in the community and public.

The field of neuroscience is an ideal field to inculcate stronger ethics into science because it is highly multidisciplinary, linking fields such as biology, computer science and physics, and bearing significant impacts on society. The report notes that if ethicists are not fluent in the hard science, they will be unable to have a meaningful impact on neuroscience research. Likewise, scientists must be fluent in ethics in order to understand fully all the dimensions of their research. The report suggests that inclusion of professional activities related to ethics integration in career reward structures like tenure may offer further incentives to scientists. Additionally, research funders can apply pressure by requiring an ethics component as part of grant proposals.

The report mentions several ethical issues specific to neuroscience. For example, what are the ethical guidelines for health decision preferences made by individuals with dementia and other degenerative diseases? What are the best practices for the use of neuroscience in the courtroom? How should researchers protect the privacy of study participants who undergo neuroimaging? What are the ethics of using deep brain stimulation for mental health, especially given the moral condemnation of similar procedures in the past, such as frontal lobe lobotomy?

These issues are likely to become increasingly complex and ubiquitous as the field of neuroscience progresses. It is essential that the scientific community build an effective ethics infrastructure now, proactively, in anticipation of these mounting challenges. As the report notes, “fulfillment of these obligations supports scientific quality and is crucial to maintaining public trust essential for scientific progress.” [1] An upcoming second report from the Commission will examine these ethical and societal implications specific to neuroscience in greater detail.

[1] http://www.bioethics.gov/sites/default/files/Gray%20Matters%20Vol%201.pdf

This article is part of the Spring 2014 issue of Professional Ethics Report (PER). PER, which has been in publication since 1988, reports on news and events, programs and activities, and resources related to professional ethics issues, with a particular focus on those professions whose members are engaged in scientific research and its applications.