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Bioethics Commission Releases Second Report on Ethics in Neuroscience

On March 26, 2015, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) released the second volume of its report “Gray Matters: Topics at the Intersection of Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society” [1]. The first volume focused on the integration of ethics into neuroscience research; the second volume covers several specific issues related to the ethical conduct of neuroscience. In a webinar held in conjunction with the report’s publication, Lisa Lee, Executive Director of the Commission, noted that the first volume emphasized the need to integrate ethics early and explicitly throughout all stages of neuroscience research [2]. For the second volume, the Bioethics Commission focused on three topics: cognitive enhancement, consent capacity, and neuroscience and the legal system. Nita Farahany, a co-author of the report, explained that while there are many ethical issues related to neuroscience, these three were chosen due to their high level of controversy and the fact that “these issues have already arrived.”

Cognitive enhancement: There is much hype about new technologies that can purportedly improve one’s neurological abilities and treat cognitive impairments. In order to broaden the conversation about cognitive enhancement, the Commission instead uses the term “neural modification,” which includes emerging technologies, as well as daily conditions and behaviors that impact brain performance. The Commission makes five recommendations regarding neural modification: first, to prioritize existing strategies to maintain or improve neural health, such as diet, and adequate exercise and sleep; to prioritize the treatment of neurological disorders; to study neural modifiers and examine their prevalence, benefits and risks; to ensure equitable access so individuals of all socioeconomic levels can access the benefits of these advancements; and fifth, to create guidance on the use of neural modifiers.

Capacity and consent: The protection of human subjects is a vital aspect of scientific responsibility and obtaining informed consent is a key ethical laboratory practice. But how can scientists be sure they have obtained adequate consent from participants with neurological disabilities? The Commission makes four recommendations on this topic. First, scientists should responsibly include participants with impaired consent capacity. It is important that individuals not be excluded from research due to their cognitive problems. Second, to conduct further research on consent capacity and ethical protections. Third, to engage stakeholders to address the stigma associated with impaired consent capacity. And fourth, to establish clear requirements for legally authorized representatives of individuals with cognitive problems for research participation.

Neuroscience and the law: Increasingly, the findings of contemporary neuroscience are reverberating in courtrooms. New insights about the brain are changing the way the law handles cases related to adolescent decision making, the effects of drugs on the brain, memory and lie detection, and states of consciousness, among others. To this end, the report makes four recommendations on the growing intersection of neuroscience with the law. First, the scientific community should expand and promote educational tools to aid the understanding and use of neuroscience in the legal system. The report commends programs such as the AAAS Judicial Seminars on Emerging Issues in Neuroscience, which help educate judges on contemporary neuroscience relevant to cases they may encounter in the courtroom. Second, that BRAIN Initiative funders support research on this intersection. Third, to avoid hype, overstatement and unfounded conclusions, all of which could undermine the science. And last, that scientists participate more in legal decision-making processes and policy development.

The fourteenth and final overarching recommendation of the report calls for BRAIN Initiative funders to establish and fund multi-disciplinary efforts to support neuroscience and ethics research and education. Moreover, the Commission hopes to “clarify the scientific landscape, identify common ground, and recommend ethical paths forward to stimulate and continue critical, well-informed conversations at the intersection of neuroscience and ethics as the field continues to advance” [1, p.10].


[1] Gray Matters: Topics at the Intersection of Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society, Vol. 2.

This article is part of the Winter 2015 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.