Neuroscience: Should We Be Worried?


By Celine Cammarata

By nature of focussing on that squishy, convoluted organ that the mind calls home, the field of neuroscience is prone to investigating topics, and producing data, that could be considered… personal.  Take defining what makes some of us smarter than others, decoding patterns of activity to reveal thoughts, or examining the mental effects of economic instability, for example, not to mention the controversies of working with non-human primates as is required for much higher-level cognitive research.  We must ask ourselves, then, what are the ethical considerations associated with performing such experiments?  What can we, and what should we, do with the information obtained?  How far is too far?

Such are the questions that the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues hopes to gain insight on, following a request from the President to investigate the ethical considerations of neuroscience research.  To do this, the Commission is turning to the public: in a requested released in January, the Commission called on individuals, groups, and organizations to submit comments on the moral issues relating to both the process and results of research in the field.  The Commission, which has used similar approaches on other topics in the past, will then incorporate this commentary into it’s overall research, toward the final goal of crafting policy advice and determining and encouraging best practices.

And, to be fair, they’re pretty good questions.  Certainly neuroscientists, like other investigators, are generally self-regulating when it comes to ethical considerations.  But the Commission’s push gives us once again the impetus to ask the perennial questions, are there some things that should not be researched?  Are some things better not to know?  While not original, nor easily answered, these questions bear repeating and consideration.

The Commission specifically requested input on several topics, including whether current codes regulating the use of human subjects are adequate for neuroscience experiments, concerns over potential implications of results and downstream effects on discrimination and concepts of moral responsibility, the proper place of neuroscience in the courtroom, and the potential moral issues associated with communication of neuroscience findings.  This last topic particularly caught my attention, for while clearly an important issue, communication is not always thought of in the light of morality.  Are researchers obligated to share some discoveries?  Are journalists being unethical when they trump up findings?  It’s certainly food for thought.

Those who want to see the committee in action can tune in to the live feed of their public meeting to discuss neuroethics, today and tomorrow in Washington D.C. and online.