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Neuroethics

Neuroscience is making discoveries about the brain at an incredible pace. For example, new drugs and treatments for mental and neurological disorders are being developed rapidly and imaging methods can see the living, working brain. Is neuroscience moving too fast? What can and should be done with this new knowledge about the brain? These are questions that concern workers in the field called neuroethics.

Scientists, physicians, journalists, lawyers, politicians, philosophers, clergymen and teachers are people interested in neuroethics. But we should all be interested in neuroethics because this field will impact many aspects of our daily lives. Some neuroethical issues sound like science fiction, but other issues deal with technology and drugs that are currently available. There is no turning back. Neuroscientific discoveries will continue to be made and it is best to discuss these issues before they become reality.

Neuroethics - Some Questions

What if... machines could read your mind?

catscanner Existing brain imaging methods provide researchers and physicians with important tools to investigate the structure and function of the living brain. These powerful techniques help detect abnormalities in the brain and can assist in the diagnosis of neurological and mental disorders. Brain imaging is also used in experiments to study emotions, language and perception.

Could machines also read your thoughts, plans and memories? We currently have a machine called the polygraph (sometimes called a lie detector). The polygraph records involuntary physiological responses such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate and sweating to see if people are lying. However, the accuracy of the polygraph for detecting lies is controversial and some people can be trained to fool the machine. Could a machine that measures brain activity detect lying accurately?

Inventors of a "brain fingerprinting" machine think they have a device that can reveal a person's knowledge of events. Brain fingerprinting measures the electrical activity of the brain through electrodes attached to the scalp. Specific stimuli (words, pictures or sounds) are presented to a person. Some of the stimuli are important to an investigation, such as a crime scene. These important stimuli are thought to produce a special brain response that indicates that the person knows something about the stimulus. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain blood flow, may also be able to detect areas of the brain that are active when a person lies. Two companies, No Lie MRI and Cephos Corp, are already marketing a service to detect lying.

If a device could accurately measure hidden knowledge and detect lies, how could and should it be used?

Memories are very fragile and can change over time. Would such a brain scan be able to detect "false memories" or memories that people believe to be true, but are not true? In specific experimental situations, some brain areas (the posterior medial temporal lobe) do respond differently to true memories and false memories.

What if... machines could predict a future neurological or mental disease?

Brain imaging can identify structural and functional differences in people with various neurological and mental disorders. For example, magnetic resonance imaging has shown that people with schizophrenia have larger than normal lateral ventricles, reduced hippocampus size, changes in the size of basal ganglia nuclei, and abnormalities in the prefrontal cortex. Currently, genetic testing can be used to screen for particular illnesses, such as Huntington's disease. Perhaps a brain scan will enable detection of other neurological and mental disorders.

What if... drugs could alter your personality?

Drugs that alter mood are already available. Antidepressants and tranquilizers are used by millions of people every day: people with schizophrenia are treated with antipsychotics; children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are treated with stimulants. In the future, drugs might alter a specific personality characteristic. For example, perhaps a drug could be made to fight shyness.

What if... drugs, machines or genetic engineering could increase your memory and intelligence?

We now have drugs to slow memory problems associated with Alzheimer's disease. Many drug companies, including Memory Pharmaceuticals, a company set up by Nobel Prize winner Dr. Eric Kandel, are developing new chemicals to improve memory.

Technological advances already assist people with hearing and visual problems. For example, cochlear implants are used to improve hearing and the development of an artificial retina is progressing.

What if... memories could be erased?

Drugs to improve memory might sound like a good idea, but drugs to erase memories might also be useful. In fact, some drug companies are trying to develop chemicals to block the formation of memories. These drugs might be used to remove the memory of a traumatic event and help a victim recover. On the other hand, traumatic events can serve as a learning tool that emphasizes the danger of the event -- erasing memories may prevent a person from avoiding a traumatic situation in the future.

What if... the brain could be controlled from a distance?

Areas of the brain can be stimulated or suppressed by placing a transcranial magnetic stimulator (TMS) over the scalp. The TMS directs magnetic fields toward the brain and has been used to study movement, sensation and memory. Magnetic stimulation has also been used to treat depression and epilepsy.

The Future

Although new discoveries will likely lead to machines and drugs that can enhance the brain, the question becomes what should be done with these new drugs and new technology. Will people lose their sense of self if they take one of these new drugs? Will they become less human if they are implanted with a computer chip to aid their memory? What are the long-term effects of enhancing intelligence?

These questions must be discussed and debated NOW!

They Said It!
"Neuroethics is the examination of what is right and wrong, good and bad about the treatment of, perfection of, and welcome invasion or worrisome manipulation of the human brain."
--- William Safire (quoted by R. Fischback and G. Fischback in Hard Science, Hard Choices by Sandra J. Ackerman, 2006.)

References and further information about neuroethics:

  1. Neuroethics: Mapping the Field - from Dana Press.
  2. No Child Left Behind Without a Brain Scan - Cerebrum, 2005.
  3. Blank, R., Brain Policy. How the New Neuroscience Will Change Our Lives and Our Politics, Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1999.
  4. Cabeza, R. Rao, S.M., Wagner, A.D., Mayer, A.R. and Schacter, D.L., Can medial temporal lobe regions distinguish true from false? An event-related functional MRI study of veridical and illusory recognition memory, PNAS, 98:4805-4810, 2001.
  5. Chatterjee, A., Cosmetic neurology: The controversy over enhancing movement, mentation, and mood, Neurology, 63:968-974, 2004.
  6. Farah, M.J., Emerging ethical issues in neuroscience, Nature Neuroscience, 5:1123-1129, 2002.
  7. Law and the Brain, in Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, November 29, 2004.
  8. Meeting Neuroethical Challenges in Cognitive Enhancement
  9. Neurocognitive enhancement: What can we do and what should we do? - Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 5:421-425, 2004.
  10. Is It Ethical to Use Enhancement Technologies to Make Us Better than Well? - PLoS Medicine, December, 2004.
  11. Neuroethics.upenn.edu [publications]
  12. Neuroethics Imaging Group - Stanford University
  13. The President's Council on Bioethics
  14. Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness
  15. Better Memories? The Promise and Perils of Pharmacological Interventions
  16. Remembering and Forgetting: Psychological Aspects
  17. Happiness and Sadness: Depression and the Pharmacological Elevation of Mood - I
  18. Happiness and Sadness: Depression and the Pharmacological Elevation of Mood - II

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