Brave New Neuroscience
Researchers and executives involved with neurotechnology products and therapies have always had to concern themselves with issues of ethics, as is the case with most all healthcare industry and biomedical research applications. But as was pointed out by Prof. Hank Greely of Stanford University at the recent Society for Neuroscience Meeting in San Diego [see conference report p7], new neuroscience applications present some unique and challenging concerns for recipients and administrators of neurotech therapies.
Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University, began his lecture with a look back at the “ethics panic” that took place in 1969. At the time, the nation grappled with psychiatric issues such as prefrontal lobotomies raised by the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and mind-control fears propagated by Jose Delgado’s use of radio-controlled brain stimulation to still a raging bull. “Compared to 1969, we know much more about the brain now,” he said. Issues that weren’t real 40 years ago are now becoming real.”
Greely raised several examples of perplexing ethical issues confronting neurotech researchers and clinicians today. These include privacy issues raised by new brain atlases and databases as well as incidental findings of brain abnormalities from research studies investigating unrelated matters. Neuroscience’s ability to predict who might get psychiatric or neurological disorders in the future also raises ethical issues—particularly with disorders we have learned to predict before there are adequate interventions.
Neurotechnology’s increasing ability to “read minds” via new neuroimaging methods also presents ethical issues, as does the forced treatment for conditions that may or may not be diseases, such as drug dependency or sexual orientation. Finally, the development of cognitive enhancement agents raises questions of when their use should be allowed.
We continue to believe that many, if not most of these issues can be addressed by adhering to the principles contained in the U.S. Constitution, including the first, fourth, ninth, and tenth amendments. Much of the uncertainty that exists today is a result of the people’s willingness to let the government usurp more and more of these rights.
A populace that has already aceded to the government’s power to examine our cognitive state, for example, by forcing one to pee in a bottle, will have a harder time preventing the same government from confiscating our EEG scans. True, we are at the mercy of interpretations of the U.S. Supreme Court on these matters. But we the people elect the president and the senators who seat those justices and we need to do a better job of voicing our concern for a government that strictly adheres to the Bill of Rights.
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