Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Neuroethics and the human brain projects

Image from cover of the NIH brochure "The BRAIN Initiative."

The European Commission has promised 1 billion euros for its Human Brain Project, which seeks to build a computer model of the human brain within the next decade. And U.S. federal agencies are expected to contribute several billion dollars to President Obama's BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies).

Meanwhile, the U.S. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, which includes Emory’s President James Wagner as its vice chair, has outlined the need for ethical inquiry alongside this research. In a 2014 report entitled “Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics and Society,” the commission calls for a systematic ethics education throughout the careers of neuroscientists.

Articles in the current issue of the American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience (AJOBN) represent the scope of ongoing neuroethical inquiry, from criteria for human trials to study Parkinson’s disease to the use of prescription stimulants to enhance motivation.

“The study of neuroscience, unlike many other scientific disciplines, resonates with the notion of who we think we are,” write the authors of an editorial in the issue. “Therefore, the ethical questions often move beyond research and professional ethics into the complex terrain of evaluating societal implications. This will impact how we educate our burgeoning neuroscientists.”

The editorial was co-authored by Karen Rommelfanger, director of the Neuroethics Program at Emory’s Center for Ethics.

“Ultimately, the success or failure of the human brain projects will be measured only partly by the extent to which they accomplish the goal of mapping the human connectome,’ the editorial authors conclude. “If the goal of the projects is to understand the human brain, the goal of neuroethics is to help understand and explain what understanding the brain would really mean.”

The AJOBN is the official publication of the International Neuroethics Society and many of its editors are housed in Emory’s Center for Ethics.

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