US bioethics commission calls for ethics education in neuroscience

Michael Cook
16 May 2014
Reproduced with Permission

Calling for the integration of ethics into neuroscience, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues this week released the first of two volumes on the ethics of brain research. The commission's chair, Amy Gutmann, of the University of Pennsylvania, explained:

"But because research on our brains strikes at the very core of who we are, the ethical stakes of neuroscience research could not be higher. Ethicists and scientists should be together at the table in the earliest stages of research planning fostering a fluent two-way conversation. Too often in our nation's past, ethical lapses in research have had tragic consequences and derailed scientific progress."

Early ethics integration can prevent the need for corrective interventions resulting from ethical mishaps that erode public trust in science.

"In short, everyone benefits when the emphasis is on integration, not intervention. Ethics in science must not come to the fore for the first time after something has gone wrong. An essential step is to include expert ethicists in the BRAIN Initiative advisory and review bodies."

The commission's deliberations have been shaped by a number of high-profile ethical disasters such as the fad for transorbital lobotomy, a psychosurgical procedure which cured "delusions, obsessions, and nervous tensions; the Tuskegee syphilis study, or research into sexually-transmitted disease in Guatemala. As Dr Gutman wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education :

"By integrating ethics into neuroscience research early and thoroughly, we can avoid the need for a future bioethics commission to perform a painful postmortem on the Brain Initiative. When it comes to neuroscience, surely we should use all our brains."