Neuroscience and Neuroethics

Science  15 Oct 2004:
Vol. 306, Issue 5695, pp. 373
DOI: 10.1126/science.306.5695.373

Neuroethics, it appears, is a subject that has “arrived.” The Dana Foundation is, for the second time since 2002, sponsoring a special lecture on this topic at this year's annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. AAAS, publisher of Science, also joined with Dana to produce a conference on “Neuroscience and the Law” earlier this year. The U.S. President's Council on Bioethics is now devoting serious attention to the topic. Companies are deploying functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map brain activity as they assess the product preferences of prospective consumers (Coke or Pepsi?). There's even a new discipline called neuroeconomics. So something is going on here.

What got it started, and where is it headed? I think it emerged as new techniques and insights into human brain function gave us a dramatically revised notion of what might be possible. The first microelectrode recordings in active, behaving, nonhuman primates made it possible to look seriously at how valuation, choice, and expectation are encoded by single cells in particular parts of the brain. It further evolved with the development of fMRI and other noninvasive techniques for tracing neural activity in people. These studies are beginning to explain how particular brain structures are involved in higher functions (making difficult moral choices, for example) or in predisposing the individual to a particular kind of behavior.

In a different area, the successes of psychopharmacology in altering brain states and behavior have raised new problems of their own, not least in terms of how we may feel about the chemical manipulation of innate capacities. The list is long and ever growing: antidepressants, methylphenidate (Ritalin) for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), compounds that enhance alertness, and a new wave of drugs that may enhance memory formation and heighten cognitive ability.


Some of the questions now being raised by our expanded neuroscientific capacity are not exactly new. Consider, for example, the old issue of treatment versus enhancement. A child deficient in growth hormone could benefit from replacement therapy, and few would object to that, but its use by an aspiring teenage basketball player of normal height would raise questions. Now to the nervous system: Children with ADHD are often given methylphenidate after a physician considers their need. High school and college students without benefit of evaluation are using the same drug in the hope of improving their exam performance. Aside from the health risks associated with such drugs, what is it that bothers us here?

Perhaps it is our belief that the playing field should be level—we worry about the students who can't access the drug. Well, what about the kids who can't afford a preparatory course for taking a standardized test? Don't they raise the same questions about distributive justice? And suppose that we make the playing field level: All kids get the drugs, and all the sprinters get the steroids. Risks aside, are we comfortable with competition run in this way? Will the winners examine their enhanced selves and wonder “Was that really me?”

The ability to peer into brain processes also intensifies old privacy questions. Suppose that fMRI records become individually diagnostic with respect to some behavioral anomaly or predictive of some future tendency. Surely we would worry if they were used in insurance or employment contexts or in criminal litigation. Privacy protection would be guaranteed if the record were obtained as part of a medical procedure, but of course there are other possible sources. In the future, brain imaging techniques could conceivably be employed in the context of a court procedure as a test of truth-telling or subpoenaed in a case involving violence.

Finally, special issues arise when we penetrate into the philosophical territory where dualists and determinists debate over free will. As we learn more about the neurobiology of choice and decision, will we reach a point at which we feel less free? Perhaps more important for society, will we eventually know enough to change our view about individual responsibility for antisocial acts? There are those who worry about this. I am not among them, only because it seems so unlikely to me that our knowledge of the brain will deepen enough to fuse it with the mind. So, remaining convinced that my will is free, I am left to worry about the privacy of my inclinations and my thoughts.

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