No new neuroscience without neuroethics

Right now, there's a lot of interest, hope, concern and trepidation about brain science. In this guest blog, Prof. James Giordano, co-Editor-in-Chief of Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine, calls for the field and practices of neuroethics to address and steer neuroscientific research and its applications.


Some very recent studies have demonstrated alterations in implicit bias through the use of memory modification during sleep, and the ability to alter ‘sacred values’ through the use of narratives that affect neuro-cognitive reasoning and justification processes.

Studies are also currently expanding uses of deep brain stimulation to affect a range of neurological and psychiatric conditions and states, and there is a rapidly growing use of neuromodulatory technologies in clinical, occupational and general public settings to modify mood, and improve performance on certain cognitive and behavioral tasks.

Furthermore, for the near future there are projects that seek to push the boundaries of neuroscientific capability into the realms of what heretofore was considered to be only fictional.

The promise – and problems – of brain science

The promise of brain science lies in its capabilities to reduce the burden of neurological and psychiatric disease, to afford methods and tools to assist, if not better, daily living, and to improve the quality of life.

Yet, these very same methods and tools can be, and are, viewed as the engines of dystopia,  conjuring visions of mind reading and thought control, fostering a widening gap between the neurotechnologically enhanced and those not, and opening a veritable Pandora’s Box of potential problems and harms spawned by unanticipated effects or ‘runaway’ science.

This, coupled with the push from the BRAIN initiative has prompted release of recommendations by the US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues that offer a basis for neuroethical address.

Brain science at work on the world stage

But these recommendations, while sound, do not detail how to engage neuroethical direction, or provide guidance through the complex fields, if not morass of social, cultural, economic, and sometimes political variables and contexts that color the ways that the knowledge and tools of brain science can and perhaps should be used.

Neuroscience is, and is becoming ever more, a global social force. Recent and near term growth of non-Western bio- and neurotechnology investments, research and use will increasingly affect international economics, and the ways that different socio-cultural markets view, value and influence neuroscientific translation and its applications.

Neuroethics for this new vista – and reality – of brain science must appreciate current and emerging trends in both technology and the social sphere, and should not be bounded by the sole adherence to, or use of, Western ideas, ideals or values.

We need to be prepared for the questions, problems – and solutions – that such cutting edged science will incur in specific and ‘real world’ circumstances and contexts.

This demands a broader, more inclusive orientation to multicultural perspectives so as to insure that neuroethical address and approaches are directly relevant, realistic and remain applied to the problems and possibilities generated by neuroscience upon the twenty first century world stage.

Neuroethics needs to keep pace

Arguably, this is both important and necessary if neuroethics is to keep pace with the brain sciences – and social concerns – it serves. In other words, there should be no new neuroscience without neuroethics. We need to be prepared for the questions, problems – and solutions – that such cutting edged science will incur in specific and ‘real world’ circumstances and contexts.

This will require dedicated investment to accurately define and address neuroethico-legal and social issues inherent and derivative to the most current neuroscience and technology; not to restrict research or its translation, but to maximize its value.

Without doubt neuroscience will enable new knowledge and tools, and it is important to cultivate brain research and its translation. But it is equally, if not most important to ask – and guide – what we will do with such insight and tools, and to prudently establish how such guidance will be developed and enacted. Simply put, given the momentum and breadth of brain science, to do otherwise would be folly.

View the latest posts on the On Health homepage

One Comment


Consider that Ethics for Man’s emerging Neural capabilities will be similar to his ethics in the past, albeit accelerated in a techno culture. Thanks for writing. Steven

Comments are closed.