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Minding Research Ethics

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues advises the integration of ethics into research on the human brain.

By | May 14, 2014

FLICKR, DIERK SCHAEFERIn its first of two reports on the subject, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues today (May 14) responded to President Obama’s July request to consider the “rapidly emerging and evolving field of neuroscience.” While his administration’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative, which is focused on mapping the human brain, motivated the review, in its analysis the Bioethics Commission considered neuroscience research more generally, and is now offering four recommendations focused on integrating ethics early on in modern neuroscience research. The commission stopped short of proposing research requirements, however.

“We have gone to great lengths to recommend [ethics] integration rather than regulation,” commission chair Amy Gutmann told reporters during a press conference Tuesday (May 13). But she added that with advances—and increasing public interest—in neuroimaging, deep-brain stimulation, and cognitive enhancement, among other things, now is the time to ensure that ethics are ingrained in the neuroscience research process. “Research on our brains strikes at the very core of who we are, so the ethical stakes . . . could not be higher.”

“We are truly on the threshold of making practical discoveries and advances that could provide enormous benefit but that also need to be assessed in terms of their appropriate use by all stakeholders,” added commission member Stephen Hauser. “The momentum and the trajectory of discovery over the next couple of years is going to increase exponentially.”

Among the Bioethics Commission’s recommendations are that individuals and institutions involved in neuroscience research “integrate ethics early and explicitly” throughout their programs, by evaluating existing and emerging approaches to ethics integration, introducing ethics education at all appropriate levels, and by including ethical perspectives on advisory and review bodies.

“We haven’t come to conclusions about it, but we have highlighted . . . some of the very important ethical issues that neuroscience research bring up,” Gutmann said during the press conference. “These issues are not by and large unique to neuroscience, but neuroscience uniquely highlights them in a way that captures public attention.”

For the second phase of its analysis, the commission will next consider the ethical and societal implications of neuroscience research and its applications more broadly, according to a press release.

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