The forays into neuroscience afforded by President Obama's BRAIN Initiative will not be without ethical hurdles. This is practically a truism—some of the dirtiest ethical waters are those bridged by the brain sciences. And while it's easy to regard such discussions as afterthought, the newest report from the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues places them front and centre.
The sentiment is summarised on the Commission's website: "Integrating ethics explicitly and systematically into the relatively new field of contemporary neuroscience allows us to incorporate ethical insights into the scientific process and to consider societal implications of neuroscience research from the start."
So here's to hoping the preliminary discussions and reports actually breed action. I particularly appreciate the recommendation for "all advisory groups and funding review panels for neuroscience research to include a trained bioethicist." It's a little shocking that this isn't already the case.
Parsing hope from hype is key to ethical neuroscience research and its application, Gutmann notes. Citing the troubled ethical history of psychosurgery in the United States, in which more than 40,000 people were lobotomized based on shaky evidence that the procedure could treat psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression, Gutmann cautions that a similar ethical derailment is possible in contemporary neuroscience research. A misstep with invasive experimental treatments such as deep brain stimulation surgery would not only be tragic for patients, but have “devastating consequences” for scientific progress, she says.