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Bioethics Commission Plays Early Role in BRAIN Initiative

Calling for the integration of ethics across the life of neuroscientific research endeavors, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) released volume one of its two-part response to President Obama’s request related to the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. The report, Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society, includes four recommendations for institutions and individuals engaged in neuroscience research including government agencies and other funders.

“Neurological conditions—which include addiction, chronic pain, dementia, depression, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, stroke, and traumatic brain injury, among other conditions—affect more than one billion people globally. Neuroscience has begun to make important breakthroughs, but given the complexity of the brain, we must better understand it in order to make desired progress,” said Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., Bioethics Commission Chair. “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.”

President Obama asked the Bioethics Commission to play a critical role in ensuring that neuroscientific investigational methods and protocols are consistent with sound ethical principles and practices. Specifically the President asked the Bioethics Commission to “identify proactively a set of core ethical standards – both to guide neuroscience research and to address some of the ethical dilemmas that may be raised by the application of neuroscience research findings.”

“Our rapidly advancing knowledge of the nervous system – and ability to detect disease sometimes even before symptoms begin – has not yet led to much needed breakthroughs in treatment, repair, and prevention; the BRAIN initiative will hopefully accelerate the trajectory of discoveries against terrible neurologic maladies,” Commission Member and neuroimmunologist Stephen L. Hauser, M.D., said.

In its report the Bioethics Commission noted that when facing the promise of neuroscience, we are compelled to consider carefully scientific advances that have the potential to alter our conception of the very private and autonomous nature of self.  Our understanding of the mind, our private thoughts, and our volition necessitates careful reflection about the scientific, societal, and ethical aspects of neuroscience endeavors. 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.  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,” Gutmann said.  “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.”

For more, read the complete Gray Matters report, Volume 1, or explore comprehensive coverage of the release.