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On Thursday, the Bioethics Commission chaired by Penn President Amy Gutmann released a report outlining fourteen recommendations addressing some of the ethical questions raised by neuroscience.

Photo: Courtesy of Andra MIhali/Creative Commons

Some of the best brains in medicine, ethics and bioethics have come together to offer President Obama wisdom on moral issues in neuroscience research.

On Thursday, the Bioethics Commission, chaired by Penn President Amy Gutmann, released a report outlining 14 recommendations addressing some of the ethical questions raised by neuroscience. "Gray Matters: Topics at the Intersection of Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society" is the second part of the Commission’s report to President Obama in relation to his Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative.

The most recent report focused on three main ethical issues: cognitive enhancement, consent capacity and the use of neuroscience in the legal system.

“There are many topics at this intersection [between neuroscience, ethics and society], but these three are among the most hotly debated by scholars and the public alike and illustrate the ethical tensions and societal implications of advancing neuroscience and technology,” Gutmann said in a press release. “By collaborating with philosophers and ethicists, scientists will keep the full picture of personhood in view.”

Cognitive enhancement is the modification or improvement of brain functions in order to improve cognitive functioning, treat neurological disorders or expand the capabilities of the human brain. The commission called for an emphasis on researching existing low-technology methods of improving brain functions such as diet and exercise. It also recommended that standards and guidelines be set for modifiers that can be used to expand the capabilities of the human brain beyond normal levels and encouraged equal access to these modifiers in order to prevent unfair advantages.

Consent capacity — the ability of neurological patients to fully comprehend the experiments they take part in as test subjects — was another hot-button issue addressed.

“Researchers have made substantial progress in the past decade in characterizing and understanding consent capacity,” the report said. “However, gaps remain, and further research can support development of best practices for ethical research involving participants with impaired consent capacity.”

The report also cautioned against the use of new neuroscience findings in court proceedings and called for more scientific literacy and reliability in the legal sphere.

“The potential value of neuroscience to improve decision making accuracy and advance justice must be reconciled with the potential for exaggeration, hype and premature application of scientific evidence and concepts that are not yet validated, well understood or interpreted accurately,” the report said.

Finally, the Commission outlined the risks associated with the “hyperbole and misinformation” that often exists in conversations on neuroscience.

“This exaggeration or hype can mislead the public, cause the misdirection of resources, and instill misplaced fears,” Gutmann said in the press release. “It is easy to get carried away by exciting scientific frontiers and to lose sight of the fact that we are talking about people — not just colorful images of the brain.”

Obama first announced his BRAIN Initiative in April 2013, along with $100 million in federal funding dedicated to better understanding the human brain and the disorders that affect it. Since then, the 10-year project has seen millions of dollars spent annually on neuroscience research by federal agencies, non-profit foundations, universities and corporations.

Several months after announcing the BRAIN Initiative, Obama wrote a letter to Gutmann asking that the Bioethics Commission “engage with the scientific community and other stakeholders, including the general public, 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.”

Last May, the Commission released the first part of its report, titled "Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics and Society." The report included four recommendations, mainly focusing on the need for ethics to be more systematically integrated into the field of neuroscience. That report can be read here.

The most recent report can be read here.

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