Ethical challenges ahead for neuroscience and society

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Are we ready for a future where brain scans invade our private thoughts? Will we have to alter our brains chemically to keep competitive at our jobs? Could science determine that "souls" do not exist, and, if so, what does that mean for how we think of ourselves as human beings?

The cover story in this month edition of the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, released today, tackles these questions about the growing influence of neuroscience on 21st-century life. University of Pennsylvania researcher Martha Farah outlines advances in knowledge about the brain and how new technology enables us to monitor and manipulate it.

"What the late 20th century was for molecular genetics a time of great scientific breakthroughs and unprecedented ethical challenges the early 21st century is proving to be for neuroscience," said Farah, a professor in Penn Department of Psychology and director of Penn Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. "There is so much activity in this area now, it has gotten its own name, separate from bioethics more generally. It called 'neuroethics.'"

Breakthroughs in functional neuroimaging have enabled researchers to study cognitive and emotional processes as they unfold in a person brain. This is a potential boon for psychologists and neuroscientists, but is also being used in the service of corporate profits. In "neuromarketing," researchers use functional MRI to gauge a person desire for particular products and the effectiveness of advertising campaigns. Brain imaging is also being explored as a substitute for lie detectors, which could be used to screen employees and travelers or even to assess the truthfulness of legal testimony.

"These applications of brain imaging are not ready for prime time," Farah said. "By and large the neuroscientists understand this, but, when laypeople read about these new methods, the scientists' cautions and qualifications often go unnoticed."

Other ethically problematic applications of brain imaging are more immanent.

"Current brain imaging is a far cry from mind reading, but there are clearly some kinds of personal psychological information that wel be reading from brain scans in the near future. Certain personality traits, for example, are well enough correlated with patterns of brain activation that one can now pretty well identify extreme extraverts and introverts by imaging alone. A recent paper from Germany showed that homosexual pedophile men had distinctive brain responses to pictures of boys in underwear."

Advances in neurochemistry are also leading to neuroethical challenges. Healthy people are increasingly using psychiatric drugs for the purpose of enhancing their brain function, to perform better on the job or eradicate twinges of depression. In a world that now sees athletes enhancing their muscles for competition, what happens when pharmaceuticals or even electronic brain enhancements become the necessary edge for students and workers?

"One problem with brain enhancement, if it becomes widespread, is that puts pressure on everyone to enhance," Farah said. "American courts have already heard cases brought by parents who were coerced into medicating their children by school officials. But what about the subtle coercion of having all the other little boys in the class on Ritalin? Then your kid looks like a bad student in comparison unless he also takes medication, even if he does not have attentional problems."

Perhaps the trickiest ethical issues surrounding neuroscience are those that confront some of our best-held assumptions of our own nature.

"Neuroscience is showing that not only perception and motor control but also character, consciousness and a sense of spirituality are all physical functions of the brain," Farah said. "When you think of how much political controversy the theory of evolution engendered in this country, just remember that the existence of an immaterial soul is a far more widely held belief than the genesis myth."

Support for this research was provided through grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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