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Neuroethics: Ethical, legal, and social implications of neuroscience

What is ‘neuroethics’?
‘Neuroethics’ is short hand for the ethical, legal and social implications of neuroscience.  The field emerged in the early 2000’s, at a time when neuroscience was consolidating its recent success in the study of human cognition and beginning to make progress understanding social and emotional processes and individual differences.  These scientific advances opened the door to an unprecedented ability to explain, predict, and even control human behavior.  This, in turn, raised a host of ethical, legal and social issues.

What aspects of neuroethics do we work on?

We have active research projects addressing a number of issues in neuroethics.

brain enhancementBrain enhancement Neuropsychiatric medications not only improve function in patients with cognitive and emotional disorders; in some cases they raise normal healthy people’s functioning as well.  The use of medications for the latter purpose has been called brain enhancement and is increasingly common.  For example, on American college campuses many students seek prescription stimulants in order to study more efficiently.  Despite this trend, the effect of these medications on cognition in healthy young adults is not well understood.  In addition to conducting research on this empirical issue, we have analyzed the ethical issues and policy alternatives related to cognitive enhancement (Greely et al, 200).  Working with the American Academy of Neurology’s Therapeutics and Technology Assessment committee, I am helping to draft guidelines for physicians prescribing enhancers for cognitively normal patients.

brain imagingUses and misuses of brain imaging Neuroimaging offers spectacular new insights into the human brain.  In addition to its role in basic science, neuroimaging is being applied to a variety of practical problems, with complex social consequences in some cases.  For example, recent progress in predictive imaging for Alzheimer’s disease in asymptomatic individuals is enabling research into earlier stages of the disease when it may be more treatable.  But at present, without effective treatments, how will this knowledge affect individuals?  Nonmedical applications of brain imaging include market research and lie detection.  Unfortunately, in some of these cases the eye-catching appearance and high-tech aura of brain imaging has been exploited to promote bad ideas and unproven products.  The goal of our work in this area has been to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate uses of brain imaging, and to communicate to scientists and relevant stakeholders what brain imaging can and can’t do.

We are also working on the perceived and actual role of neuroscience in education, potential nonmedical uses of oxytocin, and the implications for criminal sentencing of the neuroscience of deprivation, among other projects.

Why is this important?

Neuroscience plays many roles in contemporary society.  It offers new tools for solving problems and improving our lives as well as new ways of understanding ourselves.  In order to encourage the most beneficial uses of neuroscience, it is essential to examine the potential risks, benefits and broader social impact of these developments.