Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Neuroethics in Theory and in Practice: A First-hand Look into the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Anyone who turned on CNN this past summer probably remembers the most popular news stories ranging from Obama’s recent efforts to quell political violence in Iraq to Emory University’s admission of two Ebola patients. What was missing from several (if not all of these newscasts), however, was any mention of the continuation of President Obama’s BRAIN initiative right here at Emory University. Specifically, this past June, the Atlanta university welcomed the prestigious Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to confer over many pertinent issues surrounding various ethical and neuroscientific issues. I was lucky enough to be able to attend the session and catch a glimpse of the commission in action. Upon the commission’s completion, I found myself excited while simultaneously confused about the group’s overall mission and decided it would be worthwhile to investigate the Bioethics Commission further. Particularly, I hoped to understand why it is that Obama created a group to investigate several important issues discussed on this blog every week.

From Center for Genetics and Society

First, some background information: Obama launched the “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies” Initiative (appropriately known as the BRAIN Initiative) in 2013 through executive order. In short, the initiative seeks to provide scientists and research organizations the appropriate tools (e.g., funding and support) to ascertain a better understanding of the brain and to develop breakthrough neuro-technologies to treat disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and PTSD, to name a few. However, some question whether Obama’s choice to fund the BRAIN initiative represents a truly transformative moment in neuroscience research. For example, many have spoken out against the project’s funding structure, feasibility, and goals1. Furthermore, similar to my sentiments after leaving the Atlanta Bioethics Commission meeting, many people felt that Obama’s BRAIN initiative was little more than a vague pronouncement of monolithic ideas with little substance 2. Nonetheless, in response to such outcries, Larry Swanson, the president of Society for Neuroscience, lauded Obama’s choice to fund and encourage research in important scientific areas 3.

To supplement the efforts of the BRAIN Initiative, the Obama administration also brought together a group of highly qualified individuals to also explore the potential bioethical implications that could arise as a result of the development of more advanced neuro-technologies. The Commission is also closely tied to Emory University given the Vice-Chair of the group is our own President James Wagner. Furthermore, the commission’s goals are largely advisory and interdisciplinary in nature. Specifically, the group meets at select locations throughout the United States and invites experts in particular research fields to meet and discuss their research.

From Emory University

To find out more about their past efforts, I’d highly suggest reading the Commission’s first report entitled “Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society.” This report outlines four broad areas of interest to the group: (1) neuroimaging and brain privacy; (2) dementia, personality, and changed preferences; (3) cognitive enhancement and justice; and (4) deep brain stimulation and the ethically difficult history of neurosurgery. Additionally, the report outlines four recommendations, one of which is a heavier emphasis on integrating ethics and science through education at all levels. The report mentions the importance of further developing models for bioethics education not only for graduate students, but also high school and undergraduate students. The report also recommends that neuroscience research be accompanied by ethical evaluations for the entirety of the research process. Such explicit recommendations demonstrate the ever-increasing importance of evaluating the ethical implications of certain neuroscientific developments. The group is now working towards putting together a second report that attempts to tackle a much broader task of discussing the applications and implications of neuroscience.

The sessions themselves often explore several different areas of interests. The meeting in Atlanta, in particular, included 8 different sessions over the course of two days. The webcast of the event is posted here (along with the video archives from other bioethics meetings throughout the country). I highly recommend sifting through this website because the meeting recordings are truly a goldmine for anyone interested in neuroethical issues. The topics discussed at the Emory University event included a talk about the potential of neuroscience research and also a report on the potential implications of advances in neuroscience research for ethics and moral decision making.

If you’re anything like me, you are probably wondering how the commission plans to integrate all the different areas of interest reviewed at the meetings and subsequently distill their findings to the president. Essentially, I wanted to understand the process and purpose of the meetings within the grander framework of Obama’s BRAIN initiative. To figure out more, I interviewed Dr. Nita Farahany, a member of both the AJOB Neuroscience editorial board and Bioethics commission. In response to a question I posed to her regarding the broad missions of the commission, she aptly noted that, first and foremost, the individual meetings help to provide each member of the commission a comprehensive understanding of the ethical issues that tend to arise when dealing with neuroscience. To that end, she noted that for some areas which have already been well debated in the neuroethics community, such as cognitive enhancement, the Commission is unlikely to “reinvent the wheel” in its report on the issues. Consequently, the mission of the group entails both determining how to frame a specific set of pre-determined issues and then deciding when and what recommendations would be most valuable for a particular field.

From MSNBC.com

Ultimately, my experience at the Commission was both enlightening and perplexing. I think many questions still remain regarding the ability of the Commission to institute change. As is the problem with other academic discussions, a gap often exists between those discussing problems in academic buildings and policy-makers hoping to enact change as a result. It remains to be seen how Obama responds to the recommendations of the Gray Matters report and other resources the commission develops in the future. Additionally, there are limits to the depth of information that can be discussed in a public arena between people with disparate research backgrounds. Given the speakers only have 15 minutes to present their research to a group of people with divergent areas of expertise, the commission usually does not have the time to delve into certain ethical issues that may warrant more attention. Regardless, I think that the entire effort is of incredible importance to anyone interested in neuroethics and points to the increasing significance of supplementing cutting edge neurological research with ethical deliberation. The process of considering the multitude of psychological and neurological consequences of certain research endeavors within the institutionalized setting of the bioethics commission meetings represents an important step in determining the relevant ethical questions surrounding brain technologies. To that end, the Commission serves as a groundbreaking model for vital interdisciplinary discussion that could not have been made possible without the support of the executive branch.

The success of the commission thus far also speaks to the mounting attention directed toward neuro-ethical and bioethical considerations in many areas of research and development. If a student, scholar, researcher or member of the general public takes anything away from watching a few webcasts of Commission meetings or reading the Gray Matters report, it should be noted that the ethical ramifications of research ought not to be ignored. Rather, the effort represents a different way to get involved in the increasingly important neuroethical conversation. In fact, the next meeting will take place on November 5th and 6th in Salt Lake City. The Commission ensures that there is a live-stream of the event on their website equipped with the ability to send in questions via email. The events are also open to the public upon registration. Be sure to tune into the upcoming event to both listen to experts discuss fascinating neuroscience developments and also to watch engaging conversations between scholars from a wide array of backgrounds debate about the ethical implications of such advances.


(1)  Leonard, A. (2013, April 15). Obama’s BRAIN gets hammered. Salon. From http://www.salon.com/2013/04/15/obamas_brain_gets_hammered/
(2) Shen, H. (2013, Nov 6). BRAIN storm. Nature. From http://www.nature.com/news/neurotechnology-brain-storm-1.14105
(3) Wadman, M. (2013, April 15). Society for Neuroscience quashing dissent on BRAIN Initiative, critic complains. Nature News Blog. From http://blogs.nature.com/news/2013/04/society-for-neuroscience-quashing-dissent-on-brain-initiative-critic-complains.html

Want to cite this post?

Marshall, J. (2014). Neuroethics in Theory and in Practice: A First-hand Look into the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2014/09/neuroethics-in-theory-and-in-practice.html

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