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About the Physiological Society of Japan Ethics Symposium

By Tamami Fukushi, Ph.D

Tamami Fukushi is a Senior Research Scientist at the Platform for the Realization of Regenerative Medicine at the Foundation for Biomedical Research and Innovation in Kobe, Japan and a member of the AJOB Neuroscience editorial board. Her research focuses on areas in neuroethics, neurophysiology, and the regulation and ethics of stem cell research.

At every annual meeting since 2003, the Physiological Society of Japan has scheduled a research ethics symposium, usually dealing with animal experiments and research misconduct. One purpose of the symposia has been to raise audience awareness regarding current ethical issues in neuroscience research. In addition, the symposia have sought to open their audience’s eyes to taking action regarding ethical practices in their daily research activities.

This year, the society took up ethical issues in neuroscience. The symposium was organized by Dr. Kiyoshi Kurata, the society’s Chief of Research Ethics Committee, and Dr. Atsushi Iriki, the Editor-in-Chief of Neuroscience Research, which is published as the official journal of the Japan Neuroscience Society.

The development of neuroscience research in the past several decades has brought two characteristic trends to the research community. From the experimental perspective, progress in research protocols has extended research targets in various biological scales, from molecule(s) to intact animal or human subject(s); technical innovations in imaging, recording, and stimulating tools have enabled us to observe the neural function of these subjects more precisely. However, it also puts subject(s) at risk of invasive procedures with neurosurgery and encroaches on the autonomy of human subjects. In addition, the advancement of computer software has brought us various methodologies for data illustration which may encourage the modification of unfavorable original data for unethical reasons. Several articles have reported that between 2-14% of academic journal papers may have ethical problems, which should be seriously considered in efforts to preserve just practices among peer-reviewed publications [1].

On the other hand, from the social perspective, neuroscience has been getting more popular and familiar to the general public through mass media and entertainment  devices such as TV programs, the internet, the Nintendo Brain Age game, and free online software for brain training. A popularization of neuroscience has led researchers to explain their research results with “broader” and “easier” words, as well as to consider the ethics of neuroscience research in the public sphere and in their scientific practices. The symposium organizers and speakers considered both of these trends in preparing their presentations.

The Ethical Components of Neuroscience Research

At the symposium presentation, I first outlined a history of neuroethics in Japan and Asia, and summarized the ethical components of neuroscience research using a matrix with two different X-axes. In figure1, the lower X-axis indicated the biological hierarchy of experimental targets and the upper one represented social layers in the research community [2]. The lower components in the figure were mainly related to safety and efficacy issues, which might be regulated by quantitative criteria based on the (pre-clinical) experimental data and case studies of subjects/patients. On the other hand, the upper components referred to more complicated issues in social, legal, and public contexts, and more qualitative approaches and open discussions would be needed to provide a suitable solution. The matrix was useful for categorizing current issues in neuroethics and their relationships with other presentations, in which each speaker explained further details of selected topics.

Dr. Kurata discussed the significance of information disclosure in relation to the renewal of Japanese laws pertaining to animal experiments in 2012, and recent changes in guidelines regarding conflicts of interest in the Physiological Society of Japan [3]. He also suggested a possible role for non-profit organizations (NPO), where researchers could help address legal and political issues surrounding animal experimentation.

Dr. Iriki reported on ethical problems in scientific publishing, which he has experienced as the editor-in-chief of the peer-reviewed journal Neuroscience Research. These problems have included multiple submissions, gift authorship (or the practice of awarding authorship to an individual who has not significantly contributed to the study), data fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism [4]. While certain kinds of misconduct can technically be prevented, it is important to engage with the personal morality of individual researchers to ensure transparency in peer-review process.

The last speaker, Dr. Tashiro, introduced recent developments in ethical principles geared toward clinical research. He focused on the concepts of “collaborative research partnerships” and “respect for human research participation,” and drew upon the eight ethical principles issued by the Bioethics department at National Institutes of Health Clinical Center [5, 6]. He also emphasized the importance of support from the ethics consultation system as well as the IRB system and the needs of professionals for effective consultation.

Figure 1. Ethical Components of Neuroscience Research

There were 30 audience-members who had various backgrounds in different fields of physiology, with various  roles and responsibility at their institutions/academic research communities. Through the open discussions, we recognized that appropriate actions based on the morality of individual researchers would be key to keeping competition fair in peer-reviewed science, in both the basic and clinical settings. It was also suggested that institutional/organizational monitoring systems at higher levels of the research community are needed to strengthen the community’s accountability to the public. While we had less opportunity to discuss ethics of neuroscience from the perspective of the general public (or in the media), which might be the “third X-axis” on our matrix, the meeting was a successful in encouraging the researchers to refine their moral principles in both their individual and societal dimensions.

In recent years, the Japanese neuroscience community has achieved great progress in laboratory ethics by revising experimental guidelines and developing safety criteria for human brain research (see (in English) and (in Japanese)). The next neuroethical issue to be faced by the Japanese research community, and which should be more extensively considered, is “how to visualize, explain, and share the experimental result(s) more ethically to others.” This kind of ethical problem must be considered by integrating media ethics, research misconduct, and public relations.


[1] Fanelli, Daniele. “How many scientists fabricate and falsify research? A systematic review and meta-analysis of survey data.” PLoS ONE 4, (2009) e5738.

[2] Fukushi, T. “A decade of neuroethics: Impact on neuroscience in Japan and Asia.” The journal of physiological Sciences 63 supplement 1, (2013):S88.

[3] Kurata, K. “Importance of information disclosure in animal experiment ethics and conflict of interest.” The journal of physiological Sciences 63 supplement 1, (2013):S88.

[4] Iriki, A. “Responsible conduct of research and ethics of scientific publishing.” The journal of physiological Sciences 63 supplement 1, (2013):S88.

[5] Tashiro, S. “New trends in clinical research ethics: Eight ethical principles and research ethics consultation” The journal of physiological Sciences 63 supplement 1, (2013):S89.

[6] Emanuel, Ezekiel J. et al. (2008). “An ethical framework for biomedical research,” Emanuel, Ezekiel J. et al. eds., The Oxford Textbook of Clinical Research Ethics, Oxford University Press, 123-135.

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