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First Special Neuroethics Issue Featured a Part of High-Impact Neuroscience

Dr. Karen Rommelfanger, Editor in Chief of The Neuroethics Blog,

presenting at the Global Neuroethics Summit.

Neuroscience is exploding as a discipline, pushed by technological innovations in fields as diverse as mechanical engineering and cellular biology. It is now the focus of many “big science” initiatives across the globe as corporations, institutes, and governments search for answers to the fundamental questions of intelligence, consciousness, and humanity. The experiments and scientists investigating these questions are facing unprecedented ethical challenges as cutting-edge neuroscience continually redefines the what is possible. Privacy, autonomy, identity, and other core concepts once thought to be impervious to intrusion are now targets for intervention.

Ethics guidelines must grow in-step with scientific advances to protect all those directly and indirectly affected by that progress. In neuroscience, everyone is affected; people are affected by the artificial intelligence guiding our online lives, and by chemicals available to alter our mental state. As such, it is encouraging to see neuroethics embraced by practitioners and policymakers alike to guide these unprecedented scientific efforts.

Even so, neuroethics has often fallen prey to the same biases that often lead the scientific community astray. Neuroscience, and hence neuroethics, has been historically based in the Global West. As the science expands (especially to East Asia), the ethics that regulate the science must also expand to encompass diversifying cultural priorities and values. Acknowledging this need, the Neuroethics Workgroup of the International Brain Initiative produced the five Neuroethics Questions for Neuroscientists (NeQN). This manuscript was an output of the inaugural Global Neuroethics Summit and was published in the journal Neuron last year. Written by an international group representing each of the current or proposed national neuroscience programs, the NeQN’s were explicitly constructed to be applied in and across the cultural context in which the programs reside.

A group picture from the Global Neuroethics Summit.

The Neuroethics Workgroup reconvened  the Global Neuroethics Summit  in 2018 in a workshop focused on how to implement the NeQN’s, the products of which culminated in the first Neuroethics special issue in a high-impact neuroscience journal. Dr. Karen Rommelfanger, Editor in Chief of The Neuroethics Blog and lead author of the issue’s editorial, reviewed each of the seven perspectives on the seven large-scale brain research projects for The Ethics Blog, a publication of The Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB) at Uppsala University. They are summarized below in alphabetical order, excerpted from the original publication.

  • The Australian Brain Alliance describes how neuroethics has been integrated into their research ethos as featured in their public outreach and advocacy efforts as well as their explorations in the public domains such as neurolaw and industry. A key component for the Australian project is diversity and inclusion, and there is a particular interest in engaging brain health with vulnerable Indigenous populations in Australia.
  • The Canadian Brain Research Strategy paper illustrates the rich historical efforts in pioneering neuroethics and future plans of a national collaboration to carefully consider public discourse and patient engagement as they pursue deeper knowledge of the how the brain learns, remembers, and adapts. A fundamental recognition of the neuroethics backbone of the Canadian project is that “The powerful ability of the brain to change or rewire itself in response to experience is the foundation of human identity.”
  • The China Brain Project discusses potential models for important public outreach campaigns and the balance of considering traditional Chinese culture and philosophy, particularly in the areas of brain death, conceptualizations of personhood and individual rights, and stigma for mental illness. The authors describe commitments for integrating neuroethics as the China Brain Project is being designed.
  • The EU Human Brain Project outlines its bold leadership and addresses the conceptual and philosophical issues of neuroethics and the implementation of philosophical insights as an iterative process for neuroscience research. A project with an extremely sophisticated neuroethics infrastructure, this paper provides examples of managing issues related to the moral status of engineered entities, how interventions could impact autonomy and agency, and dual use.
  • The Japan Brain/MINDS paper describes plans to reinvigorate historical efforts in neuroethics leadership as it expands the scope of its research and launches Japan Brain/MINDS Beyond. In particular, the project will integrate neuroethics to address issues related to privacy and data collection as well as in considering stigma and biological models of psychiatric disease.
  • The Korea Brain Initiative paper nicely demonstrates how advocacy for neuroscience and neuroethics at the government and policy levels go hand in hand. As Korea aims to advance its neuroscience community, the Korean government has seen neuroethics as integral to neuroscientists’ development. The Korea Brain Initiative is exploring ethical issues related to “intelligent” brain technologies, brain banking, cognitive enhancement, and neural privacy in the milieu of traditional and contemporary cultural traditions in Korea.
  • The US BRAIN Initiative outlines its efforts in building an infrastructure for neuroethics in research and policy and for funding research as it plans its roadmap for the next phase of BRAIN to 2025. Example of ethical issues that arise from the project’s goals of understanding neural circuitry include the moral relevance and status of ex vivo brain tissue and organoids as well as unique ethical concerns around informed consent in brain recording and stimulation in humans.
Dr. Paul Wolpe constructing a mind map at the

Global Neuroethics Summit.

The scientific goals and cultural contexts of each project are related, but distinct. Even while acknowledging this diversity, this first-of-its-kind special issue demonstrates the importance of integrating neuroethics holistically in all large-scale neuroscience programs. As this special issue attests, ethical progress in a globalized neuroscience community requires a common ethical framework. Just as importantly, it opens the possibility for enriched collaborations in neuroscience, where each project can begin to explore the societal embeddedness and values in science that honor the unique and shared historical and cultural influences that guide where and how science is conducted. An important take home point is that the authors urge for richer perspective-taking: one that does not make a spectacle of difference, but uses this knowledge to more deeply explore one’s own cultural traditions.

The International Brain Initiatives.

(Image courtesy of The Global Neuroethics Summit.)


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