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We Need Neuroethicists Present Before the Holy Shit Moments in Neuroscience

By Karen Rommelfanger

Image courtesy of Nick Saltmarsh on Flickr

In a recent Vox article reporting on the Nature paper from Dr. Nenad Sestan’s lab at Yale University, “Restoration of brain circulation and cellular functions hours post-mortem,” the title summarizes the encounter between the scientist and ethicist as follows, Scientists: We kept pig brains alive 10 hours after death. Bioethicists [upon reading the article]: “Holy shit.”

The reporting on the paper had numerous stories, some better than others, with attention-grabbing headlines, but mostly accurate depiction of the study and the ethical implications. To be clear, the findings were a “holy shit” moment for science not because radical life extension is now possible, but because Sestan’s work suggests exciting new possibilities for science and discovery in brain tissue that is unprecedented.

But what none of these stories captured was that the neuroethicists weren’t mere observers of the science upon its publication. Rather, they were present at early stages of the project, years prior to its publishing, and even had collaborated with media offices to help responsibly steward accurate messaging about the research and its implication. Why is this important to note?

Stephen Pinker prepared remarks for the 2015 meeting Biotechnology and the Ethical Imagination: A Global Summit (BEINGS), hosted by Emory University, and later published them in The Boston Globe under the title, “The moral imperative for bioethics.” He recommended that the moral goal
for today’s bioethicist should be to “Get out of the way.”

While Pinker’s comment was meant to be provocative, the sentiment is not uncommon among scientists. Training under the label of “responsible conduct of research,” typically formatted to meet legal or policy requirements via, for example, checklists, does not capture the nature and utility of ethics.

This RCR training was mandated by the department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for good reason, in response to a clear lack of understanding, comprehension, and ability to identify ethical issues and critically address them. However, the predominant training offered with these courses are rules and compliance – i.e. compliance masquerading as ethics. To be sure, even the HHS Office of Research Compliance clarifies in their report. “Responsible research requires more than simply following rules.” Rules set minimum standards and rules don’t resolve the moral and
societal dilemmas presented by today’s most cutting-edge research.

Ethical issues in neuroscience often raises dilemmas of a new flavor. Today’s RCR training doesn’t offer scientists assistance to ask neuroethics questions such as, To what extent can a functional or operational definition of an emergent phenomenon, like consciousness, be explored in the laboratory?

Neuroscience brings us to the edges of knowledge. It has the potential to affect our understanding of our world and our place in it and thus raises powerful emotions. Scientists and the public alike are eager to discuss these issues, and often struggle with how to interpret what they mean in a broader sense.

Image courtesy of NIH on Flickr

One neuroscience effort that is poised to bring us to the very precipice of our understanding of the brain is the NIH Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. This is the same mechanism that funded the work of Dr. Sestan. The most ambitious American neuroscience project to date, it focuses on transforming our understanding of how the brain works by developing cutting edge tools and technologies to decode brain circuit function. New technologies are enabling researchers to map, monitor, and modulate brain circuits in humans and animal models with unprecedented precision in time and space, which hopefully will lead to new therapeutic approaches in humans.

But these powerful new neurotechnologies carry important ethical implications and addressing these implication is a critical part of the BRAIN endeavor. For this reason, the NIH BRAIN Initiative, representing an over $950 million investment by NIH, prioritizes integrating neuroethics throughout its science. Neuroethics, as conceptualized within the NIH BRAIN Initiative, means sustained engagement with the neuroethical implications of the development and application of BRAIN-funded tools and neurotechnologies. For example, BRAIN-funded scientists are currently working with ethicists to explore patient perspectives in implantable brain devices, documenting and looking for ways to integrate
end-user concerns as the technology develops.

In this view, neuroethics can be valuable to neuroscience research teams, alongside, for example, engineering, materials science, and bioinformatics expertise. In the pig brain study, the investigator, Dr. Sestan, included a Yale bioethicist on his team and consulted with the NIH BRAIN Initiative’s Neuroethics Working Group (NEWG) several years
before the paper was published in April 2019. This allowed the Sestan team to consider the ethical implications of their work along the way. For example, should BrainEx be used on the pig brain in the absence of neural activity blockers? The researchers opted to not attempt this, given ethical concerns and as their goal was not to restore any sort of higher order function in the brain.

The consultation between Dr. Sestan and the NEWG was no chance encounter; the NIH BRAIN Initiative’s NEWG is readily available to provide consultation to BRAIN-funded investigators, as part of its broader set of activities that also includes identifying ethical challenges in the development and/or application of BRAIN Initiative-funded tools and technologies, and suggesting ways to navigate those challenges; identifying neuroethics research questions important to the BRAIN Initiative that could be addressed through neuroethics research; and developing neuroethical guidance for emerging areas of BRAIN Initiative-supported science.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

This is but one example of cutting-edge neuroscience and there will only be more. The scientist of today and tomorrow needs to be able to recognize ethical issues and to address them as part of the science not in spite of it. And any discussion of neuroscience will require skill at carefully analyzing and presenting these finding to the public. This responsibility starts with the scientists as stewards of their work, but should not be left to them alone. University press offices, academic journals, and institutions should incentivize good ethical inquiry rather than reward ethics hype.

In addition, recognition that science is not independent of values and culture will be critical in discussing discoveries. It’s clear that values can drive which science happens, where that science happens, and how its products are disseminated (GNS delegates et al, 2018). Science in other words doesn’t happen in a cultural vacuum.

Finding’s like Sestan’s will necessitate a global effort and growth of integrated neuroethics models such as NEWG as a core of any neuroscience project that is meant to benefit the public. The collaboration with ethicists didn’t hinder Sestan’s work; it strengthened the science.

The holy shit moments aren’t limited to the US and the benefits of those discoveries won’t reach globally unless we consider the ethical implications from a multiplicity of perspectives. The authors of this piece also participate in global work to unite neuroethics efforts around the globe in large-scale brain research projects as part of the Global Neuroethics Working Group of the International Brain Initiative. This work is still in early stages.

For now, stay tuned for the newest in the NIH BRAIN Neuroethics Program:

Also, the next NEWG meeting will be held on Aug 19th and can be viewed live via videocast here:


Dr. Karen S. Rommelfanger received her PhD in neuroscience and received postdoctoral training in neuroscience and neuroethics. Her research explores how evolving neuroscience and neurotechnologies challenge societal definitions of disease and medicine. Dr. Rommelfanger is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Neurology and Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, the Neuroethics Program Director at Emory University’s Center for Ethics, and Senior Associate Editor at the American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience. She is dedicated to cross-cultural work in neuroethics is co-chair of the Neuroethics Workgroup of the International Brain Initiative. She is an appointed member to the NIH BRAIN Initiative Neuroethics Working Group and is ambassador to the Human Brain Project’s Ethics Advisory Board. She also serves as Neuroethics Subgroup member of the Advisory Committee to the Director at NIH for designing a roadmap for BRAIN 2025. She recently was appointed to the Global Futures Council on Neurotechnology of the World Economic Forum. A key part of her work is fostering communication across multiple stakeholders in
neuroscience. As such she edits the largest international online neuroethics discussion forum The Neuroethics Blog and she is a frequent contributor and commentator in popular media such as The New York Times, USA Today and The Huffington Post.

Want to cite this post?

Rommelfanger, K. (2019). We Need Neuroethicists Present Before the Holy Shit Moments in Neuroscience. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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