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The Bioethics Commission

The Bioethics Commission. Back row: Raju Kucherlapati, Col. Nelson Michael, Nita A. Farahany, Daniel Sulmasy, John D. Arras, Anita L. Allen, Christine Grady. Front row: Stephen L. Hauser, Amy Gutmann, James W. Wagner, Barbara F. Atkinson.

The Bioethics Commission

U.S. BRAIN Initiative Gets Ethical Advice

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues today released its first set of recommendations for integrating ethics into neuroscience research in the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Last July, President Barack Obama charged the commission with identifying key ethical questions that may arise through the BRAIN Initiative and wider neuroscience research.

The report is “a dream come true,” says Judy Illes, a neuroethicist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, who was a guest presenter to the commission. Brain research raises unique ethical issues because it “strikes at the very core of who we are,” said political scientist and philosopher Amy Gutmann of the University of Pennsylvania, who chairs the commission, in a call with reporters yesterday.

Specific areas of concern identified in the report include questions of brain privacy raised by advances in neuroimaging research; whether research participants and patients with dementia can give informed consent to participate in experimental trials; and research into cognitive enhancement, which raises “issues of distributive justice and fairness,” Gutmann says.

Parsing hope from hype is key to ethical neuroscience research and its application, Gutmann notes. Citing the troubled ethical history of psychosurgery in the United States, in which more than 40,000 people were lobotomized based on shaky evidence that the procedure could treat psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression, Gutmann cautions that a similar ethical derailment is possible in contemporary neuroscience research. A misstep with invasive experimental treatments such as deep brain stimulation surgery would not only be tragic for patients, but have “devastating consequences” for scientific progress, she says.

To avoid such disastrous mistakes, the report suggests funding research into both innovative and successful efforts to integrate ethics into neuroscience research and education, including grants similar to the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) research program grants issued for the Human Genome Project. It also calls for all advisory groups and funding review panels for neuroscience research to include a trained bioethicist—a detail that is often overlooked, Gutmann says. The first scientific advisory group to the BRAIN Initiative “notably identified no bioethicists on its panel,” she says. The report makes no mention of ethical concerns surrounding future animal research, but Gutmann says the commission may address that topic in its next two meetings, scheduled for June and August.

*Correction, 14 May, 12:15 p.m.: Judy Illes is a neuroethicist at the University of British Columbia, not at the University of Montreal, as previously reported. This has been corrected.