With the brain in mind…..

The US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethics Issues yesterday published the second volume of its report on neuroscience – Gray Matters, Vol 2. Where the first volume looked at the integration of ethics into neuroscience, the second volume looks at more specific applications and implications, including cognitive enhancement, capacity for consent, and application in legal systems.

The report makes some interesting and valuable recommendations, especially around a range of funding priorities (hi-tech, low-tech, non-therapeutic interventions, ethics, etc), the need for guidance for those using enhancers, the inclusion in research of people lacking capacity, and more. It’s a good read, and worth spending some time with.

But I thought it interesting to point out a few features that have particular resonance with the Nuffield Council own report on novel neurotechnologies, published in 2013. Specifically, both make important observations and recommendations about:

  • The need for broad-based discourse to accompany science development;
  • The importance of ongoing research in various areas, given the significance of understanding and treating disorders of the brain;
  • The need to find ethical pathways in research and development – or RRI if you prefer;
  • The need to avoid “hype, overstatement and unfounded conclusions”, often driven by the perceived demands of funding and evaluation systems, but which can undermine the research endeavour and mislead patients and the public; and
  • The need for scientists to play a proper role in policy discourse.

Of course, it should not be surprising that some of these themes feature in other reports, and, in particular, these threads are woven in one way or another into our own recent work on emerging biotechnologies, research culture and biological and health data.

The Commission’s work was initiated by President Obama when he asked them to prepare a report in relation to the major Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative. This is an important moment to pull up and look at how to integrate ethical discourse into neuroscience, but it also has lessons that we can usefully consider across the full range of biosciences.

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