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Navigating the Ethics of Neuroscience

Story by
Nancy Joseph

An amputee moves her artificial limb using her brain. A Parkinson’s patient opts for deep brain stimulation (DBS) to reduce symptoms. A college student uses close-looped DBS to keep severe depression at bay. Through neuroscience research and neural engineering, the brain can now accomplish things once considered impossible. But with these advances come ethical questions about altering brain function.  

Sara Goering

In neuroscience and neural engineering, "we want to think carefully about what the consequences might be, especially because our brains are so intimately related to who we are," says Sara Goering.

“When we implant electrodes into brains for therapeutic reasons, all of a sudden you may be stimulating regions of the brain, and that means we’re controlling regions of the brain,” says Tom Daniel, professor of biology and Joan and Richard Komen Endowed Chair. Daniel is a researcher at the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Engineering Research Center that designs implantable devices that interact seamlessly with the nervous system.   

As soon as the Center received NSF funding, Daniel reached out to the Department of Philosophy to bring a neuroethicist on board. “It’s always great for scientists to come to us rather than being told they need to do it,” says Sara Goering, professor of philosophy, who specializes in disability ethics and bioethics. “They realized really early on that there would be interesting and tough ethical issues about the technology. I commend them for having figured that out so early.” In fact, the Center’s original proposal to NSF included funding for ethics support.

The collaboration began with Goering and several philosophy graduate students doing a literature review of neuroethics research, then interviewing all of the Center’s principal investigators about their research. They asked the scientists what ethical issues might arise in their work, then pointed out additional issues that some of the scientists hadn’t considered.

They realized really early on that there would be interesting and tough ethical issues about the technology. I commend them for having figured that out so early.

Neuroscience raises a wide range of ethical concerns. One is agency, or ownership of our actions. If a neural device is stimulating the brain while someone decides on an action, is that person still the author of that action? Is accountability complicated by the device? Privacy is also an issue. Could a wireless neural device be hacked, with confidential neurological data compromised? Could someone hijack a device and control the user’s brain signals?

Matthew Sample working in neural engineering lab

Matthew Sample, right, part of the neuroethics team while a graduate student in the UW Department of Philosophy, works alongside scientists in a neural engineering lab. 

Although that last scenario is highly unlikely, other ethical considerations come up often, such as how a device might change the user’s sense of self. Understanding the perspectives of people with disabilities — likely early users of neural devices — is essential. The neuroethics team has run focus groups with people with disabilities to better understand their thoughts and concerns.

“People may want normal function, but not at any cost,” says Goering. “They might prefer to use a wheelchair rather than put on a clunky exoskeleton to get up and walk again. And some people don’t want normal function. Some of our work is making those perspectives known, so that researchers are sensitive to them as they think about their work.”

Over time, the philosophers’ involvement with the Center has grown. Eran Klein, a practicing neurologist with a PhD in philosophy, now joins the ethics team one day a week. He recently co-authored a paper about informed consent considerations for human subjects in implantable brain-computer interface research. NSF also added funding for a full-time postdoctoral philosopher at the Center, and the team includes a full-time philosophy research assistant and three neuroethics fellows, with a fourth fellow at MIT who Skypes into team meetings.

In this video, philosophy professor Sara Goering and biology professor Tom Daniel discuss the value of exploring ethical questions in neuroscience and neural engineering. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

The best part? Scientists at the Center now seek the ethics team’s expertise as a matter of course. Goering recalls a recent email from a neuroengineering graduate student who wanted to explore potential ethical considerations before submitting a research proposal for a new project. “That’s how the conversation begins,” says Goering. “We’ve been at the Center so long now and built this relationship where people are ready to ask these questions as they are designing their projects, which is great.”

While neuroengineering does raise ethical issues, Goering is also excited by its promise. Her team has recently been working with members of a national ethics workgroup linked to President Obama’s Brain Initiative, established to support neuroscience research.

“I don’t think we need to be scared by the technology,” Goering says. “It’s a fascinating area to explore and one that potentially has great benefits for a lot of people. But because it is novel, we want to think carefully about what the consequences might be, especially because our brains are so intimately related to who we are. As neuroethicists, we always encourage those conversations.”

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To learn more about the CSNE, check out a Q&A with Sara Goering and a story about some of the CSNE’s novel solutions for people with conditions from stroke to spinal cord injury.