On Neuroethics


Publish Date:
October 26, 2007
Publication Title:
Op-Ed or Opinion Piece Pages 533
  • Henry T. Greely, On Neuroethics, Science, October 26, 2007, p. 533.
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Stanford Law Professor Henry T. “Hank” Greely writes in Science about the need to do more–in terms of public policy–to support “neuroethics” in the wake of technology-aided, neuroscientific research that is advancing our knowledge of the physical mechanisms of human thought and behavior, and raising all sorts of new ethical questions. Prof. Greely, who is also director the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford Law School and a professor of genetics (by courtesy) at Stanford University, writes:

For me, the most exciting questions involve how neuroscience might change society. If we could reliably predict that certain adolescents will eventually be diagnosed with schizophrenia, what use should we make of that information? If learning how brains make decisions could reliably indicate malign intent, should we use that information in criminal decision-making? What if we produce a pill that enables people in early stages of dementia to make, retain, and retrieve declarative memories? Should it be used by healthy people, such as premedical students?

Alas, some of this is not speculation. Already, at least one company is selling functional magnetic resonance imaging services for lie detection. Some foreign hospitals are performing psychosurgery for drug addiction. And judges and juries are being asked to make decisions based on beautiful “pictures” of people’s brains. People working in neuroethics need both to point out when unproven new technologies are being used recklessly and to explore the social consequences of effective new technologies. In both cases, we need to maximize the benefits of the applications of neuroscience and minimize their harms.

Some good things are happening along this line. The Neuroethics Society was founded last year to promote the study of these issues. The Dana Foundation has been supporting these efforts for several years, often with the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and in October 2007, the MacArthur Foundation announced a major project on Neuroscience and Law to fund research in these intersecting disciplines. Through these efforts and independently, professors of law, education, business, and philosophy are coming together with neuroscientists, psychologists, neurosurgeons, and psychiatrists to discuss the implications for society of this expanding science of the brain.

But more needs to be done. The U.S. Human Genome Project had a program for studying the ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) of genetics, but no similar program exists for neuroscience, although we are our brains far more truly than we are our genomes. The ELSI program may not be the right model, but funds are essential to promote this kind of research, particularly by medical school researchers who depend on grants. In these days of tight federal budgets, money is hard to get. But to fund science without supporting work on its social consequences will ensure that the neuroscience revolution brings far too much social pain and chaos along with its scientific and medical breakthroughs.