Neuroethics refers to two related fields of study: what the philosopher Adina Roskies has called the ethics of neuroscience, and the neuroscience of ethics.The ethics of neuroscience comprises the bulk of work in neuroethics. It concerns the ethical, legal and social impact of neuroscience, including the ways in which neurotechnology can be used to predict or alter human behavior and "the implications of our mechanistic understanding of brain function for society... integrating neuroscientific knowledge with ethical and social thought".

Brain interventions

The ethics of neurocognitive enhancement, that is the use of drugs and other brain interventions to make normal people "better than well", is an example of a neuroethical issue with both familiar and novel aspects. On the one hand, we can be informed by previous bioethical work on physical enhancements such as doping for strength in sports and the use of human growth hormone for normal boys of short stature. On the other hand, there are also some arguably novel ethical issues that arise in connection with brain enhancement, because these enhancements affect how people think and feel, thus raising the relatively new issues of "cognitive liberty". The growing role of psychopharmacology in everyday life raises a number of ethical issues, for example the influence of drug marketing on our conceptions of mental health and normalcy, and the increasingly malleable sense of personal identity that results from what Peter D. Kramer called "cosmetic psychopharmacology".

Brain imaging

In addition to the important issues of safety and incidental findings, mentioned above, some arise from the unprecedented and rapidly developing ability to correlate brain activation with psychological states and traits. One of the most widely discussed new applications of imaging is based on correlations between brain activity and intentional deception. Intentional deception can be thought of in the context of a lie detector. This means that scientists use brain imaging to look at certain parts of the brain during moments when a person is being deceptive. A number of different research groups have identified fMRI correlates of intentional deception in laboratory tasks, and despite the skepticism of many experts, the technique has already been commercialized. A more feasible application of brain imaging is "neuromarketing", whereby people's conscious or unconscious reaction to certain products can purportedly be measured.

Memory dampening

While complete memory erasure is still an element of science-fiction, certain neurological drugs have been proven to dampen the strength and emotional association of a memory. Propranolol, an FDA-approved drug, has been suggested to effectively dull the painful effects of traumatic memories if taken within 6 hours after the event occurs. This has begun the discussion of ethical implications, assuming the technology for memory erasure will only improve. Originally, propranolol was reserved for hypertension patients. However, doctors are permitted to use the drug for off-label purposes—leading to the question of whether they actually should. There are numerous reasons for skepticism; for one, it may prevent us from coming to terms with traumatic experiences, it may tamper with our identities and lead us to an artificial sense of happiness, demean the genuineness of human life, and/or encourage some to forget memories they are morally obligated to keep. Whether or not it is ethical to fully or partially erase the memory of a patient, it is certainly becoming a more relevant topic as this technology improves in our society.

Stem cell therapy

Most of the issues concerning uses of stem cells in the brain are the same as any of the bioethical or purely ethical questions you will find regarding the use and research of stem cells. The field of stem cell research is a very new field which poses many ethical questions concerning the allocation of stem cells as well as their possible uses. Since most stem cell research is still in its preliminary phase most of the neuroethical issues surrounding stem cells are the same as stem cell ethics in general.


Alice Maria
Journal of Clinical Research and Bioethics
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