As Neuroscience Applications Expand, Neuroethics Keeps Pace

AUGUST 15, 2014—Neuroscience, neurolaw, neuromarketing, neuroweapons. What do all these terms have in common?  

“The need for neuroethics,” answers James Giordano, PhD, chief of the Neuroethics Studies Program at the Edmund D. Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical Center.

The field of neuroscience—and all its various manifestations—is rapidly expanding  “from the synaptic to the social levels. What is only speculative today may, in very short order, be a reality,” says Giordano, who is also on the faculty of the Division of Integrative Physiology in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular and Cellular Biology, and the Graduate Liberal Studies Program.

In other words, concepts that might seem like science fiction are actually more science than fiction. That could mean courtrooms in which a scan of the defendant’s brain is admissible as evidence to show that he lacks the capacity for self-control, or the use of sophisticated and highly personal brain science to create political propaganda.

Giordano’s program seeks to address through research and scholarship the myriad ethical questions and problems engendered by the use of neuroscience in medicine, daily life and public health. The program collaborates with other universities worldwide, including the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Munich University of Applied Sciences, and the University of Applied Sciences in Coburg, Germany, as well as the University of British Columbia in Canada, to develop ethical frameworks to analyze and guide the proliferating applications of neuroscience and neurotechnology, says Giordano.

“Our stance is that we need to appreciate these exciting—even provocative —issues and address them early and often,” he says.

What is a Normal Brain?

The program’s primary focus is to examine the way neuroscience is integrated within clinical medicine—mostly in neurology, psychiatry, pain medicine and rehabilitation—and how the use of advanced techniques and technologies in those areas “spawn a host of ethical, legal and social issues,” says Giordano.

For example, sophisticated imaging of neurological pathways and networks are being used to develop a comprehensive brain map, which can be applied to construe the “normal” structure and function of the brain, he says.

While this may have great medical potential, concepts such as “normality” and “abnormality” can also be used for social agendas. Researchers must remain vigilant about the integrity of this science due to the possibility of bias, misuse and stigmatization.

“We need to be equally careful, prepared for and prudent about the way the science of neurological disorders is communicated to establish a medical diagnoses, as well as the cultural, moral and even political ramifications of this science,” Giordano says.

Assessing and Altering the Brain

Yet, neurotechnology will go much farther in the near future, Giordano says.

“Not only are we able to image the brain, but we are now developing newer, more sophisticated and more precise tools and methods to affect and influence thoughts, emotions and behaviors,” he says. “It may ultimately be possible to control a range of disorders, conditions and states of being—inclusive of aggression and violence—through the use of cutting-edge neurotechnologies, such as deep brain stimulation, and transcranial magnetic and electrical stimulation.”

Though maturing rapidly, the science is still a work in progress and the potential for abuse is concerning to neuroethicists. For example, commercial media feature “a generic, multicolored brain image that looks really cool and can entice the public to buy into a considerable amount of hype,” Giordano says. “We rally very strongly against this kind of miscommunication and misuse of neuroscientific information—what has been referred to as ‘neuro-nonsense.’”

Brain Science and the Law

The use of brain science in law and politics are areas where the potential of getting ahead of the science is worrisome, he says.

The nervous system tends to work by means of inhibition—the brain routinely inhibits certain thoughts, emotions and behaviors in response to a variety of different environmental and personal cues, Giordano says.

“But it gets iffy when we use brain sciences to determine whether or not an individual has the capacity for that inhibition or not,” he says. “It’s tempting to turn to various neurotechnologies to evaluate an individual’s veracity, impulses, capability for control, or even culpability. The rapidly developing field of neurolaw directly tackles these issues, and neuroethics—as a field and set of practices—figures prominently in this discourse as well.”

Neuroscience and National Security

Another focus of the Georgetown Neuroethics Studies Program examines national security and defense implications of neuroscience. Giordano has been appointed to the Neuroethics, Legal and Social Issues’ Advisory Panel of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Brain sciences hold a key to understanding how humans relate to various types of information, which can be important to developing cross-cultural narratives and enhancing international communication. Insights into neurological patterns of cognition, emotions and behaviors can also be useful for intelligence and psychological operations, he says.

Giordano’s work also addresses the possibility of neuroscience being used to create weapons. For example, he says it will be possible to employ neuroscientific techniques to develop new drugs, microbiologicals and toxins that affect brain functions.

“Overall, whether considering medical, public or military applications, we need to develop a stance of preparedness to guide the ways that neuroscience can and will be used—and possibly misused,” Giordano says. “Without doubt, the field is moving ever so swiftly into territory that requires stringent ethical oversight. It is certainly exciting—if not challenging.”

By Renee Twombly
GUMC Communications