What is Neuroethics?

In the 1990s, developments in the field of human genetic engineering opened the possibility of modifying inheritable genes. If the technology advanced, genetically engineered children, known as “designer babies”, could be altered in order to decrease risk for developing disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Down syndrome.

However, this development also spurred controversial debates about the ethical concerns of genetic manipulation. For instance, genes for physical characteristics such as eye color and hair can also be manipulated. Would the ability to select our children’s traits lead to a future society obsessed with creating the ‘perfect’ child? Or, as the procedure is expensive, could this development create a gap within society by splitting “designer” and “non-designer” babies?

Similar to how genetic engineering has inspired controversial ethical debates, the field of neuroethics, which emerged from the realization that neuroscience research was advancing at a very rapid pace, also had profound implications.

“There were profound ethical problems in neuroscience that were not being addressed. The nature of those problems were more immediate and more far reaching than those in genetics”, Paul Wolpe, PhD, Director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University and one of the 12 original founders of the field of neuroethics, explained.

Some ethicists maintained neuroethics was merely bioethics applied to the brain and thus, the creation of a separate field wasn’t necessary. It is true that some traditional bioethical concerns can be applied to the brain. For instance, a researcher may discover during a research study that his neuroimaging patient may show signs of a disease. This ethical dilemma can be difficult. Does the researcher have the responsibility to inform the patient? But what if the patient does not feel the same way? Some may prefer living without the knowledge of possessing a life-changing condition.

Other ethicists believe that neuroethics, which encompasses ethical, legal, and social impact of neuroscience, merits its own professional identity. “Neuroscience was beginning to question fundamental human principles like free will, agency, and personality”, explains Wolpe.

To many people, the idea that humans do not possess free will may seem absurd. After all, we make  decisions everyday on what we eat, where we go, and who we speak to. However, a legal case concerning a 40-year-old American schoolteacher convicted of pedophilia in 2002 may question this principle. After his conviction, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans revealed a tumor in the part of his brain involved in impulse control and decision making. Once the tumor was removed, remarkably, the man’s pedophilic behavior disappeared. Scientists speculated that the tumor may have impaired his ability to control his impulses.

Such neuroscience findings challenge our current understanding of human behavior and may also impact jurisprudence. For example, if this man is not capable of self-control, is he still guilty? Was he responsible for failing to seek professional help for his impulses?

Recognizing the importance of these questions, Wolpe, along with the other 11 founders of neuroethics, founded the International Neuroethics Society (INS) in 2006. This provided an environment where scientists, ethicists, lawyers, policymakers, and educators could share their professional perspectives and discuss their concerns. In addition, the INS also informs the non-scientific community about neuroethical implications through engaging in public forums and discussions with journalists and the general public.

Despite some concerns that people would not recognize the growing importance of neuroethics, the INS now has over 300 members. There are also other organizations that have been established to investigate neuroethical issues. For example, the McArthur Foundation at Vanderbilt focuses on issues at the intersection of neuroscience and the criminal justice system.

As the field of neuroscience continues to advance, it’s important that the scientific community, as well as the general public, stay informed about new developments and their possible neuroethical implications. The Center for Ethics at Emory provides an abundance of resources to become informed and participate in discussions. The center regularly hosts events address pressing ethical issues from human enhancement to human rights. The Director of the Center for Ethics, Wolpe, is also the Editor-in-Chief of the American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience (AJOBN), a peer-reviewed academic journal which explores the ethical, social, and legal dimensions of neuroscience. AJOBN’s official blog, The Neuroethics Blog, started at Emory by Karen Rommelfanger, PhD, the Neuroethics Program Director at the Center for Ethics, is also available to Emory students and the general public interested in neuroethics. Emory students can participate through writing for the blog or joining the Bioethics Society, a student interest group. With so many resources available on the Emory campus, students can engage in healthy discourse, gain new perspectives, and become better equipped to anticipate potential future changes.