Ethics of neuroscience

Neuroethics is an emerging field of debate over research into how the human brain works and the proper use of the discoveries. Faith World’s Tom Heneghan, explores this new field with University of Pennsylvania cognitive neuroscience professor Martha Farah, head of Penn’s new Center for Neuroscience and Society.

Farah discusses how neuroscience is increasingly producing insights into human behaviour that are relevant to society and below she discusses how this progress also brings new ethical concerns.

Brain enhancement has been a leading issue since neuroethics emerged as a field early in this decade. Farah said it continues to attract interest because drugs such as Ritalin or Adderall — originally meant to help people suffering from ADD — are increasingly used by healthy people to help focus more on their work or study.

One set of ethical questions has to do with what’s research and what’s treatment here. Research trials of new drugs have formal rules and the procedure to approve them for treatment is regulated. But a surgeon stimulating a brain may experiment in the relevant area to see if another effect results. “If a surgeon uses the same device but puts it in a different place, is that to be considered research or just a variation on a tried and true method?” Farah asked. “If the treatment is successful or there is a bad result, how does that information get collected and systematised?

The second set of issues gets weirder. One form of brain stimulation is transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS), which uses a weak electrical current applied from outside the head to modulate neuron activity in the brain. It’s under study for treatment of depression. “One thing about TDCS is that you can build one of these things do-it-yourself at home with a nine volt battery,” Farah explained. “You can find online sites where people are trading advice and experiences about the TDCS that they’ve done themselves and whether they think it’s helpful or not.”

Read more and watch Farah discuss these issues here.

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