Neuroethical reflection in the Human Brain Project

May 15, 2019

Arleen SallesThe emergence of several national level brain initiatives and the priority given to neuroscientific research make it important to examine the values underpinning the research, and to address the ethical, social, legal, philosophical, and regulatory issues that it raises.

Neuroscientific insights allow us to understand more about the human brain: about its dynamic nature and about its disorders. These insights also provide the basis for potentially manipulating the brain through neurotechnology and pharmacotherapy. Research in neuroscience thus raises multiple concerns: From questions about the ethical significance of natural and engineered neural circuitry, to the issue of how a biological model or a neuroscientific account of brain disease might impact individuals, communities, and societies at large. From how to protect human brain data to how to determine and guard against possible misuses of neuroscientific findings.

Furthermore, the development and applications of neuro-technology to alleviate symptoms or even enhance the human brain raise further concerns, such as their potential impact on the personality, agency, and autonomy of some users. Indeed, some empirical findings appear to even challenge long held conceptions about who we are, the capacity to choose freely, consciousness, and moral responsibility.

Neuroethics is the field of study devoted to examining these critical issues. Unfortunately, it has sometimes been reduced to a subfield of applied ethics understood as a merely procedural approach. However, in our understanding, neuroethics is methodologically much richer. It is concerned not just with using ethical theory to address normative issues about right and wrong, but notably with providing needed conceptual clarification of the relevant neuroscientific and philosophical notions. Only by having conceptual clarity about the challenges presented will we be able to address and adequately manage them.

So understood, neuroethics plays a key role in the Human Brain Project (HBP). The HBP is a European Community Flagship Project of Information and Computing Technologies (ICT). It proposes that to achieve a fuller understanding of the brain, it is necessary to integrate the massive volumes of both already available data and new data coming from labs around the world. Expected outcomes include the creation and operation of an ICT infrastructure for neuroscience and brain related research in medicine and computing. The goal is to achieve a multilevel understanding of the brain (from genes to cognition), its diseases and the effects of drugs (allowing early diagnoses and personalised treatments), and to capture the brain’s computational capabilities.

The HBP is funded by the European Commission in the framework of the EU’s Horizon 2020 research-funding programme. The programme promotes responsible research and innovation (RRI). RRI is generally understood as an interactive process that engages social actors, researchers, and innovators who must be mutually responsive and work towards the ethical permissibility of the relevant research and its products. The goal is to ensure that scientific progress and innovation are responsible and sustainable: that they increase individual and societal flourishing and maximize the common good.

To develop, broaden, and enhance RRI within the project, the HBP established the Ethics and Society subproject. Ethics and Society  is structured around a number of RRI activities such as foresight analysis (to identify at an early stage ethical and social concerns), citizens’ engagement (to promote involvement with different points of view and to strengthen public dialogue), and ethics support (to carry out research in applied ethics and to develop principles and mechanisms that ensure that ethical issues raised by research subprojects are communicated and managed and that HBP researchers comply with ethical codes and legal norms).

Neuroethical reflection plays a key role in this integration of social, scientific, and ethical inquiry. Notably, in the HBP such reflection includes conceptual and philosophical analysis. Insofar as it does, neuroethics aims to offer more than assistance to neuroscientists and social scientists in identifying the social, political, and cultural components of the research. Via conceptual analysis, neuroethics attempts to open a productive space within the HBP for examining the relevant issues, carrying out self-critical analysis, and providing the necessary background to examine potential impacts and issues raised. Neuroethical reflection in the HBP does not exclusively focus on ethical applications and normative guidance. Rather, it takes as a starting point the view that the full range of issues raised by neuroscience cannot be adequately dealt with without also focusing on the construction of knowledge, the meaning of the relevant notions, and the legitimacy of the various interpretations of relevant scientific findings.

At present, the importance of neuroethics is not in question. It is a key concern of the International Brain Initiative, and the different international brain projects are trying to integrate neuroethics into their research in different ways. What continues to be unique to neuroethics in the HBP, however, is its commitment to the idea that making progress in addressing the host of ethical, social, legal, regulatory and philosophical issues raised by brain research to a great extent depends on a conceptual neuroethical approach. It enables constructive critical alertness and a thought-out methodology that can achieve both substantial scientific ground and conceptual clarity.

If you want to read more, see below a list of publications on which this post is based.

Arleen Salles

Delegates eaGNS. Neuroethics Questions to Guide Ethical Research in the International Brain Initiatives. Neuron. 2018.

Evers K, Salles A, Farisco M. Theoretical Framing for Neuroethics: The Need for a Conceptual Aproach. In: Racine E, Aspler, J., editor. Debates About Neuroethics: Springer; 2017.

Salles A, Evers K. Social Neuroscience and Neuroethics: A Fruitful Synergy. In: Ibanez A, Sedeno, L., Garcia, A., editor. Social Neuroscience and Social Science: The Missing Link: Springer; 2017. p. 531-46.

Farisco M, Salles A, Evers K. Neuroethics: A Conceptual Approach. Camb Q Healthc Ethics. 2018;27(4):717-27.

Salles A, Evers K, Farisco M. Neuroethics and Philosophy in Responsible Research and Innovation: The Case of the Human Brain Project. Neuroethics. 2018.

Salles A, Bjaalie JG, Evers K, Farisco M, Fothergill BT, Guerrero M, et al. The Human Brain Project: Responsible Brain Research for the Benefit of Society. Neuron. 2019;101(3):380-4.


How about personally optimized treatment?

May 6, 2019

Pär SegerdahlIt is well known that patients who are asked to participate in cancer trials are tempted by the therapeutic misconception. They believe they are offered a newer and better treatment, when in fact it is about research into an untested treatment. When researchers use genetic tests to develop personalized oncology, even more misconceptions can arise. I will soon explain. But first, what is personalized cancer treatment? Here is an example.

Patients whose tumor is to be operated may undergo preparatory radiation or chemotherapy. Since the preparatory therapy has severe side effects, one wants to avoid giving it to patients whose tumors do not respond to it. The challenge is to distinguish patients who respond to treatment from patients who do not. This is to be accomplished through, among other things, genetic tests on the tumor cells. If this works, you can develop personalized cancer treatment. Patients with the “right” tumor cell genetics receive the preparatory therapy, while patients who, according to the genetic tests, only get the side effects, with no effect on tumor growth, do not receive the therapy.

What are the misconceptions that can arise in patients who are asked to participate in research on personalized cancer treatment? Here are some examples.

Patients who are told that the researchers will do genetic tests can feel a genetic responsibility to participate, considering their children and grandchildren. They believe the test results may be relevant to close relatives, who may have the same disease genes. However, the tests are done on mutated tumor cells and therefore say nothing about inherited cancer risk. A sense of genetic responsibility can thus be triggered by the word “genetics” and create a genetic misconception of research in personalized oncology.

Other misconceptions have to do with the positive language used to describe personalized medicine. One talks about personally “optimized” treatments, about “tailored” treatments, about treatments that are adapted “to the individual.” This language use is not intended to mislead, but it is easy to see how words such as “optimization” can cause patients to believe that research participation means special treatment benefit.

The biggest challenge is perhaps to explain the research purpose behind the positive language. The aim is to be able in the future to distinguish between patients, to “stratify” them, as it less positively is called. Personally optimized care actually means that some patients do not receive certain treatments. This is, of course, reasonable if genetic tests can show that they have no benefit from the treatments but only get the side effects. However, what do cancer patients themselves say about stratified cancer treatment, where some patients are identified as non-responders and therefore are not offered the same treatment as other patients? Finally, do participants understand that “tailored treatment” is a future goal of the study and not something they are offered to try?

Communication with patients recruited for studies in personalized oncology faces many challenges, as patients are tempted by even more misconceptions than just the well-known therapeutic misconception.

Do you want to know more? Read the German study that inspired this blog post.

Pär Segerdahl

Perry, J., Wöhlke, S., Heßling, A.C., Schicktanz, S. 2017. Why take part in personalised cancer research? Patients’ genetic misconception, genetic responsibility and incomprehension of stratification—an empirical‐ethical examination. Eur J Cancer Care. https://doi.org/10.1111/ecc.12563

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Reality surpasses our concepts

March 20, 2019

Pär SegerdahlAfter thinking for some time about donation of human eggs and embryos to stem cell research, I want to express myself as in the headline. Reality surpasses our concepts of it. This is not as strange as it sounds. For, if our concepts already reflected reality, then no one would need to do research, or to think. Just talking would be sufficient. An endless flood of words could replace all sincere aspirations to understand life and the world.

So what is it about donation to research that makes me want to express myself as in the headline? Everyone knows that blood donation is a gift to patients. This makes blood donation humanly understandable. People want to help fellow human beings in need, even strangers. But what about donation of eggs and embryos to stem cell research? Conceptually, the donation does not go to patients in need, but to researchers. This makes it difficult to understand donation to research. Are we to assume that people feel sorry for researchers and that they therefore want to support them by donating to them? Why do donors support research?

Not only does the concept of “donation to research” make donation difficult to understand from a human point of view. The concept also causes donation to appear suspiciously exploitative. The recipient of the donation is more powerful than the donor is. Moreover, if research results are commercialized, the recipient can make a profit on the work that the donation enables, without the donor receiving any share of it. So not only does literal faith in the concept of “donation to research” make a free will to donate difficult to understand. The donation also looks suspicious. Some argue that we should prevent an increasingly capitalized life science sector from exploiting self-sacrificing donors in this way.

Nevertheless, there are people who freely donate to research. Why? I guess it often is because they use research merely as an intermediary, to be able to give to patients. The patient is equally important in donation to research as in blood donation, although the concept does not reflect this relationship. Let me give an unexpected example of intermediaries.

About one kilogram of bacteria lives in our intestinal tract. Without these bacteria, our bodies would not be able to absorb many of the nutrients in the food we eat. When we swallow the food, these bacteria are in a sense the first diners, and our bodies have to wait patiently until they have finished eating. Even if we know this, we rarely think that we are swallowing food in order to allow bacteria in the stomach to eat first. We eat without being aware of the work that these “intermediaries” in the stomach have to do, in order for the nutrients to become available to the body.

The concept of “eating” does not reflect this relationship between bacteria and us. This is not a shortcoming of the concept. On the contrary, it would be very unpleasant if the concept reflected the bacteria’s work in our guts. Who would then want to say, “Let us sit down and eat”? However, problems arise if we have too much literal faith in concepts. Our vocabulary will then begin to impose limitations on us. Our own language will shrink our otherwise open minds to mental caves, where the words cast shadows on the walls.

Researchers, then, can be seen as intermediaries between donors and patients. I hope I do not upset sensitive minds if I suggest that researchers are the bacteria that we need to make donated material available to future patients’ bodies. That is why people donate to research. They sense, more or less intuitively, that research functions as an intermediary. “Donation to research” is at heart a gift to patients.

It is even more complicated, however, for research alone cannot act as intermediary. The task is too great. For the donation to become a gift to patients, a capitalized life science sector is needed, and a healthcare system, and much else. Moreover, just as the beneficiary function of bacteria in our stomachs requires a diet that regulates the balance between bacteria, this system of intermediaries, extending from donor to patient, needs regulation and monitoring, so that all the actors work harmoniously together. We cannot allow quacks to sell dangerous or inefficient drugs to the sick, and we cannot allow researchers to access donated material in any way they see fit.

Donation to research is a striking example of how reality surpasses our concepts. When we succeed in overcoming our literal faith in concepts – when we discover the way out of the cave and see the light – then donation to research finally becomes humanly understandable. The donor uses research to be able to give to patients. Moreover, donation to research ceases to appear as a suspicious transaction between unequal parties, since the donor uses the relatively powerful direct recipient to give to a more understandable recipient: the patient. Trying to counteract exploitation by paying the donor large sums, or by giving the donor a share of the profit, would tie the donor to the wrong recipient: the one emphasized in the concept.

As mentioned, the donor uses not only research to reach the patient, but a whole system of intermediaries, such as industry, healthcare and governmental control. This system of beneficial societal bacteria is therefore, to some extent, subordinate to the donor’s will to help patients. Or rather, the subordination is an aspect of the relationship, as is bacteria’s subordination to human eating. If we want to, we can always see the opposite aspect as well. Who really eats first and who last? Who really uses whom? The questions lack definitive answers, for the aspects change into one another.

With this post, I wanted to suggest the possibility of a bigger seeing, which we can learn to use wisely in our thinking when we discover how conceptually purified standpoints easily shrink our minds to mental caves.

Pär Segerdahl

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Genetic risk entails genetic responsibility

March 5, 2019

Pär SegerdahlIntellectual optimists have seen genetic risk information as a human victory over nature. The information gives us power over our future health. What previously would have been our fate, genetics now transforms into matters of personal choice.

Reality, however, is not as rosy as in this dream of intellectual power over life. Where there is risk there is responsibility, Silke Schicktanz writes in an article on genetic risk and responsibility. This is probably how people experience genetic risk information when they face it. Genetic risk gives us new forms of responsibility, rather than liberates us from nature.

Silke Schicktanz describes how responsibility emerges in situations where genetic risk is investigated, communicated and managed. The analysis exceeds what I can reproduce in a short blog post. However, I can give the reader a sense of how genetic risk information entails a broad spectrum of responsibilities. Sometimes in the individual who receives the information. Sometimes in the professional who provides the information. Sometimes in the family affected by the information. The examples are versions of the cases discussed in the article:

Suppose you have become strangely forgetful. You do a genetic test to determine if you have a gene associated with Alzheimer’s disease. You have the gene! The test result immediately makes you responsible for yourself. What can you do to delay or alleviate the disease? What practical measures can be taken at home to help you live with the disease? You can also feel responsibility for your family. Have you transferred the gene to your children and grandchildren? Should you urge them to test themselves? What can they do to protect themselves? The professional who administered the test also becomes responsible. Should she tell you that the validity of the test is low? Maybe you should not have been burdened with such a worrying test result, when the validity so low?

Suppose you have rectum-colon cancer. The surgeon offers you to participate in a research study in which a genetic test of the tumor cells will allow individualized treatment. Here, the surgeon becomes responsible for explaining research in personalized medicine, which is not easy. There is also the responsibility of not presenting your participation in the study as an optimization of your treatment. You yourself may feel a responsibility to participate in research, as patients have done in the past. They contributed to the care you receive today. Now you can contribute to the use genetic information in future cancer care. Moreover, the surgeon may have a responsibility to counteract a possible misunderstanding of the genetic test. You can easily believe that the test says something about disease genes that you may have passed on, and that the information should be relevant to your children. However, the test concerns mutations in the cancer cells. The test provides information only about the tumor.

Suppose you have an unusual neurological disorder. A geneticist informs you that you have a gene sequence that may be the cause of the disease. Here we can easily imagine that you feel responsibility for your family and children. Your 14-year-old son has started to show symptoms, but your 16-year-old daughter is healthy. Should she do a genetic test? You discuss the matter with your ex-partner. You explain how you found the genetic information helpful: you worry less, you have started going on regular check-ups and you have taken preventive measures. Together, you decide to tell your daughter about your test results, so that she can decide for herself if she wants to test herself.

These three examples are sufficient to illustrate how genetic risk entails genetic responsibility. How wonderful it would have been if the information simply allowed us to triumph over nature, without this burdensome genetic responsibility! A pessimist could object that the responsibility becomes overpowering instead of empowering. We must surrender to the course of nature; we cannot control everything but must accept our fate.

Neither optimists nor pessimists tend to be realistic. The article by Silke Schicktanz can help us look more realistically at the responsibilities entailed by genetic risk information.

Pär Segerdahl

Schicktanz, S. 2018. Genetic risk and responsibility: reflections on a complex relationship. Journal of Risk Research 21(2): 236-258

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Thesis on reproductive ethics

February 25, 2019

Pär SegerdahlOn Thursday, February 28, Amal Matar defends her thesis in the field of reproductive ethics.

As genetic tests become cheaper and more reliable, the potential use of genetic tests also expands. One use could be offering preconception genetic screening to entire populations. Prospective parents could find out if they are carriers of the same recessive autosomal genetic condition, and could plan future pregnancies. Carriers of such genetic conditions can be healthy, but if both parents have the same predisposition, the risk is 25 percent that their child will have the disease.

Preconception genetic screening is not implemented in Sweden. Would it be possible to do so in the future? What would the ethical and social implications be? Is it likely that preconception genetic screening will be implemented in Sweden? These are some of the questions that Amal Matar examines in her thesis.

Amal Matar’s interviews with Swedish healthcare professionals and policymaking experts indicate that preconception genetic screening will not be implemented in Sweden. The interviewees expressed the opinion that such screening would not satisfy any medical need, would threaten important values ​​in Swedish society and in the healthcare system, and require excessive resources.

Amal Matar defends her thesis in the Uppsala University Main Building (Biskopsgatan 3), room IV, on Thursday, February 28 at 13:00. You find an earlier interview with Amal Matar here. If you want to read the thesis, you find a link below.

Pär Segerdahl

Matar, Amal. 2019. Considering a Baby? Responsible Screening for the Future. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis

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Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog


Patients find misleading information on the internet

October 30, 2018

Pär SegerdahlIn phase 1 clinical studies of substances that might possibly be used to treat cancer in the future, cancer patients are recruited as research participants. These patients almost always have advanced cancer that no longer responds to the standard treatment.

That research participation would affect the cancer is unlikely. The purpose of a phase 1 study is to determine safe dosage range and to investigate side effects and other safety issues. This will then enable proceeding to investigating the effectiveness of the substance on specific forms of cancer, but with other research participants.

Given that patients often seek online information on clinical trials, Tove Godskesen, Josepine Fernow and Stefan Eriksson wanted to investigate the quality of the information that currently is available on the internet about phase 1 clinical cancer trials in Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

The results they report in the European Journal of Cancer Care are quite alarming. The most serious problem, as I understand it, is that the information conceals risks of serious side effects, and in various ways suggests possible positive treatment outcomes. This lack of accurate language is serious. We are dealing with severely ill patients who easily entertain unrealistic hopes for new treatment options.

To give a picture of the problem, I would like to give a few examples of typical phrases that Godskesen, Fernow and Eriksson found in the information on the internet, as well as their suggestions for more adequate wordings. Noticing the contrast between the linguistic usages is instructive.

One problem is that the information speaks of treatment, even though it is about research participation. Instead of writing “If you are interested in the treatment,” you could write “If you want to participate in the research.” Rather than writing “Patients will be treated with X,” you could write “Participants will be given X.”

The substance being tested is sometimes described as a medicine or therapy. Instead, you can write “You will get a substance called X.”

Another problem is that research participation is described as an advantage and opportunity for the cancer patient. Instead of writing “An advantage of study participation is that…,” one could write “The study might lead to better cancer treatments for future patients.” Rather than writing “This treatment could be an opportunity for you,” which is extremely misleading in phase 1 clinical cancer trials, one could more accurately say, “You can participate in this study.”

The authors also tested the readability of the texts they found on the internet. The Danish website skaccd.org had the best readability scores, followed by the Norwegian site helsenorge.no. The Swedish website cancercenter.se got the worst readability scores. The information was very brief and deemed to require a PhD to be understandable.

It is, of course, intelligible that it is hard to speak intelligibly about such difficult things as cancer trials. Not only do the patients recruited as study participants hope for effective treatment. The whole point of the research is effective cancer treatment. This is the ultimate perspective of the research; the horizon towards which the gaze is turned.

The fact, however, is that this horizon is far removed, far away in the future, and is about other cancer patients than those who participate in phase 1 trials. Therefore, it is important not to let this perspective characterize information to patients in whom hope would be unrealistic.

Do not talk about treatments and opportunities. Just say “You can participate in this study.”

Pär Segerdahl

Godskesen, TE, Fernow J, Eriksson S. Quality of online information about phase I clinical cancer trials in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Eur J Cancer Care. 2018;e12937. https://doi.org/10.1111/ecc.12937

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Swedish policymakers on genetic screening before pregnancy

October 17, 2018

Pär SegerdahlSome genetic diseases do not develop in  the child unless both parents happen to have the same gene. Parents can be healthy and unaware that they have the same non-dominant disease gene. In these cases, the risk that their child develops the disease is 25 percent.

Preconception expanded carrier screening could be offered to entire populations, to make everyone who so wishes more informed about their genetic vulnerabilities and better equipped to plan their partner choice and pregnancies. In Sweden, this is not relevant, but the issue could be considered in the future.

In a new article in the Journal of Community Genetics, Amal Matar (PhD student at CRB) reports an interview study with Swedish policymakers: experts at the Swedish National Council on Medical Ethics, at the Swedish Agency for Health Technology Assessment and Assessment of Social Services, and at the National Board of Health and Welfare. Amal Matar wanted to investigate how these influential experts perceive ethical and social aspects of preconception expanded carrier screening, as a new health technology.

It is exciting to get insight into how Swedish policymakers reason about offering genetic screening before pregnancy. They consider alternative financing, prioritization and costs for healthcare. They discuss Sweden as part of the EU. They reflect on what services the healthcare system needs to offer people, depending on what the test results reveal about them. They talk about the need for more research and public engagement, as well as about long-term societal effects.

Questions about responsibility, both parental and societal, struck me as extra interesting. If friends and relatives test themselves, it may seem irresponsible not to do so. Couples can then feel a social pressure to undergo the test, which makes their voluntariness illusory. The experts also saw problems in actively going out looking for disorders in people who are not sick. Society has a responsibility to help people when they are ill, but looking for disease risks in people without symptoms changes the whole evaluation of the risks and benefits of a health technology.

Amal Matar’s conclusion is that Swedish policymakers believe that preconception expanded carrier screening currently is not appropriate in the Swedish healthcare system. The reason commonly used in favor of screening, that it supports well-informed reproductive decision-making, was considered insufficient by the experts if the screening is financed through taxes. They also saw long-term threats to important values ​​in Swedish healthcare.

Pär Segerdahl

Matar, A., Hansson, M.G. and Höglund, A.T. “A perfect society” – Swedish policymakers’ ethical and social views on preconception expanded carrier screening. Journal of Community Genetics, published online 26 September 2018, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12687-018-0389-x

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Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog


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