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.


Neuroethics goes global

February 12, 2019

The complicated meaning, powerful assumptions, and boundless hopes about what can be revealed through neuroscience have made this discipline a national funding priority around the globe. A growing cohort of large-scale brain research initiatives aim to unravel the mysteries of the basis of feelings, thinking, and ultimately the mind. Questions formerly in the domain of the philosophical world have become part and parcel to neuroscience.

Just as science has so clearly become a global enterprise, ethics must keep pace. Cultural misunderstandings have nontrivial consequences for the scientific enterprise. Gaps in understanding negatively impact opportunities for collaboration and sharing, ultimately slowing scientific advancement. Too narrow of a view on science can limit our ability to reap the benefits of discoveries and, perhaps most damning for science, can result in a failure to anticipate and recognize the full consequences and risks of research.

To date, neuroethics discussions have been dominated by Western influences. However, the rapid neuroscientific development in East Asia in particular and the not-so-gradual relocation of a number of cutting-edge research projects from the West to East Asia, has made it clear that exploration and understanding of the ethics and cultural values informing research will be critical in engaging science as a collaborative global enterprise.

The Neuroethics Workgroup of the International Brain Initiative is comprised of members of each of the existing and emerging large-scale brain research initiatives. Leveraging the fellowship of the IBI and using an intentional culturally aware approach to guide its work, the Neuroethics Workgroup completes rapid deliverables in the near (within one year) and short-term (within two years).

With the inaugural 2017 summit, leading scientists, ethicists, and humanist co-created a universal list of neuroethics questions, Neuroethics Questions for Neuroscientists (NeQN) that should be addressed by scientists in each brain project. These NeQN were published in Neuron in 2018 and can be found here.

The neuroethics questions themselves were not necessarily unfamiliar neuroethics questions; however, these NEQN were designed to be adapted and informed by the cultural values and frameworks of each country.

The 2018 meeting served as a workshop, where each of the brain projects discussed why and how they will integrate neuroethics into their brain projects with particular recognition of the five questions from the 2018 Neuroethics Questions for Neuroscientists (NeQN) featured in Neuron. The product is the first neuroethics special issue in a high impact neuroscience journal.

Each perspective offers topics and context for their engagement with and practice of neuroethics. The issue features the seven existing and emerging large-scale brain research projects organized in alphabetical order.

The Australian Brain Alliance describes how neuroethics has been integrated into their research ethos as featured in their public outreach and advocacy efforts as well as their explorations in the public domains such as neurolaw and industry. A key component for the Australian project is diversity and inclusion, and there is a particular interest in engaging brain health with vulnerable Indigenous populations in Australia.

The Canadian Brain Research Strategy paper illustrates the rich historical efforts in pioneering neuroethics and future plans of a national collaboration to carefully consider public discourse and patient engagement as they pursue deeper knowledge of the how the brain learns, remembers, and adapts. A fundamental recognition of the neuroethics backbone of the Canadian project is that “The powerful ability of the brain to change or rewire itself in response to experience is the foundation of human identity.”

The China Brain Project discusses potential models for important public outreach campaigns and the balance of considering traditional Chinese culture and philosophy, particularly in the areas of brain death, conceptualizations of personhood and individual rights, and stigma for mental illness. The authors describe commitments for integrating neuroethics as the China Brain Project is being designed.

The EU Human Brain Project outlines its bold leadership and addresses the conceptual and philosophical issues of neuroethics and the implementation of philosophical insights as an iterative process for neuroscience research. A project with an extremely sophisticated neuroethics infrastructure, this paper provides examples of managing issues related to the moral status of engineered entities, how interventions could impact autonomy and agency, and dual use.

The Japan Brain/MINDS paper describes plans to reinvigorate historical efforts in neuroethics leadership as it expands the scope of its research and launches Japan Brain/MINDS Beyond. In particular, the project will integrate neuroethics to address issues related to privacy and data collection as well as in considering stigma and biological models of psychiatric disease.

The Korea Brain Initiative paper nicely demonstrates how advocacy for neuroscience and neuroethics at the government and policy levels go hand in hand. As Korea aims to advance its neuroscience community, the Korean government has seen neuroethics as integral to neuroscientists’ development. The Korea Brain Initiative is exploring ethical issues related to “intelligent” brain technologies, brain banking, cognitive enhancement, and neural privacy in the milieu of traditional and contemporary cultural traditions in Korea.

The US BRAIN Initiative outlines its efforts in building an infrastructure for neuroethics in research and policy and for funding research as it plans its roadmap for the next phase of BRAIN to 2025. Example of ethical issues that arise from the project’s goals of understanding neural circuitry include the moral relevance and status of ex vivo brain tissue and organoids as well as unique ethical concerns around informed consent in brain recording and stimulation in humans.

Each project illustrates that neuroethics is important regardless of the scope and methodologies inherent in its research goals and demonstrates the utility of the NeQNs for today’s and future scientists within and beyond the large-scale neuroscience research projects.

Karen Rommelfanger

PhD, Director, Neuroethics Program Emory Center for Ethics, Co-chair International Brain Initiative Neuroethics Workgroup


Drug addiction as a mental and social disorder

December 4, 2018

Michele FariscoCan the brain sciences help us to better understand and handle urgent social problems like drug addiction? Can they even help us understand how social disorder creates disorderly, addicted brains?

If, as seems to be the case, addiction has a strong cerebral base, then it follows that knowing the brain is the key to finding effective treatments for addiction. Yet, what aspects of the brain should be particularly investigated? In a recent article, co-authored with the philosopher Kathinka Evers and the neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux, I suggest that we need to focus on both aware and unaware processes in the brain, trying to figure out how these are affected by environmental influences, and how they eventually affect individual behavior.

There is no doubt that drug addiction is one of the most urgent emergencies in contemporary society. Think, for instance, of the opioid crisis in the US. It has become a kind of social plague, affecting millions of people. How was that possible? What are the causes of such a disaster? Of course, several factors contributed to the present crisis. We suggest, however, that certain external factors influenced brain processes on an unaware level, inviting addictive behavior.

To give an example, one of the causes of the opioid crisis seems to be the false assumption that opioid drugs do not cause addiction. Taking this view of opioid drugs was an unfortunate choice, we argue, likely favored by the financial interests of pharmaceutical companies. It affected not only physicians’ aware opinions, but also their unaware views on opioid drugs, and eventually their inclination to prescribe them. But that is not all. Since there is a general disposition to trust medical doctors’ opinions and choices, the original false assumption that opioid drugs do not cause addiction spread and affected also public opinion, especially at the unaware level. In other words, we think that there is a social responsibility for the increase in drug addiction, if not in ethical terms, at least in terms of public policies.

This is just an example of how external factors contribute to a personal disposition to use potentially addictive drugs. Of course, the factors involved in creating addiction are multifarious and not limited to false views about the risk of addiction associated with certain drugs.

More generally, we argue that in addition to the internal bases of addiction in the central nervous system, socio-economic status modulates, through unaware processing, what can be described as a person’s subjective “global well-being,” raising in some individuals the need for additional rewards in the brain. In the light of the impact of external factors, we argue that some people are particularly vulnerable to the pressures of the political and socio-economical capitalistic system, and that this stressful condition, which has both aware and unaware components, is one of the main causes of addiction. For this reason, we conclude that addiction is not only a medical and mental disorder, but also a social disorder.

Michele Farisco

Farisco M, Evers K and Changeux J-P (2018) Drug Addiction: From Neuroscience to Ethics. Front. Psychiatry 9:595. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00595


International brain initiatives need cultural awareness

November 12, 2018

Pär SegerdahlToday, billions of research dollars are being invested in developing huge research collaborations about the human brain. Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea and the United States have their own brain initiatives. In Europe, the Human Brain Project has a total budget of around one billion euros over a ten-year period, 2013-2023.

Scientific research is often seen as an activity that transcends cultural differences. However, research about the brain touches such fundamental aspects of human existence that it cannot ignore cultural views. For example, the notion that the brain, as a separate organ, is the locus of human identity, of the self, is not generally embraced. Neuroscientific research touches profound cultural ideas about human life which require careful philosophical and ethical attention.

The international brain initiatives also touch other culturally sensitive issues, in addition to questions about human identity. Ideas about death and brain death, about the use of nonhuman primates in research, about privacy and autonomy, and about mental illness, differ across cultures. For example, a diagnosis that in one culture can be seen as an opportunity to get individual treatment can in another culture threaten to condemn a whole family to social isolation.

Neuroethicists from parts of the world that currently make major investments in neuroscientific research met in Korea to highlight ethical questions on cultural differences, which the international brain initiatives need to address. This in order for the research to be conducted responsibly, with awareness of relevant cultural diversity. The questions that the neuroethicists (among them, Arleen Salles) propose should be addressed are summarized in an article in the journal Neuron.

The authors mention questions about how neuroscientific research could cause stigma in individuals or social groups, and about how cultural notions might bias research design and the interpretation of results. They ask how collecting and storing neural tissue can be viewed in different cultures, and about how we should understand the moral status of robots and computer-simulated brains. They mention questions about how new brain interventions (brain devices and drugs) may affect notions of responsibility and autonomy, as well as issues about drawing boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate uses of neuroscientific techniques. Finally, questions are highlighted about fair access to research results.

How can these questions be addressed and discussed in the international brain initiatives? The authors propose education in neuroethics, as well as dialogue with scholars in the humanities and social sciences, and finally improved communication and interaction with the publics.

Within the European Human Brain Project, four percent of the budget is used for ethics and society. Similar emphasis on ethical reflection would be desirable also in other brain initiatives.

Pär Segerdahl

Global Neuroethics Summit Delegates. 2018. Neuroethics questions to guide ethical research in the international brain initiatives. Neuron 100, October 10, 2018.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2018.09.021

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Part of international collaborations - the Ethics Blog


Sharing a blog post on consciousness

August 29, 2018

Michele Farisco at CRB has written an interesting post for the BMC blog on medicine. He says that “whereas ethical analyses of disorders of consciousness traditionally focus on residual awareness, there may be a case to be made for the ethical relevance of the retained unawareness.”

Interested to read more? Here is a link to the post: On consciousness and the unconscious.

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog


Philosophy in responsible research and innovation

August 22, 2018

Pär SegerdahlThe honorable discipline philosophy is hardly anything we associate with groundbreaking research and innovation. Perhaps it is time we began to see a connection.

To begin with, we can let go of the image of philosophy as an honorable discipline. Instead, let us talk about the spirit of philosophy. People who think for themselves, as philosophers do, rarely find themselves at home within the narrow bounds of disciplines and fields. Not even if they are called philosophical. On the contrary, if such a person encounters boundaries that restrict her thought, she investigates the boundaries. And removes them, if necessary.

Forget the reverent representation of philosophy as an honorable discipline.

The spirit of philosophy is to avoid discipline, submission, tradition and all forms of dependence. Someone who functions as a loyal representative of a philosophical school is hardly a genuine thinker. A philosopher is someone who, in a spirit of absolute independence, questions everything that makes a pretense of being true, right and correct. Therefore, it has been said that one cannot learn philosophy, only to philosophize. As soon as a philosophy crystallizes, the philosophical spirit awakens and investigates the boundaries of what usually turns out to be a fad that attracts insecure intellects who shun independent thinking. No system of thought restricts a freely investigating thinker. Especially not the philosophy that is in fashion.

How does this spirit of philosophy connect to research and innovation? The connection I see is different than you probably guess. It is not about boosting the development by removing all boundaries, but about taking responsibility for the development. Philosophical thinking does not resemble an overheated research field’s fast flow of ideas, or an entrepreneur’s grandiose visions for the future. On the contrary, a philosopher takes a step back to calmly investigate the flow of ideas and visions.

Philosophy’s freedom is basically a responsibility.

Responsible Research and Innovation has become an important political theme for the European Commission. This responsibility is understood as an interactive process that engages social actors, researchers and innovators. Together, they are supposed to work towards ethically permissible research activities and products. This presupposes addressing also underlying societal visions, norms and priorities.

For this to work, however, separate actors cannot propagate separate interests. You need to take a step back and make yourself independent of your own special interests. You need to make yourself independent of yourself! Reflect more open-mindedly than you were disciplined to function, and see beyond the bounds of your fragmentary little field (and self). This spacious spirit of philosophy needs to be awakened: the freedom of thought that is basically the responsibility of thought.

Concrete examples of what this means are given in the journal, Neuroethics. In an article, Arleen Salles, Kathinka Evers and Michele Farisco describe the role that philosophical reflection currently plays in the European Flagship, the Human Brain Project. Here, philosophy and neuroethics are no mere appendages of neuroscientific research. On the contrary, by reflecting on central concepts in the project, philosophers contribute to the overall self-understanding in the project. Not by imposing philosophy as a special interest, or as a competing discipline with its own concepts, but by open-mindedly reflecting on neuroscientific concepts, clarifying the questions they give rise to.

The authors describe three areas where philosophy contributes within the Human Brain Project, precisely through awakening the spirit of philosophy. First, conceptual questions about connections between the brain and human identity. Secondly, conceptual questions about connections between the brain and consciousness; and between consciousness and unconsciousness. Thirdly, conceptual questions about links between neuroscientific research and political initiatives, such as poverty reduction.

Let us drop the image of philosophy as a discipline. For we need the spirit of philosophy.

Pär Segerdahl

Salles, A., Evers, K. & Farisco, M. Neuroethics (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-018-9372-9

(By the way, anyone can philosophize. If you have the spirit, you are a philosopher. A demanding education in philosophy as a separate discipline can actually be an obstacle that you have to overcome.)

This post in Swedish

We transgress disciplinary borders - the Ethics Blog


Driverless car ethics

June 20, 2018

Pär SegerdahlSelf-driving robot cars are controlled by computer programs with huge amounts of traffic rules. But in traffic, not everything happens smoothly according to the rules. Suddenly a child runs out on the road. Two people try to help a cyclist who collapsed on the road. A motorist tries to make a U-turn on a too narrow road and is stuck, blocking the traffic.

Assuming that the robots’ programs are able to categorize traffic situations through image information from the cars’ cameras, the programs must select the appropriate driving behavior for the robot cars. Should the cars override important traffic rules by, for example, steering onto the sidewalk?

It is more complicated than that. Suppose that an adult is standing on the sidewalk. Should the adult’s life be compromised to save the child? Or to save the cyclist and the two helpful persons?

The designers of self-driving cars have a difficult task. They must program the cars’ choice of driving behavior in ethically complex situations that we call unexpected, but the engineers have to anticipate far in advance. They must already at the factory determine how the car model will behave in future “unexpected” traffic situations. Maybe ten years later. (I assume the software is not updated, but also updated software anticipates what we normally see as unexpected events.)

On a societal level, one now tries to agree on ethical guidelines for how future robot cars should behave in tragic traffic situations where it may not be possible to completely avoid injuries or fatal casualties. A commission initiated by the German Ministry for Transportation, for example, suggests that passengers of robot cars should never be sacrificed to save a larger number of lives in the traffic situation.

Who, by the way, would buy a robot car that is programmed to sacrifice one’s life? Who would choose such a driverless taxi? Yet, as drivers we may be prepared to sacrifice ourselves in unexpected traffic situations. Some researchers decided to investigate the matter. You can read about their study in ScienceDaily, or read the research article in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

The researchers used Virtual Reality (VR) technology to expose subjects to ethically difficult traffic situations. Thereafter, they studied the subjects’ choice of traffic behavior. The researchers found that the subjects were surprisingly willing to sacrifice themselves to save others. But they also took into consideration the age of potential victims and were prepared to steer onto the sidewalk to minimize the number of traffic victims. This is contrary to norms that we hold important in society, such as the idea that age discrimination should not occur and that the lives of innocent people should be protected.

In short, humans are inclined to drive their cars politically incorrectly!

Why was the study done? As far as I understand, because the current discussion about ethical guidelines does not take into account empirical data on how living drivers are inclined to drive their cars in ethically difficult traffic situations. The robot cars will make ethical decisions that can make the owners of the cars dissatisfied with their cars; morally dissatisfied!

The researchers do not advocate that driverless cars should respond to ethically complex traffic situations as living people do. However, the discussion about driverless car ethics should take into account data on how living people are inclined to drive their cars in traffic situations where it may not be possible to avoid accidents.

Let me complement the empirical study with some philosophical reflections. What strikes me when I read about driverless car ethics is that “the unexpected” disappears as a living reality. A living driver who tries to handle a sudden traffic situation manages what very obviously is happening right now. The driverless car, on the other hand, takes decisions that tick automatically, as predetermined as any other decision, like stopping at a red light. Driverless car ethics is just additional software that the robot car is equipped with at the factory (or when updating the software).

What are the consequences?

A living driver who suddenly ends up in a difficult traffic situation is confronted – as I said – with what is happening right now. The driver may have to bear responsibility for his actions in this intense moment during the rest of his life. Even if the driver rationally sacrifices one life to save ten, the driver will bear the burden of this one death; dream about it, think about it. And if the driver makes a stupid decision that takes more lives than it saves, it may still be possible to reconcile with it, because the situation was so unexpected.

This does not apply, however, to the robot car that was programmed at the factory according to guidelines from the National Road Administration. We might want to say that the robot car was preprogrammed to sacrifice our sister’s life, when she stood innocently on the sidewalk. Had the car been driven by a living person, we would have been angry with the driver. But after some time, we might be able to start reconciling with the driver’s behavior. Because it was such an unexpected situation. And the driver is suffering from his actions.

However, if it had been a driverless car that worked perfectly according to the manufacturer’s programs and the authorities’ recommendations, then we might see it as a scandal that the car was preprogrammed to steer onto the sidewalk, where our sister stood.

One argument for driverless cars is that, by minimizing the human factor, they can reduce the number of traffic accidents. Perhaps they can. But maybe we are less accepting as to how they are programmed to save lives in ethically difficult situations. Not only are they preprogrammed so that “the unexpected” disappears as a reality. They do not bear the responsibility that living people are forced to bear, even for their rational decisions.

Well, we will probably find ways to implement and accept the use of driverless cars. But another question still concerns me. If the present moment disappears as a living reality in the ethics software of driverless cars, has it not already disappeared in the ethics that prescribes right and wrong for us living people?

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

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