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.


Open data access is regulated access

November 11, 2015

Pär SegerdahlWe usually associate open access with the publication of scientific articles that anyone with internet access can read, without price barrier.

The concept “open access” is now being used also for research data. I have written about this trend towards open data earlier on the Ethics Blog: Openness as a norm.

In many cases, research data are made as freely available as the open access articles that anyone can read; often in connection with the publication of results based on the data. This occurs, for example, in physics.

There is a strong trend towards open data also in medical research; but here the analogy with articles that anyone can read is no longer valid. Biobank and register-based research work with sensitive personal data, to which a number of laws regulating data access apply.

Yet one could speak of a trend towards open data also in this domain. But it then means something different. It’s about making data as accessible as possible for research, within the regulations that apply to this type of data.

Since the relevant laws and ethical frameworks are not only opaque but also differ between countries, the work is largely about developing common models for researchers to work within. One such attempt is made in an article by, among others, Deborah Mascalzoni and Mats G. Hansson at CRB:

The article formulates 15 principles for sharing of biological samples and personal data between researchers. It also includes a template of the written agreements that scientists can make when one research group transfers data or materials to another research group.

Take a look at these principles, and the template of the agreements, and you’ll soon get an idea of how many strict conditions that must be met when biological samples and personal data are shared for research purposes.

Given how open access often is associated with the possibility for anyone at any time to read articles without price barrier, one should perhaps avoid using the term in this context. It may mislead, since this form of data access is heavily regulated, although the aim is to support researchers to share their data and samples.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

Minding our language - the Ethics Blog


Building European infrastructures for research

May 28, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogThe European Union is traditionally about creating an internal market, where goods, services, labor and capital can move freely between member states.

Lately there have been efforts to create also European infrastructures for research, where researchers in the different member states can collaborate more efficiently, and compete on a global “research market.” A new tool for such European governance of research is the European Research Infrastructure Consortium, abbreviated ERIC.

If at least three member states hand in a joint application, the Commission can establish an ERIC – an international organization where the involved member states jointly fund and manage a European infrastructure for research in some area. In November 2013, an ERIC was established for biobank research: BBMRI-ERIC, placed in Graz, Austria.

Understanding what an ERIC is and whether BBMRI-ERIC has tools to make the diverse regulations for biobanking in different EU member states more uniform, is not easy. However, a “Letter” in the European Journal of Human Genetics addresses both issues:

The letter is written by Jane Reichel, Anna-Sara Lind, Mats G. Hansson, and Jan-Eric Litton who is the Director General of BBMRI-ERIC.

The authors write that although the ERIC lacks substantial tools to make the regulative framework for biobanking more uniform, it provides a platform where researchers and member states can collaborate developing better ways of navigating the complex legal and ethical landscape. The ERIC also facilitates administration, owning and running of equipment and employment of staff on a long-term basis, thus enabling a time perspective proper to research infrastructures (rather than individual research projects). It also provides opportunities to develop common standards for biobanking activities (e.g., handling of samples) that make biobanks function better together.

Finally, because of the required regular contacts with the Commission and representatives of all EU member states, channels are opened up through which the interests of research can be communicated and influence policy areas like data protection.

Read the letter if you are interested to know more about this new way of building European infrastructures for research.

Pär Segerdahl

Part of international collaborations - the Ethics Blog


An obligation to look for incidental findings in genomics research?

February 13, 2013

A new article in The American Journal of Bioethics attempts to take the discussion about incidental findings in genomics research a step further by asking:

  • “Assuming there is a duty to disclose significant incidental findings, might there be an obligation for researchers to actively look for these findings?”

The authors use an ancillary care model as a framework for their discussion. Ancillary care means care for research participants that is not required directly by sound science; not required to conduct a trial safely, for example, or to manage subject injury. The model was originally developed for research in developing countries.

The authors see ancillary care as the best perspective on incidental findings: a duty to disclose incidental findings is best justified as an ancillary-care obligation. The question in the article, then, is the following. If the ancillary care model implies a duty to disclose stumbled-upon incidental findings, does it imply also a duty to actively look for such findings?

To answer the question, three criteria are formulated all of which must be satisfied simultaneously to support a duty to look for incidental findings:

  1. Benefit: the genetic information sought must be beneficial for the patient.
  2. Uniqueness of access: researchers must be in a unique position to look for, assess and provide the genetic information.
  3. Burden: analyzing the genome for incidental findings must not take too much time, effort and resources from research.

Using these criteria, the authors conclude that currently there is no obligation to look for incidental findings in genomics research. Although uniqueness of access is high (genomic techniques are available primarily through research), benefit is low and burden high.

This may change in the future, the authors speculate, when better knowledge and technology make benefit high and burden low, and the technology still is available primarily through research. In such a scenario there would be an obligation to look for incidental findings. In the distant future, however, when genomic techniques are available also in clinical care, the obligation to look for incidental findings once again disappears.

In my view, this attempt to take the discussion a step further suffers from two major shortcomings that pertain already to the assumption that the ancillary care model could imply an obligation to disclose stumbled-upon incidental findings in genomics research.

Genomics research often is carried out as biobank research where the researcher’s relation to participants does not resemble a doctor-patient relationship. The researcher is not necessarily a physician and may work with samples collected years ago by others. The basic idea in the ancillary care model that “medical researchers must strike a balance between their obligations to medicine and those to research” is not obvious in many forms of large-scale biobank research.

Moreover, incidental findings in genomics research typically mean highly complex genetic risk information. It is not entirely clear, at least not to me, if the notion of, for example, actionability, has the same meaning for a discovered disease as for a discovered increased genetic disease risk.

An illuminating and realistic discussion about incidental findings in genomics research must, I believe, specifically address the biobank-infrastructural context of much genomics research, and the complex nature of genetic risk information.

If the ancillary care model generally is the best perspective on incidental findings, the applicability of this model to characteristic forms of genomics research would have deserved more careful attention.

Pär Segerdahl

We like real-life ethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se


UK Biobank invites researchers

April 13, 2012

After many years of data collection, UK Biobank is now open for research on human health and disease.

Like the Swedish biobank investment LifeGene, the British investment is big and prospective. Blood and urine samples were collected from 500 000 participants aged 40-69. Participants also underwent medical examinations and answered questions about health, disease and lifestyle.

The news is that researchers can now start planning projects using these data. Nevertheless, it will probably be a long time before interesting findings are reported…

It may seem cynical, but before UK Biobank can support valuable research, sufficiently many participants must develop various diseases, while others remain healthy. This is what will allow researchers to go back to the original data and identify patterns in how genetic and environmental factors contribute to health and disease.

The value of biobank infrastructure, like UK Biobank, increases with time, as participants develop cancer, depression, diabetes, or heart disease… while others remain in good health.

The fact that biobank infrastructure initially has unclear scientific value and reveals its potential only with time tends to invite skepticism. In the UK as well as in Sweden, investments in biobank infrastructure were interpreted by some as if they concerned unusually obscure research projects, lacking proper scientific goals and procedures.

I think that this is a misunderstanding.

As the recent opening of UK Biobank shows, it is not until now that clearly defined research projects can start being planned. If I am right, however, we might even have to wait somewhat longer…

The data collected between 2006 and 2012 might not support much interesting research until 2022, if I understand the temporality of these research processes. Since the research concerns health and disease in ageing humans, the significance of the research cannot develop any faster than humans grow older.

Rather than holding the initial lack of scientific prosperity against investments like UK Biobank or LifeGene, I am struck by the patience and foresightedness of those who planned and decided about these investments.

Understanding the infrastructural preconditions of biobank research seems to require an attitude to the pace of human life that I thought had become extinct in an age obsessed with short-term agendas.

Sometimes, we have to wait for the future to reveal itself. Only when the time is ripe can the goals and procedures of scientifically interesting biobank projects be defined.

Pär Segerdahl

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog


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