Neuroethics: An Overview

in Article, News, Opinion
November 23rd, 2013

A groundbreaking new research study by Susumu Tonegawa’s team at MIT has opened up grounds for debate in the ethics of neuroscience once again. In Tonegawa’s experiment, neuroscientists were able to implant memories into the brains of mice using optogenetics, a technology in which specific cells can be turned on or off by exposure to a certain wavelength of light. The specific memory manipulated in this study was a conditioned fear response in mice to a mild electrical foot shock.

Researchers in Tonegawa’s lab began by engineering mice hippocampal cells to express channelrhodopsin, a protein that activates specific neurons when stimulated by light. Channelrhodopsin was also modified to be produced whenever c-fos, a gene necessary for memory formation, was turned on. On day one, the engineered mice explored Room A without any exposure to foot shock; the mice behaved normally. As the mice explored this room, their memory cells were labeled with channelrhodopsin. On day two, the same mice were placed into Room B, a distinctly different room, where a foot shock was received; the mice exhibited a fear response. While receiving the foot shocks, channelrhodopsin was activated via optogenetics causing the fear response to be encoding not only to Room B, but Room A as well. To test this hypothesis, the mice were brought back to Room A on day three.

Optogenetics in mice

Upon returning to Room A, the mice exhibited a fear response similar to that produced by Room B. The mice feared Room A because while receiving a foot shock in Room B, the mice were reliving their experience in Room A through channelrhodopsin’s activation of neurons associated with the mapping of Room A. Thus, a false memory had been implanted in the mice that linked the fear response created in Room B with Room A.

The findings of Tonegawa’s team present a novel step in the understanding of memory formation and storage. As neuroscientists rejoiced over this experiment, its implications stirred the minds of neuroethicists. Broad in scope, neuroethics ” is the study of the ethical, legal, and social questions that arise when scientific findings about the brain are carried into medical practice, legal interpretations, and health and social policy.”

While Tonegawa says that he has no plans to ever implant false memories into humans, the idea that the mind can be altered by direct manipulation of the brain raises concerns over exploitation of such power. The timing of Tonegawa’s research is in conjunction with a recent presidential commission in the United States concerning the ethical standards of the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, which seeks to develop technologies to understand how the brain’s billions of neurons work together to produce cognition, movement, and memory. As the list of discoveries in neuroscience grows so does the list of ethical issues along with it, creating a growing headache for researchers in this field. With such rapid growth of neuroscience and technology in the early 21st century, neuroethnicists are concerned that without proper balances in place, science may pave the way to dystopian societies where thoughts and memories are no longer personal belongings safeguarded by one’s own brain.

Are there concerns beyond implantation of false memories? Eugenics presents an idealogy that has met fierce controversy for countless years. The practice of eugenics intends to phase out characteristics among populations that are considered genetically inferior, traditionally through techniques such as sterilization and euthanasia. The quintessential example of eugenics in history can be found in the Third Reich of Germany, which started as a movement to sterilize the mentally ill and later grew to the practice of euthanizing “inferior” ethnic groups such as Jews and gypsies. Although a sensitive issue, there still exist people today that support tenets of eugenics in order to create a population that conforms to an idealized view of the perfect human being, both in physical and mental characteristics. This ideology can be applied to genetic engineering, where techniques such as euthanasia and sterilization are replaced by much more sophisticated methods that intend to “correct” one’s genetic code. Eugenics as a concept still faces much opposition and is far from accepted. Opponents often raise the ethical dilemma in defining the ideal society to model eugenics. Some questions that are asked are: what are the cognitive and physical standards that eugenics will hold to and how will it be measured? Is it moral to tamper with one’s natural genetic code or reject one from society becasuse to it? Do members of society have a choice in undergoing such procedures? These are but a few of the many questions that continue to surround eugenics.

On a lesser scale than eugenics, one can personally enhance their mental state through neurocognitive enhancement, brain intervention intended to make normal people feel and perform better than their baseline functioning. Controversy has already been met in the realm of physical enhancement resulting in antidoping laws amongst athletes and the illegality of human growth hormone. In applying this to the mind, this calls into question the extent of our so-called “cognitive liberty” in affecting our cognition through various means. A prime example showcasing this controversy is cosmetic pharmacology, the use of drugs to enhance cognition in normal healthy individuals. A common phenomenon of this is the high use of amphetamines such as Adderall among truck drivers and college students (see figure below). Amphetamines are typically prescribed to individuals diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder. It is also taken illegally as a recreational drug but more importantly taken by people in order to accomplish goals more effectively than without the drug. For the truck driver, amphetamines may assist in maintaining awareness during a long possibly un-stimulating drive. For the student, it allows more efficient and focused studying in a possibly un-stimulating subject. Is the use of drugs in this way the product of naive consumerism and quick easy solutions? Is it ok to use cognitive enhancements in full awareness of risks involved? Does it create an unequal playing field against those who do not subscribe to cosmetic neuro-pharmacology? Again these are but a few questions that surround this issue.
Nonmedical use of Adderall
Another neuroethical topic involves that of free will and how our identity is essentially tied to our brains. Some scientists and philosophers argue that humans have to no free will as all of our actions are the product of our unique genomes (giving rise to biological impulses) and past life experiences (giving rise to the unique neuronal wiring of each person) coupled with a stimulus that enables such action. Therefore it can be argued that if such technology existed, so as to measure brain tendencies and activating stimulus’, human behavior can be predicted as it is outside of the human’s control. This creates an ethical dilemma in the courtroom. To be convicted of a crime in the U.S., one must have a “guilty act” and a “guilty mind”. Consequently, psychiatric evaluations and brain imaging techniques are becoming more common in courtrooms in order to determine the latter. If however, we are all slaves to our brains, can a person really be held accountable for their actions when there is no free will?

Also, is it ethical to make a conviction on the premise of a brain scan whose analysis may or may not be sophisticated enough to make a truthful assessment? This problem is known as neuro-realism, a line of thinking that determines something as real by its detection through electronic equipment. Medicine faces a similar dilemma in making diagnoses on currently abstract concepts such as pain and psychological trauma, where it can be difficult separate those who falsify illness to obtain drugs and those who have a legitimate need for treatment. Should reports of pain and psychological trauma only be considered “real” and “valid” if supported by a brain scan showing the appropriate conditions in the correlated areas of the brain?

The argument for responsibility of actions carries over to the topic of defining conscious states as well; this is seen in determining end-of-life decisions in patients in coma, vegetative, and minimally conscious states. As brain imaging techniques such as fMRI advance, researchers and physicians are better able to observe these patients. Advanced imaging is now revealing fascinating revelations that aspects of emotional processing, language comprehension, and even conscious behavior may be retained in patients whose behavior suggests a minimally conscious state. While these patients cannot communicate their state of being, emotional states, and end-of-life decisions, the activity of these mental faculties suggest that the patients may occupy conscious positions on these issues. Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that it is unethical to allow a third party to dictate the life and future of a patient. As patients in vegetative states have proved, a patient may recover from their condition unexpectedly, leaving uncertain assumptions in determining the future of the patient. This raises the issue of pre-mature termination of life-support for patients in these minimally conscious states. It is the hope of many physicians that advancing technology will eventually bring neural techniques that will allow communication with patients who are otherwise unable to express the cognitive activity they may still have.
fMRI of a healthy and coma patient in response to a yes/no question
To conclude, neuroethics is predicted to grow as a pressing issue while technology and neuroscience advance. The ultimate intention of science is to foster the spread of knowledge as its implementation is to benefit humanity. To do so, appropriate checks and balances must always be in place to prevent mal intentions. The brain is a powerful tool and its manipulation can have dramatic consequences on humanity. Susumu Tonegawa’s team made a major leap in neuroscience with the implantation of a false memory into mice. As Howard Eichenbaum of Boston University is quoted saying in response to Tonegawa’s discovery, “These two papers represent a major step forward in memory research.” It is the hope of many neuroethicists that the intention of this research remains pure in understanding the wonders of the brain. Tonegawa’s findings are just the beginning of a potentially turbulent philosophical period for neuroscience. His experiment as well as the rest of the topics covered in this article represent an overview of the many difficult questions neuroscience will face in the upcoming decades and onward. As time continues, please consider these questions and come to your own conclusions; and most importantly, think for yourself.

-Emir Turkes


False Memories-MIT News

Ethics-Nature Project

Create Memories in Brain-Gizmodo


Modern Context of Neuroethics-NCBI via PMC

NeuroRealism-The Guardian

Neuroethics and Neurolaw- Wiley Online Library

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