Updated: Mar 17
It is Brain Awareness Week, a campaign aimed to promote public interest and engage different groups in brain science internationally. As this event is being celebrated globally, we want to take the opportunity and briefly highlight some of the important ethical debates associated with neuroscience research and neurotechnology. Let's dig in:
1. Brain-Computer Interfaces or BCIs. BCIs are being developed with the promise of improving the lives of people with disabilities, allowing those that once lost the ability to move their limbs or even speak, to move prosthetic limbs and communicate with others. However, there are growing concerns about the potential of these technologies to be misused or abused, raising questions about who should gain access. For example:
Can/should BCIs influence a person's mind and behaviour?
Can/should BCIs facilitate reading one's thoughts?
Should this technology be strictly used for medical purposes?
2. Cognitive enhancers. Cognitive enhancement is another area of neuroethics that has generated a lot of discussion. The use of drugs or other interventions to enhance cognitive function raises questions about fairness, accessibility, and equity, as well as concerns about potential side effects and long-term consequences that may arise with frequent use of cognitive enhancers. For example:
Will all people (from different socio-economic backgrounds) have equal access to cognitive enhancers?
Will people become addicted to cognitive enhancers? (How many of us are addicted to coffee?!)
How do cognitive enhancers influence the 'authentic self'?
Some experts have even argued that using cognitive enhancers might be a moral duty to become the best version of ourselves, and not an uncommon practice given our current consumption of certain types of cognitive enhancers, that are completely normalized, such as caffeine.
3. Neuroimaging. Brain imaging, a technology that is used to investigate different aspects of brain function, is also a topic of ethical debate. While neuroimaging has the potential to provide valuable medical insights into the brain for research and clinical purposes, there are concerns about the privacy implications of collecting sensitive information about individuals' thoughts and emotions. This has major implications for criminal law, where neuroscientific findings have been slowly infiltrating the courtroom. For example:
Can neuroimaging be used for detecting lies and deception?
Will neuroimaging be the end to mental privacy?
Can neuroimaging bias courtrooms and similar practices?
4. Mental health chatbots. One emerging area of neurotechnology is the use of mental health chatbots. These chatbots use artificial intelligence to provide mental health support and counselling to individuals, often in the form of text-based conversations. While chatbots can be a convenient and accessible way for people to get the support they need with relatively lower costs, there are concerns about the quality of care provided by these tools and whether they are an adequate substitute for human therapists. Moreover, with the release of advanced and complex language and generative models like ChatGPT, the risks might be bigger. For example:
Will individuals trust everything that is generated by chatbots?
Who will have access to the personal information?
How can the information be used?
5. Cerebral Organoids. Another less eminent but increasingly discussed issue is the use of cerebral organoids in neuroscience research. Cerebral organoids are 3D structures that mimic certain aspects including structure and function of the human brain (with greater research potential when compared to previous cell culture models). While they hold great promise for advancing our understanding of the brain, there are concerns about the ethical implications of creating brain-like structures in the lab, particularly in terms of their potential to develop consciousness, or an ability to sense their environment and react in return. For example, some of the questions that have been raised include:
Will complex versions of cerebral organoids feel pain?
Will they be able to think?
Will animals implanted with human cerebral organoids have improved cognitive and behavioral capacities similar to that of humans?
Overall, there are many ethical debates and discussions associated with neuroscience research and neurotechnology. And while some of them should be handled with less hype, others deserve our outmost attention and consideration. As we continue to make progress in these fields, it is important to consider the ethical implications of our work and to ensure that we are conducting research in a responsible and ethical manner.