Brain boosting, thought scanning and other neuroethics issues

August 31, 2009

Several comments on this and other blogs express surprise that the Reuters blog on religion, faith and ethics should be interested in neuroscience. Several posts here — on a “God spot” in the brain, on moral instincts, on religious studies and on meditation and prayer — showed the growing relevance of brain science to the issues we cover. One angle we haven’t yet covered is the one that originally drew me towards this field, namely neuroethics. Rapid progress in neurological research has prompted a debate on the ethics of unlocking the brain’s secrets. I first wrote about this debate in early 2007, interviewing several neuroscientists on how to separate good uses of their work from bad after studies showed brain scans could read some kinds of intentions before the subjects revealed them.

One of those experts, University of Pennsylvania cognitive neuroscience professor Martha Farah, is head of Penn’s new Center for Neuroscience and Society. She was also the director of the neuroscience “boot camp” that I attended this month. At the end of that session, I asked her to talk about new issues currently challenging neuroethicists.

In this short video, Farah discusses how neuroscience is increasingly producing insights into human behaviour that are relevant to society and below she discusses how this progress also brings new ethical concerns.

Brain enhancement has been a leading issue since neuroethics emerged as a field early in this decade. Farah said it continues to attract interest because drugs such as Ritalin or Adderall — originally meant to help people suffering from ADD — are increasingly used by healthy people to help focus more on their work or study. “More and more normal healthy college students are using these drugs as study aids,” she said. “More professionals are using them to work longer hours and help them multitask when they are sitting in a meeting, listening to what’s going on and trying to contribute while texting people on their Blackberries.”

A related issue is the proper use of deep brain stimulation, where a similar kind of usage drift has set in. “In just the last five years, there’s been a big increase in experimental use of deep brain stimulation as a treatment for psychological disorders,” Farah said. “It was shown to be very effective and safe on balance for movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. Then, serendipitously, brain surgeons noticed that deep brain stimulation did sometimes alter mood or alter the way people felt… Because they’ve had very good initial results with these methods, its now being tried on less severe psychiatric problems, including addictions and eating disorders.”

slide-pfcOne set of ethical questions has to do with what’s research and what’s treatment here. Research trials of new drugs have formal rules and the procedure to approve them for treatment is regulated. But a surgeon stimulating a brain may experiment in the relevant area to see if another effect results. “If a surgeon uses the same device but puts it in a different place, is that to be considered research or just a variation on a tried and true method?” Farah asked. “If the treatment is successful or there is a bad result, how does that information get collected and systematised?

The second set of issues gets weirder. One form of brain stimulation is transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS), which uses a weak electrical current applied from outside the head to modulate neuron activity in the brain. It’s under study for treatment of depression. “One thing about TDCS is that you can build one of these things do-it-yourself at home with a nine volt battery,” Farah explained. “You can find online sites where people are trading advice and experiences about the TDCS that they’ve done themselves and whether they think it’s helpful or not.”

One do-it-yourself project could be stimulating the frontal cortices to try to improve verbal abilities. “It’s hit and miss, but there are some published studies that say where they stimulate and what cognitive abilities they’ve managed to improve.”

A whole other set of questions concerns the privacy of people whose brains are scanned. “There are a lot of crazy claims out there about what brain imaging can tell you about a person’s mental state, for example are they lying to you?” Farah said. “In the laboratory, in extremely simple tasks with all kinds of controls in place, we can do a decent job of telling whether somebody’s lying or not. But for real world lies, with a subject who’s really motivated to deceive you, there’s no evidence that brain imaging is currently useful there.”


(Photo: Bust illustrating phrenology, the quack 19th century belief linking personality to skull shape/Tom Heneghan)

But brain scans are coming up with “all kinds of information that we really should be protecting with regulations to ensure privacy,” Farah said. “We are finding that many personal characteristics of individuals have fairly strong correlates in brain activity. I’m thinking of personality traits, intelligence and various cognitive abilities. At this point, you can go in and be scanned in a study where they might just ask you to look at pictures of people to try to remember them. Although we certainly cannot at present pinpoint anything about your personality or your attitudes, we can put upper and lower bands on personality traits like extraversion or automatic negative evaluation of individuals of other races. So there are questions about mental privacy that need to be thought through by scientists and society. That’s something that neuroethicists are continuing to work on.”

Penn’s new Center for Neuroscience and Society aims to “increase understanding of the impact of neuroscience on society through research and teaching, and to encourage the responsible use of neuroscience for the benefit of humanity,” according to its mission statement. Farah mentioned fields such as law, education, economics and criminology that could use the insights of cognitive neuroscience. “What neuroscience can do and is now doing has implications for society and its impact can be good or bad for society. I don’t think that means we have to reflexively start regulating it but I think it does raise policy questions. In certain cases, legislation might be called for. In other cases, just better public understanding is needed.”

Follow FaithWorld on Twitter at RTRFaithWorld

No comments so far

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

[…] What Are You Thinking? I asked University of Pennsylvania cognitive neuroscience professor Martha Farah, head of Penn’s new Center for Neuroscience and Society, to talk about new issues currently challenging neuroethicists. (Tom Heneghan, FaithWorld Blog, Reuters) […]

Posted by August 31, 2009 – Science and Religion Today | Report as abusive