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.”