Neuroethics Education

20 08 2010

Why is neuroethics not a required class for graduate students in PhD programs? Most current PhDs in Neuroscience probably couldn’t tell you precisely what neuroethics is.  We can consider neuroethics as a 2-headed coin.  One side of the coin would be the ethical implications of neuroscience research findings and technologies on society. The other side would be the study of the ethics of the human brain such as morality, ideas of truth, etc.  Typically these are expressed with imaging studies where parts of the brain “light up” when engaged in a thinking task (or even when engaging in “Thinking about Not thinking,” believe it or not). For the sake of this entry, let’s consider the former description of the ethical implications of neuroscience research.

In a recent conversation, my colleague suggested that to understand ethics, one needs a background such as readings in Kant and Neuroscience PhDs just aren’t familiar or willing to become familiar with that work.  I have noted that “philosophy” has generally been a derogatory word in my department, used to give a name things they could not explain and/or understand–“It’s too philosophical.” If you’re a scientist, you’ve no doubt heard this statement in passing, or maybe unfortunately, said it yourself.  But this is exactly the opposite of what philosophers do.  A good philosopher very critically and systematically tries to explain and understand things and the connections between them, and constantly questions adopted world views.   It’s actually not too different than the goals of good science in that regard. My PhD mentor used to say that good science “changes the way we think.” We’re all trying to describe the world, but perhaps in seemingly different languages. In a world where it’s possible to use brain imaging to study sacred values and to utilize new technologies that attempt to “wake” those in a minimally conscious state, it’s high time that we start learning to be bilingual.

But do we need to send our neuroscience graduate students to philosophy classes? Maybe sending aspiring neuroscientists to the philosophy department is not the answer. And maybe students don’t need to know all the names of the current philosophers, but they need to know the concepts and how these concepts are relevant to her/his research.  Currently, ethics courses are required for all pre-doctoral and post-doctoral fellows on grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  While there are sometimes opportunities to take longer courses, programs typically offer a 1-2 day seminar style “Responsible Research Conduct” class which students begrudgingly attend. This is likely spurred by the mentor’s less than enthusiastic attitude about the student’s absence from the lab. However, most new graduate students enter science more than eager to make a meaningful contribution to society. Having graduate students engaged in the ethical and broader societal implications of their work should be a necessary supplement to neuroscience graduate training or even part of the dissertation defense-something perhaps some current faculty would not be equipped to discuss.  For some students with more “basic” science projects, this may seem like an impossible task. But, it’s important to remember that this is a critical mental exercise that will be necessary when applying for grants from agencies such as NIH, who will require that you to describe how this is relevant to public health.

But neuroethics has been around a long time, you say.  True, but not as a discipline. While addressing general bioethics concerns has been a congressional mandate since the 1970s, neuroscience as a discipline has made vast strides and refinements. In fact, with new neurosurgical precision, individual brain nuclei can be activated with electrode implants the diameter of two human hairs, and we’re now moving into a technological era where individual cells can be genetically color coded and individually activated with lasers.  The scale and intricacy of neuroscience questions make it a societal imperative to ask neuroscientists to push beyond comfortable boundaries and to dip a toe into the deep end of philosophical inquiry.  According to some, the neuroethics discipline is only 8 years old. The first meeting of the four-year old Neuroethics Society was held in November 2008. One of the leading Bioethics Journals, The American Journal of Bioethics now has added a regularly issued Neuroscience Journal to their family bringing the grand total of neuroethics journals to two. Only two major universities in the U.S. have Neuroethics Programs with even fewer opportunities for funding.  Fellowship programs are limited to “Bioethics” Fellowships or Health and Medical Ethics without a specialty for neuroscience research. Indeed, glancing over the “former fellows” of one major Bioethics Fellowship from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) shows that the majority of fellows were philosophy or public health PhDs, JDs, or MDs. Where are the neuroscientists in these conversations?

Today’s reality is that neuroethical examination needs to be more of a priority for neuroscientists.  As neuroscience and accompanying emerging technologies have entered into the realm of the popular media with increasing frequency, neuroscientists need to decide whom they want to be leading and influencing conversations about how to use this research. Neuroscience students should be having these conversations on a regular basis early in their careers, perhaps with regular interdepartmental journal clubs. The NIH has even issued the call for the development of “personalized” healthcare meaning instead of a one-size fits all therapy, future medical treatments will take into account a host of intersecting elements such as environmental, socioeconomic, and behavioral factors. Meaning, we will need to address medical care with a multi-faceted approach with specialist from a diverse set of disciplines. Fortunately, the generation of interdisciplinary studies have become more apparent in larger universities. For example, at Emory University research fellowships were previously available for interdisciplinary studies that intersect with neuroscience as well as current broader teaching fellowships where postdoctoral fellows and graduate students from a variety of departments teach a topic under a unified theme using each of their respective expertise.

Enthusiasm would also increase were more funding to go in this direction. And funding must go in this direction in order to add Neuroethicists to the academic roster. But is this a chicken or the egg question? How will the funds get appropriated in this direction if neuroscientists aren’t interested in proving that they need to do this work?  This is where society needs to make the call.  Engaging the public interest in having rigorous neuroethical inquiry in an important piece of this puzzle.  An educated public benefits everyone. And the public needs to be informed about recent scientific findings rather than it being delivered with flashing graphics and dramatic music.  They need to decide if they want to take a part in how neuroscience advances benefit them. Future posts will aim to continue explore these ideas and how to make neuroscience findings and it’s role in society more accessible to specialists and non-specialists alike.




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