Neuroethics: Ethical, legal, and social implications of neuroscience

Neuroethics: Ethical, legal, and social implications of neuroscience

What is ‘neuroethics’?’

‘Neuroethics’ is short hand for the ethical, legal and social implications of neuroscience.  The field emerged in the early 2000’s, at a time when neuroscience was consolidating its recent success in the study of human cognition and beginning to make progress understanding social and emotional processes and individual differences (see eg Farah, 2002).  These scientific advances opened the door to an unprecedented ability to explain, predict, and even control human behavior, raising a host of ethical, legal and social issues. Our work in this area is an attempt to identify issues as they arise and provide helpful analyses (Farah, 2015).

What aspects of neuroethics do we work on?

brain enhancement

Brain enhancement. Neuropsychiatric medications not only improve function in patients with cognitive and emotional disorders; in some cases they may raise normal healthy people’s functioning as well.  The use of medications for the latter purpose has been called brain enhancement and is increasingly common.  For example, on American college campuses many students seek prescription stimulants in order to study more efficiently (Smith & Farah, 2011).  Despite this trend, the effect of these medications on cognition in healthy young adults is not well understood (Farah, 2015).  Do they improve cognition, for some or most people (Ilieva et al., 2013, 2015)? Is their effect motivational, making people feel more like working (Ilieva & Farah, 2013, 2015)? The latest trend in brain enhancement is the use of noninvasive brain stimulation, discussed in my 2015 Science perspective and examined in more detail by Mancuso et al. (in press).

brain imaging

Uses and misuses of brain imaging. Neuroimaging offers spectacular new insights into the human brain.  In addition to its role in basic science, neuroimaging is being applied to a variety of practical problems (Poldrak & Farah, 2015), with varying degrees of legitimacy and success. For example, progress in psychiatric neuroimaging is enabling research into pathophysiology and treatment prediction, but its use for psychiatric diagnosis is premature (Farah & Gillihan, 2012).  Nonmedical applications of brain imaging include market research and lie detection (Farah et al., 2014). The goal of our work in this area has been to understand the state of the translational science in order to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate uses of brain imaging, and to understand the cultural and psychological factors that influence people’s expectations of neuroimaging (Farah & Hook, 2013; Farah, 2014; Hook & Farah, 2013).

We are also working on the perceived and actual role of neuroscience in education, potential nonmedical uses of oxytocin, and the implications for law and child policy of the neuroscience of deprivation, among other projects.

Why is this important?

Neuroscience plays many roles in contemporary society.  It offers new tools for solving problems and improving our lives as well as new ways of understanding ourselves.  In order to encourage the most beneficial uses of neuroscience, it is essential to examine the potential risks, benefits and broader social impact of these developments.