Following this morning’s presentations and discussion about the ethical responsibilities of direct-to-consumer neuroscience companies, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) launched into the next phase of its neuroscience project – deliberating its recommendations for the President. As part of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, President Obama asked the Bioethics Commission to “identify proactively a set of core ethical standards – both to guide neuroscience research and to address some of the ethical dilemmas that may be raised by the application of neuroscience research findings.”
The Commission provided its initial recommendations earlier this year in volume one of its Gray Matters report, in which it stressed the importance of ethics integration early and throughout neuroscience research. Today’s deliberations will inform the Commission’s recommendations for Gray Matters, volume 2. Bioethics Commission Chair, Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., said the rest of the day’s discussion would center on three topics: cognitive enhancement, consent capacity in neuroscience research, and law and neuroscience.
The Bioethics Commission addressed the topic of cognitive enhancement in depth during its August 2014 meeting in Washington, D.C. During this morning’s discussion, Gutmann noted that cognitive enhancement can include the on-label, off-label, and direct-to-consumer use of neuroscience drugs and technologies. She turned to Commission Member Stephen L. Hauser, M.D. to kick off the session.
“There is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of cognitive enhancement,” Hauser said. “But … are there limits and, if so, what are they?
He identified three types of products that fall under the category of cognitive enhancement: pharmaceuticals, including stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin, off-label use of drugs that work on multiple neural transmitter systems, and other drugs that work to enhance memory; electrical adjuncts that stimulate or modulate the brain; and learning tools enhanced by neuroscience such as video games.
Hauser also suggested that the Commission consider broadening the concept of cognitive enhancement “to think about the range of ways that the human nervous system may be enhanced. This involves, importantly, motor behavior as well as cognitive enhancements.” In addition, he emphasized the importance of “promoting an informed public” through education, communications, and fact-checking mechanisms.
Next, Commission Member Anita L. Allen, J.D., Ph.D., outlined other areas that the Commission might explore, including additional research on the prevalence of cognitive enhancement tools and products and with what populations; the importance of self-help and self-care for people who want to enhance their cognition; ensuring equitable access to cognitive enhancement products and programs; as well as questions around coercion.
“We need to be recommending that ethicists spend a great deal of time as we move forward assessing whether or not we want to go far ahead in the area of enhancements. Do we want to get to normal or do we want to get to superhuman?” Allen said. “If science makes that possible, should we go that way? … What’s wrong with that? Is anything wrong with wanting to be better than we are?”
When the Commission reconvenes later this afternoon, it will turn the focus of its deliberations to consent capacity for neuroscience research.