Neuroethics is a part of bioethics that studies the ethical, legal and social impact of knowledge and research on the brain, and the practical applications that these have in medicine and, ultimately, in people’s lives.

In this article we will see in more detail what neuroethics consists of , how it is researched in this discipline, what are the big questions it asks and its answers, as well as the problems and challenges that the future holds.

What is Neuroethics?

The term “neuroethics” refers to the study of the ethical, legal and social issues and implications arising from scientific findings involving the manipulation of the brain for medical purposes.

William Safire, a 1978 Pullitzer Prize winning journalist, defined this discipline as “the examination of what is right and wrong, good and bad, in the clinical and/or surgical treatment and manipulation of the human brain.

Advances in research in the field of neuroscience involve a growing understanding of the neurobiological basis of issues related to human consciousness, morality, decision-making or the concept of “self” and personality. And in this sense, neuroethics will play a decisive role in the years to come.

Improvements in neuroimaging research methods, for example , already allow us to monitor the functioning of the brain in almost real time, so that we can “know” what a person is thinking or feeling, and even manipulate those thoughts or feelings through techniques such as transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Advances in other disciplines such as psychopharmacology or biochemistry are already making it clear that the possibility of manipulating a human being, his or her mood or cognitive abilities and capacities is already a verifiable reality.

And in order to put a stop (or not) to a future dystopia in which we end up being remote-controlled or neuroidiotic puppets, neuroethics is outlined as a useful discipline to discuss laws, norms and the social implications that emerge from the good or bad use of neurotechnologies and neurosciences.

Scientific research in neuroethics

Scientific research in neuroscience ethics or neuroethics has been interested in two aspects of it: the empirical and the theoretical. Empirical neuroscience would be based on neuroscientific data related to matter and ethical concepts, data based on experience and the scientific method as conceived in the natural sciences.

Theoretical neuroethics, on the other hand, would focus on methodological and conceptual aspects that serve to link neuroscientific facts with concepts of an ethical nature, at both a descriptive and a normative level.

Researchers find the problem of not having correlates that, methodologically, allow them to explore certain concepts from an empirical point of view, as is the case with terms such as goodness, justice or equity. What are their methodological correlates? O… what would be the technically adequate design to be able to investigate these concepts in neuroethics?

A second problem lies in the theoretical part of neuroethics . All ethics or morals would have several functions: to clarify what is understood by “morality”, to try to discover what its foundations are, and to determine what would be the principles of what is called morality, in order to be able to apply them in society and in daily life. However, it is not possible to start only from neuroscientific data to clarify these doubts, since what is considered as morality does not only concern science, but also philosophy.

Questions such as, what is understood by moral philosophy? or what type of regulation would be necessary for research in neuroscience, are some of those that have interested many researchers, who have tried to resolve them through various avenues of argument.

Answers to How to Do Research in Neuroethics

The answers that have emerged to the question of: what kind of technically adequate designs must be carried out in order to be able to carry out research in neuroethics, have pointed to functional neuroimaging studies and their main techniques: quantitative electroencephalography, positron emission tomography, functional magnetic resonance imaging, tractography and magnetoencephalography.

These neuroimaging techniques capture the brain in action and the researchers interpret them by associating an activity (motor, perceptual or cognitive) with the brain image produced, so it follows that the image would indicate the neuronal network where the activity originates; that is, the correlate would be assumed to be the cause (neurodeterminism).

Although this type of technique is excellent for exploring the nervous system, it is somewhat risky to think that we can rely solely on the results and statistical data of these tests to draw unitary conclusions on such controversial concepts and issues as morality or free will, for example.

Regarding the question of how moral philosophy is understood, there are authors such as the doctor in psychology Michael Gazzaniga who propose the existence of a universal ethics, which would have a concrete neurobiological basis and not a philosophical one. For his part, the neuroscientist Francisco Mora, assumes that the concept of ethics always implies the relationship we have with others and believes that it is not appropriate to differentiate between ethics and morality, since both terms are used interchangeably.

Finally, when asked what regulation would be necessary for research in neuroethics, the response of researchers has been to appeal to the ethics of neuroscience; in other words, to appeal to the ethics of the work carried out by neuroscientists : the notion of capacity, free and voluntary expression of informed consent, respect for the dignity and integrity of research subjects, etc.

Future problems and challenges

Current problems in neuroethics can be divided into two broad categories: those related to technical advances in the neurosciences, i.e. the implications of the development of neuroimaging techniques, psychopharmacology, brain implants or the brain-machine interface; and those related to the philosophy and understanding of the neurobiological basis of human consciousness, personality or behaviour.

In recent years, psychopharmacological research has invested considerable sums of money in drugs aimed at treating cognitive disorders, and more specifically attention and memory disorders. Drugs such as methylphenidate and its use for attention deficit disorders; or ampakine, which favours long-term potentiation mechanisms, improving performance in memory tests in healthy subjects, are just some examples.

This increase in drug consumption , especially in healthy subjects, leads to several ethical problems such as those mentioned below:

Health problems: medium and long-term adverse effects in healthy subjects are unknown.

Social consequences: questions arise as to how the use of these drugs might affect social relations or what the situation is for individuals who do not use them, as opposed to those who do, in terms of class or inequality. And it seems clear that, in highly competitive and stressful contexts, the freedom not to consume them would be relative .

Philosophical implications: the use of these drugs calls into question and alters our view of concepts such as personal effort, autonomy or the ability to overcome. Is it ethical to rapidly and artificially improve cognitive abilities?

On the other hand, advances in the understanding of the neurobiological bases of social behaviour, morality and decision making have direct implications on our way of conceiving notions of our life , such as personal responsibility or the imputability of a person, key aspects for neuroethics.

In the future, this discipline will continue to discuss relevant questions, such as: can we judge an adolescent equally for a crime committed if we know that at his age the neurobiological bases of moral reasoning have not yet been installed? If free will is only a cognitive illusion and does not exist as such, does it make sense to hold people accountable? Should we put barriers to brain research and manipulation? Questions that even today remain unanswered.

Bibliographic references:

  • Bonnet E. Practical Neuroethics. Bilbao: Desclée de Brouwer; 2010.
  • Cortina, A. (2010): “Neuroethics: the cerebral bases of a universal ethics with political relevance”, in Isegoria, nº 42, 129-148.
  • Farah M J. Neuroethics: the practical and the philosophical. Trends Cogn Sci 2005; 9 (1): 34-40.