Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Policy Implications of Brain Research

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Policy Implications of Brain Research

Article excerpt

The connections between accelerating medical technologies, human identity, and brain function are at the heart of Robert Blank's essay on the study of the human brain (FORUM, Fall 1998). Published in the closing years of the 1990s, the decade of the brain, Blank's essay invites social scientists and policymakers to explore more systematically the implications of clinical interventions on the human brain. He sees an urgent need to address these issues before techniques that alter the brain fall into routine use. At present, the ethical issues he raises have taken a back seat in the literature to issues of how resources are to be allocated.

Changes that occur in the human brain have periodically raised perplexing questions in medical ethics. Researchers, medical practitioners, and family members grapple with difficult questions. For example, if a person refuses to eat a particular food for religious reasons and then, some time after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, expresses a strong preference for that food, should his or her wishes prevail? If someone with a rapidly growing brain tumor pleads to be part of an experimental gene therapy protocol that has not passed through all stages of review, should the normal review process be circumvented in light of the seriousness of the disease?

Blank targets two areas as particularly worthy of attention - informed consent and the potentially premature transition from experimentation to clinical use. First, he questions whether a patient with brain disease is really capable of exercising free, informed consent. He also expresses concern that the desperation and vulnerability of patients with brain disease may prompt the overly hasty use of a technique still in rudimentary experimental stages.

In the future, questions will also arise about the extent to which brain-related research warrants policy separate from that already developed in other biomedical fields. …

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