The Neuroscience Revolution. (in Brief)

Article excerpt

While the world's attention has been diverted by the drama of the Human Genome Project, neuroscience has been quietly creating a revolution with implications every bit as profound as those of genetics. Neuroimaging advances, psychopharmaceuticals with enormous potential for clinical use, neural-technological interfaces, brain stimulation technologies, and organic implants such as fetal cell therapy are transforming our ability to understand and intervene in the brain. Along the way, they are also challenging accepted standards for the proper limits of technology, possibly giving criminal justice some revolutionary and troubling new tools, redefining our sense of selfhood and brain-body relations, and raising a host of other ethical and social questions. And all this without a multibillion dollar, public-private juggernaut like the Human Genome Project to drive it forward.

Ethicists are only now beginning to take note of these developments. Two recent conferences, one on each coast, have raised a call to ethicists by highlighting the astonishing scientific advances in neurosciences and the oft-times novel ethical challenges they present.

The first conference, funded by the Greenwall and Medtronic Foundations and hosted in February 2000 by the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics and Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, was the culmination of a series of meetings of ethicists and neuroscientists in early 2000. A larger, more ambitious conference took place in San Francisco in May, sponsored by the Dana Foundation and hosted jointly by Stanford and the University of California at San Francisco. Promising to kick-start the "new field" of neuroethics," the conference included leaders in neuroscience, law, social science, and ethics--and William Satire as master of ceremonies. The two conferences explored issues such as the proper use of psychopharmaceuticals, the proper role of physicians in dispensing neuroactive drugs, the nature of human rights and responsibilities, the proper use of neurodiagnostics (for example, for predicting a child's susceptibility to a late-onset disease like Alzheimers), public discourse and social policy, and the proper nature and limits to the practice of science.

The increasing attention to neuroscience is not surprising given the novel problems of these technologies. Neuroimaging studies are beginning to demonstrate an ability to correlate mental states and traits to detectable brain patterns or structures. Research has shown, for example, that a history of depression, or addiction, leaves identifiable brain sequelae even if the disease is in remission. …