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We Need To Unlock the Brain’s Secrets—Ethically

By Amy Gutmann Our society is running into problems with brain research. To identify new treatments for stroke, for instance, clinical trials need to enroll stroke victims. But the brain damage in these patients that makes them good candidates for trials can also render them incapable of consenting, in a valid, informed manner, to participation. So how can medical science advance? There are other dilemmas: A 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling noted that juveniles lack fully matured brains and therefore cannot receive the death penalty in criminal cases that would otherwise warrant it. Should adult defendants be able to offer neuroscience evidence to persuade juries that they too should be excused? And should the drug modafinil, used to treat patients with narcolepsy, also be used to boost a healthy student’s performance in school? Brain research is opening dazzling frontiers in health, but crossing into that territory raises a particularly thorny set of ethical concerns. President Obama has called upon bioethicists to join with neuroscientists to take up these challenges as a part of his BRAIN Initiative, a public-private collaboration to map how all neural circuits interact at the speed of thought. In response, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, which I chair, has today released a report identifying three critical areas where we need new policies and guidelines: Informed consent, neuroscience in court, and cognitive enhancements. Read more via Scientific American.

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