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This week’s NAS workshop ? organized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and supported by the National Science Foundation and my home institution of Arizona State University ? isn’t the first gathering of experts to discuss the ethics of brain technologies. In fact there’s already an active international community of experts addressing “neuroethics.”
Many of these scientific initiatives do have a prominent ethics component. The U.S. BRAIN initiative for example includes a Neuroethics Workgroup, while the E.C. Human Brain Project is using an Ethics Map to guide research and development. These and others are grappling with the formidable challenges of developing future neurotechnologies responsibly.
It’s against this backdrop that the NAS workshop sets out to better understand the social and ethical opportunities and challenges emerging from global brain research and neurotechnologies. A goal is to identify ways of ensuring these technologies are developed in ways that are responsive to social needs, desires and concerns. And it comes at a time when brain research is beginning to open up radical new possibilities that were far beyond our grasp just a few years ago.
In 2010, for instance, researchers at MIT demonstrated that Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or TMS ? a noninvasive neurotechnology ? could temporarily alter someone’s moral judgment. Another noninvasive technique called transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) delivers low-level electrical currents to the brain via electrodes on the scalp; it’s being explored as a treatment for clinical conditions from depression to chronic pain ? while already being used in consumer products and by do-it-yourselfers to allegedly self-induce changes in mental state and ability.
Crude as current capabilities using TMS and tDCS are, they are forcing people to think about the responsible development and use of technologies which have the ability to potentially change behavior, personality and thinking ability, at the flick of a switch. And the ethical questions they raise are far from straightforward.
For instance, should students be allowed to take exams while using tDCS? Should teachers be able to use tDCS in the classroom? Should TMS be used to prevent a soldier’s moral judgment from interfering with military operations?
These and similar questions grapple with what is already possible. Complex as they are, they pale against the challenges emerging neurotechnologies are likely to raise.
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