Rapid research advances have led to speculation that neuroscience may provide tools to boost memory, detect lies and even increase one's intelligence. But such advances have ethical implications and policies are not in place to cope with the consequences.
The first-ever meeting of the Neuroethics Society, to be held 13-14 November at the AAAS Headquarters in 1200 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC, will bring together neuroscientists, psychologists, lawyers, philosophers and others to discuss the implications of the work. The meeting will include a debate on cognitive enhancement and sessions on such topics as the use of neuroscience in law enforcement and national security and decision-making and free will. Complimentary press passes are available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Press Pass."
The Society's president Steven Hyman, neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School and Provost of Harvard University, will speak on treating mental illness in children during the 13 November session on "Neuroethics of Pediatric Bipolar Disorder." In the same session, Ben Vitiello, scientific program director at the National Institute of Mental Health, will discuss possible implications and controversies that a diagnosis of bipolar disorder in childhood can produce.
Bioethicists Julian Savulescu of the University of Oxford and Carter Snead of the University of Notre Dame will debate cognitive enhancement, such as drugs that boost memory and attention and ward-off sleep. Savulescu says that it is our "moral obligation to enhance cognition," listing personal, social and economic benefits that might accrue from more mental ability. But Savulescu cautions that cognitive enhancement must be pursued in parallel with moral enhancement, or else our newly gained smarts could "enhance the ability to wreak havoc."
Snead says that cognitive enhancement is a complicated question, that a categorical "no" is not the answer and that a framework for thinking through cognitive enhancement is needed.
In addition to discussions of how to tweak minds, participants at the Neuroethics Society meeting will discuss whether technology can be used to read minds. Want to find out if a criminal defendant is lying in court, if your employees are abusing Internet use while at work or if your teenager is sneaking out after curfew? Hank Greeley, a law professor at Stanford University, will discuss the feasibility of lie-detection devices during the session "Neuroethics of Forensic Neuroscience" on 14 November.
"There are already three companies selling fMRI-based lie detection services in the United States," Greeley said in a Q&A with the Dana Foundation: http://www.dana.org/news/features/detail.aspx?id=13364. And in India in June, a judge used a brain scan as proof that a woman had "experiential knowledge" of a murder. The brain scan was part of the evidence used to sentence the woman to life in prison.
"The problem is that we have no good proof and no strong reason to believe that those lie-detection services are actually very reliable," said Greeley in the Q&A. Even if the services are reliable, who is to say when they should and should not be used?
"Despite the immaturity of the science and uncertainties regarding its use, that hasn't stopped entrepreneurs from marketing scantly peer-reviewed devices or methods to the public," said Mark Frankel, director of the AAAS Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program and a member of the program committee for the Neuroethics Society meeting. "There is a need for greater public education and protection," he said.
Other commercial applications of neuroscience are emerging, such as using brain scans to detect personality types; online dating sites; and teaching tools. In the 14 November session "The Business of Neuroscience," AAAS's Frankel will discuss the ethical and regulatory issues related to commercializing neuroscience, as well as the social and political implications. A cognitive neuroscientist, an entrepreneur and a journalist who has written on the emergence of genetic testing and its marketing to consumers also will be panelists in the session.
The meeting is hosted by the AAAS (www.aaas.org), the world's largest general scientific society. The Greenwald Foundation (http://www.greenwall.org/) provided student travel stipends, and the Dana Foundation (www.dana.org) provided in-kind services.
For more information on the program for the Neuroethics Society meeting: www.neuroethicssociety.org
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