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Neuroscience affects everyone. That is why the long-term ethical questions it raises, should be discussed more broadly, says Neuroscience master student Katherine Bassil.
Here I am, entering my second year of the Research Masters in Neurosciences, and still I am not able to find my way into the department of Neuroethics. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there isn’t one!
Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system, involving the most complex organ governing our whole being; the brain. “Mind Reading is now possible!”, “This is your brain on Porn!”, “This is your brain on Love!”, “This is your brain on Cocaine!”, are some of the headlines concerning neurobiology that everyone may be most familiar with. While these headlines highlight the use of one of the most utilised neuroimaging technique of our time, the fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), neuroscience is considered a multidisciplinary branch within biological sciences, involving genetics, molecular biology, neuroanatomy, electrophysiology, and psychology among other fields.
Hundreds of neuroscience research studies are being conducted on a daily basis. From looking into the underlying mechanisms of several psychiatric disorders like Parkinson’s disease and attempting to unravel novel therapeutic approaches for diseases like Alzheimer’s, to ameliorate the daily lives of patients suffering from similar debilitating diseases. Moreover, some of these studies delve into deeper waters to discover whether for instance, diseases like depression are solemnly hereditary, due to lifestyle habits or both.
With that being said, it has become clear to me that neuroscientific research, in trying to understand complex phenomenon, tends to simplify concepts, and to my opinion oversimplify them by only generating short-lasting research questions. While these research questions answer the problem at hand, like "how do the patient’s symptoms improve upon administration of drug X?", they also call for several long-lasting ethical inquiries. For example, will progress in ageing studies allow people to age for more than 200 years? Should the justice system consider “default" DNA as a possible explanation of criminal behaviour? Should stem cell technology be used as a tool on two people of the same gender who would like to have a child carrying both their genetic makeup? Should brain enhancing techniques be used recreationally, in the absence of disease? And how will the neurosciences community avoid unintended scientific misuses?
Indeed, debates revolving around such ethical topics have been and are taking place on an international scale as we speak. However, why aren’t we starting small, within our own institution? Why aren’t we informing and involving the public, who will eventually suffer most? As an upcoming scientist, I write this article because it has become clear to me what obligations I hold towards my community today and in the foreseeable future. Above all, it is of my opinion that research can only be good once you “ethicize” it!
Katherine C. Bassil