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Learning to think about the impact of your research

Learning to think about the impact of your research

MAASTRICHT. Neuroethics – all ethical questions concerning brain research – is a field of study that is becoming more and more important with all the technological and other developments. The more we know about the brain, the more we should think about what we are going to do with that information. What are the consequences for research, applications, patients, and humanity as a whole? That is what the NeuroEthics Symposium on 4 May is about, which is  organised  by students from the research master’s of Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience.

Many of the participating students probably have not dealt with neuroethics to any extent yet, which is why the symposium starts with an introduction by Dorothee Horstkötter, Assistant Professor at the department of Health, Ethics and Society. “The first question you should ask yourself as a researcher, is: Why do I want to know this? Why is this important? In doing so, you steer the debate in a particular direction, even if it is fundamental research, of which it is very unclear what may be done with it in the future. You have then taken the first step.”

There will be more questions along the way. “How could you apply a discovery? Is that desirable? What do we find desirable? It is a subjective idea that you can't measure. So you must make sure that you can explain clearly why you feel it is desirable, what makes your research legitimate.”

Other fields of research lead to new questions. “Suppose you are doing research into a psychological disorder. Then you have to also wonder what the consequences are if this disorder is subsequently described as a brain disease. What does that mean for the patients? It could provide new methods of treatment, but it can also give people the feeling that they are powerless – there is something wrong with their brain, possibly something they cannot change. Or take research into neuronal stem cells (from the nervous system, ed.); what are the ethical implications of cultivating human ‘minibrains’ in a Petri dish?”

Horstkötter hopes that students become more aware of these complex issues. “That they learn to recognise and identify them. As an important first step, they could ask themselves the question: Why did I actually decide to study neuroscience and what do I think is valuable about it?”

Other speakers at the symposium include Thomas Steckler, Senior Scientific Director at Janssen Pharmaceutica, and Pim Haselager, Professor of Theoretical Cognitive Science at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour at Radboud University Nijmegen.

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