(Re)defining Neuroethics – Exploring the implications and limitations of neuroscience on ethics

Introduction :

More than ever the prospects of neuroscience research are bringing to the forefront major benefits and ethical challenges for medicine and society. The ethical concerns related to patients with mental health and neurological problems as well as emerging social and philosophical challenges created by advances in neuroscience and neurotechnology are addressed by a specialized field called neuroethics. Neuroethics is commonly considered a new subfield of contemporary bioethics that focuses on the ethics of neuroscience research and related clinical specialties such as neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry. Examples of such major ethical and social challenges generated by neuroscience are the modulation and enhancement of mood and cognition through off-label use of neuropharmaceuticals (“brain doping”); the proper use of neuroimaging and emerging knowledge of brain function; the prevention of stigma in neurological and psychiatric illness; and the advancement of patient-based healthcare in an environment where resource are limited for chronic illnesses. However, one of the most intriguing and distinctive features of neuroethics is that it potentially incorporates a feedback loop between ethics and neuroscience, i.e., a “neuroscience of ethics”. By this term, different authors have claimed that neuroscience will change our way of approaching ethical concepts and moral behaviour because of the knowledge generated by brain research. The ramifications of this aspect of neuroethics is increased by the symbolic importance of the brain as an organ that sustains crucial vital physiological functions (e.g., breathing) as well as the most complex cognitive processes (e.g., decision making, memory, language). The emergence of the neuroscience of ethics raises questions regarding the nature of ethics (e.g., is ethics only a matter of understanding neuronal networks involved in decision making?) and the potential meaningful input of neuroscience on ethics (e.g., will this change how ethics is applied in clinical practice or how ethics is taught?). It also brings about questions concerning the potential dangers and risks of such research given the potential for misuse and misunderstanding. Neuroethics signals that promising advances are surfacing but, as they percolate to healthcare and public stakeholders, ethical questions surface as to how new insights and new interventions can serve individuals and the public good. There is a need to revisit the understanding of this rapidly evolving field in order to define how society ought to move forward with respect to an ever growing range of issues. The ramifications of neuroscience for research, patient care, and public health are diverse and far-reaching—and as yet are only beginning to be understood. In this context, we feel the time is ripe to host an international workshop that would deal with the (re)definition of the methodology, perspectives and limitations of neuroethics as a scientifically grounded field of applied ethics. The workshop will help continue building capacity and dissemination of activities in the neuroscience of ethics and ethics of neuroscience and healthcare, and explore and offer explanations of how the two branches of neuroethical inquiry relate to each other, and how the advances in neuroethics as a unified field can create synergy that would ultimately benefit patients and the society at large.

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