What is neuroethics (and what issues does it study)?

Neuroethics is part of bioethics which is responsible for studying the ethical, legal and social impact of knowledge and research on the brain, and the practical applications that these have in medicine and, finally, in the lives of people. people.

In this article we will see in more detail what is neuroethics, How to research this discipline, what are the big questions you ask and your answers, as well as the problems and challenges you expect in the future.

    What is neuroethics?

    The term “neuroethics” refers to the study of ethical, legal and social issues and implications that arise from scientific findings involving manipulation of the brain for medical purposes.

    William Safire, journalist winner of the Pullitzer Prize in 1978, defined this discipline as “the examination of what is good and bad, good and bad, in the clinical and / or surgical treatment and in the manipulation of the human brain”.

    Advances in neuroscience research imply a growing knowledge of the neurobiological basis of issues related to human consciousness, morality, decision-making, or the concept of “I” and personality. And in this sense, neuroethics will play a determining role in the years to come.

    Improvements in neuroimaging research methods, for exampleThey already allow us to monitor brain function in near real time, so that we can ‘know’ what a person is thinking or feeling, and even manipulating those thoughts or feelings using techniques such as transcranial magnetic stimulation.

    Progress in other disciplines such as psychopharmacology or biochemistry already shows that the possibility of manipulating a human being, his mood or his cognitive capacities and capacities is already a verifiable reality.

    And to slow down (or not) a future dystopia in which we end up being remote-controlled or neuroidiotic puppets, neuroethics is presented as a useful discipline for discussing laws, norms and social implications that emerge from the good or bad use of neurotechnologies and neurosciences.

      Scientific research in neuroethics

      Scientific research in the neurosciences of ethics or neuroethics has focused on two aspects of the latter: the empirical and the theoretical. Empirical neuroethics would be based on neuroscientific data related to matter and ethical concepts, data based on scientific experience and method, as conceived in the natural sciences.

      Theoretical neuroethics, on the other hand, would focus on methodological and conceptual aspects used to link neuroscientific facts with ethical concepts, both descriptive and normative.

      Researchers find the problem of not having correlates which, methodologically, allow certain concepts to be explored from an empirical point of view, as is the case with terms such as kindness, justice or fairness. What are its methodological correlates? Or … what would be the technically appropriate design to be able to study these concepts in neuroethics ?.

      A second problem is the theoretical part of neuroethics. Any ethics or morality would have several functions: to clarify what is meant by “morality”, to try to discover what are its foundations, and to determine what would be the principles of what is called morality, to be able to apply them in society and in everyday life. However, it is not possible to start from neuroscientific data alone to clarify these doubts, because what is considered moral affects not only science, but also philosophy.

      Questions such as, what does moral philosophy mean? or what kind of regulation would be needed for neuroscience research ?, are some of those that have interested many researchers, who have tried to solve them through various arguments.

      Answers to research in neuroethics

      The answers that arose to the question of: what type of technically appropriate designs must be carried out in order to be able to carry out research in neuroethics ?, have aimed at functional neuroimaging studies and their main techniques: quantitative electroencephalography, positron emission tomography , functional magnetic particle resonance imaging, tractography and magnetoencephalography.

      These neuroimaging techniques capture the brain in action and the researchers interpret them by associating an activity (motor, perceptual or cognitive) with the brain image produced, so it follows that the image would indicate the neural network from which this originated. activity; that is to say, the correlate would be assumed like cause (neurodeterminism).

      While these types of techniques are great for exploring the nervous system, it is an adventurous thing to think that one can only rely on the results and statistical data of these tests to draw unitary conclusions on concepts and subjects as controversial as morality or free will, for example.

      On the question of the understanding of moral philosophy, there are authors like the doctor of psychology Michael Gazzaniga who propose the existence of a universal ethics, which would have a concrete neurobiological basis and not a philosophical one. For his part, the neuroscientist Francisco Mora, assumes that the concept of ethics always involves the relationship we have with others and believes that no difference between ethics and morals is appropriate, since the two terms are used interchangeably. .

      Finally, given the approach to what would be the regulation necessary for neuroethics research, the response given by the researchers was to appeal to the ethics of neuroscience; in other words that is to say, use the work ethic of neuroscientists: The notion of capacity, the free and voluntary expression of informed consent, respect for the dignity and integrity of research subjects, etc.

      Future issues and challenges

      The current problems of neuroethics can be put into two main categories: those linked to technical progress in neuroscience, that is to say the implications of the development of neuroimaging techniques, psychopharmacology, brain implants or the interface. brain-machine. and those related to the philosophy and understanding of the neurobiological bases of human consciousness, personality or behavior.

      During the last years, psychopharmacological research has invested considerable sums in drugs intended for the treatment of cognitive disorders, and more particularly attention and memory disorders. Drugs such as methylphenidate and its use for attention deficit disorder; or ampakina, which promotes long-term potentiation mechanisms, improving the performance of memory tests in healthy subjects, are just a few examples.

      Is increased drug use, Especially in healthy subjects, involves several ethical issues such as those listed below:

      Health Concerns: Medium and long term side effects in healthy subjects are unknown.

      Social consequences: Questions arise as to how the use of these drugs might affect social relationships or in what situation individuals who do not use them remain, as opposed to those who do, in terms of class or position. ‘inequality. And it seems obvious that, in highly competitive and stressful contexts, the freedom not to consume would be relative.

      Philosophical Implications: The use of these drugs challenges and changes our view of concepts such as personal effort, autonomy or the ability to overcome. Is it ethical to quickly and artificially improve cognitive abilities?

      On the other hand, progress in understanding the neurobiological foundations of social behavior, morality or decision-making, they have direct implications for our way of conceiving the notions of our lives, Such as personal responsibility or the accountability of a person, key aspects of neuroethics.

      In the future, this discipline will continue to debate relevant questions, such as: can a teenager also be tried for a crime committed if one knows that at his age the neurobiological foundations of moral reasoning have not yet been established? If free will is just a cognitive illusion and does not exist as such, does it make sense that people are responsible? Should we erect barriers to research and manipulation of the brain ?. Questions that still remain unanswered today.

      Bibliographical references:

      • None E. Practical neuroethics. Bilbao: Desclée de Brouwer; 2010.
      • Cortina, A. (2010): “Neuroethics: the cerebral bases of a universal ethics with political relevance?”, In Isegoría, nº 42, 129-148.
      • Farah M J. Neuroethics: the practice and the philosophical. Trends Cogn Sci 2005; 9 (1): 34-40.

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