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The purpose of this diary is to stimulate some thinking and discussion about the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative that President Obama announced on April 2.  I believe that there are unique ethical issues that must be continually kept in the forefront as this research proceeds and hope that the following will provide a useful perspectve. By way of background, I am a neuroscientist who published more than 150 articles, books, and book chapters as well as taught medical neuroscience for 38 years.

President Obama’s enthusiastic announcement in April that his 2014 budget proposal will include $100 million to fund the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative got me to thinking about what this might mean.  The stated goals of the BRAIN Initiative are to understand the dynamics of brain functioning in real time in healthy subjects and subjects with disorders like autism, ADHD, and dyslexias and disease like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s which will then lead to successful interventions, whether these be behavioral/cognitive, pharmaceutical, surgical or gene-based.  Further, the research will not just be applying existing imaging technology and cognitive evaluations to humans subjects, but will develop new technologies and work with animal models. The framework for the Brain Initiative has been presented in an article published in the journal Neuron in 2012 and can be found at http://download.cell.com/....  The U.S. NIH’s view can be found at  http://www.nih.gov/...

From a scientific perspective the BRAIN Initiative can be criticized for lack of focus.  While the broad goal is to find cures for diseases and BRAIN has been compared to the Human Genome Project, it lacks the focus that drove that project.  However, the substantial gains in understanding of human brain function that have come from application of imaging technology over the last 30 years speak against that perspective as being a particularly strong criticism.

The other criticism that has already been lodged has to do with what the information collected might ultimately be used for.  I must admit that when I see that DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DoD’s reseach wing) is one of the co-sponsors I begin to get a bit nervous.  To be fair Obama acknowledges the potential for ethical concern with this project and Dr. Nita Farahany who is a professor of bioethics at Duke and a member of Obama’s Obama’s Commission on Bioethical Issues has already indicated that ethical review will be part of BRAIN.  

The journalist Luke Dittrich is not buying this.  In an article in Esquire (http://www.esquire.com/...) he maintains that the BRAIN Initiative will lead to “the first viable method of controlling the human mind.”  I think that Mr. Dittrich is engaging in an egregious misuse of the slippery slope form of argument.  He implies that once we have mapped the brain it will be possible to stimulate specific areas “wirelessly” and thereby get the desired behavior.  This view fails both because the brain simply doesn’t have specific functions localized precisely in anatomically restricted modules, but produces higher order behaviors as emergent properties of serial and parallel activation of distributed modules, and because stimulation brain areas, as is done with transcortical magnetic stimulation generally leads to retardation of ongoing cognitive processes.

However, there are much more subtle issues here than direct mind control, at least in my opinion.  I will give one example and urge any of you who have read this far to consider this and perhaps think of others.  In 2012 an article titled “New scanner data for brand merketers: how neuroscience can help better understand differences in brand preferences” was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology (http://www.journals.elsevier.com/...)   The research discussed in this article demonstrated how functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), combined with behavioral testing, can lead to significantly more effective market segmentation strategies.  I do not maintain that this work is unethical, but the implications for the development of ever better methods to direct our behavior based on ever more sophisticated knowledge of patterns of brain activity associated with specific cognitive processes is certainly something that calls for as serious an effort in bioethics as in fundamental neuroscience research.

Originally posted to Old Gray Dog on Sat May 11, 2013 at 09:44 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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