Updates in Neuroethics

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Advances in the neurosciences continue to open windows into the brain, inform our understanding of human nature and lead to new treatments for neurological diseases. These exciting new capabilities for probing and modifying the brain and emerging technologies for interfacing neurons with computers challenge our self-understanding and raise fascinating ethical questions concerning how to apply them wisely.

In 2009:

  • The debate has continued over the use of stimulants and other cognitive-enhancing drugs by healthy individuals. Drugs targeted to the molecular basis of memory are in clinical trials and, once available, will likely invite off-label use.
  • Among the ultra-healthy, Olympic athletes have teamed up with neuroscientists to study the psychological aspects of sports performance using functional MRI (fMRI), which detects localized changes in brain blood flow related to neural activity.
  • Functional neuroimaging has also attracted the attention of lawyers. In California, a defense attorney sought to introduce fMRIbased “lie detection” evidence in a child protection case, but later withdrew his request following an evidentiary hearing, as fMRI is not yet accepted by the scientific community as reliable in assessing brain patterns corresponding to truthfulness or deception. Future courtrooms may look increasingly to neuroscience to define the plausibility of evidence of mitigating factors for criminal culpability in defendants with neurologically impaired moral judgment.
  • A study published in Nature Neuroscience showed that administration of a beta-blocker before reactivation of fearful memories disrupted their reconsolidation in a way that prevented the return of fear.[1] These results offer hope for patients suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder and also raise interesting ethical questions whether further advances in memory modification might alter how we regard biographical testimony and the integrity of personal identity.
  • Movies that explored neuroethics questions such as mind transference, moral responsibility in virtual reality, and nonhuman intelligences were Surrogates, Avatar, and Star Trek.


[1] Merel Kindt, Marieke Soeter, and Bram Vervliet, “Beyond Extinction: Erasing Human Fear Responses and Preventing the Return of Fear” Nature Neuroscience 12 (2009): 256-258.