Today the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released the second volume of its Gray Matters report, the ninth report by this commission. The report was requested by the President following the announcement of the BRAIN Initiative. He requested that the Commission identify a set of core ethical standards to influence neuroscience research and to address some of the debates emerging from applications of that research.
Volume One, released in May 2014, focused on how to fully integrate ethics into neuroscience research throughout the research cycle. Volume Two concerns ethics in applications of neuroscience research, with an emphasis on three topics that have attracted some level of debate: cognitive enhancement, the capacity of a being to consent (to research conducted on them), and neuroscience in the law. Through these cases the Commission wanted to tease out relevant ethical considerations and related tensions brought out by the potential impacts of these technologies.
There are fourteen main recommendations in the report:
Continue to examine and develop existing tools and techniques for brain health
Prioritize Treatment of Neurological Disorders
As with the previous recommendation, it would be valuable to focus on existing means of addressing neurological disorders and working to improve them.
Existing research in this area is limited and inconclusive.
Access to cognitive enhancements will need to be handled carefully to avoid exacerbating societal inequities (think the stratified societies of the film Elysium or the Star Trek episode “The Cloud Minders“).
Create Guidance About the Use of Neural Modifiers
Professional societies and expert groups need to develop guidance for health care providers that receive requests for prescriptions for cognitive enhancements (something like an off-label use of attention deficit drugs, beta blockers or other medicines to boost cognition rather than address perceived deficits).
The report also notes with regret the recent passing of Commission member Dr. John Arras. He held appointments at the University of Virginia in biomedical ethics, philosophy and public health and conducted research in physician-assisted suicide, rationing of medical care, and social disparities in health and health care.
The Commission next meets in late May.