Debate: The ethics of neuroscience


Ethical vs Non ethical

Neuroscientists and doctors can use technology to look at neuroanatomy and find out more abou the brain. There is a debate as to whether the knowledge ganied from neuroscience is always being used ethically. 

Ethics can be resolved using 'costs vs benefits'. If its ethical, then the benefits would outweigh the costs. 

Neuroscience would be considered unethical if the benefits are not real, or end up causing more difficulties.

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Understand Consciousness

Ethical: Crick and Koch proposed that consciousness comes from the claustrum, which is a thin sheet of neurons in the centre of the brain. It is thought to collect and combine information coming from the different regions of the brain, and has been likened to the conductor of an orchestra.
Example: A 54- year old epilepsy sufferer was undergoing tests on her brain, and one of which involved having an electrode placed near the claustrum. When the electrode was electrically stimulated, she became non-responsive to auditory and visual commands, stopped reading, and stared blankly. When the electrical stimulation stopped, she regained consciousness immediately, and had no recollection of what had happened. The same results happened when the test was repeated. (Koubeissi et al, 2014)
-This knowledge could help us make decisions about patients in a persistent vegetative state. Knowledge on whether they remain conscious or not could help us with the decision to end their life.

Non ethical: Questions are raised such as 'what implications may come of neuroscientists being able to locate consciousness?', and 'Is it right to be able to withdraw care just because a patient has currently lost consciousness?', should persistently vegetative patients have their life-support withdrawn?
-There is doubt about the soundness of evidence as it is derived from a case study of one 'abnormal' brain, one suffering from epilepsy.

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Treat Criminal Behaviour

Ethical: Criminals have to be rehabilitated in order to prevent further crimes being committed. A solution to this can be found in neuroscience. If abnormalities in the brain and neurotransmitter levels are the cause of behaviour, then drugs can be used to 'treat' criminals.
Example: Cherek et al (2002) studied a group of males for aggression and impulsivity. Half were given a placebo and half were given an SSRI (paroxetine) over 21 days. The half taking paroxetine showed a significant decrease in impulsive responses and aggressiveness compared to the placebo group. 
-Offering pharmacological treatments to criminals could reduce levels of criminal behaviour and make society safer.

Non ethical: Although crime can be linked to neurological imbalances, many see it as a response to social context. It raises the question whether it is acceptable to include mandatory neurological interventions for prisoners. Martha Farah (2004) argues that courts using neurological interventions would deny the individual's freedom, e.g. the freedom to have a personality and their own thought, which have not previously been denied for prisoners.
-A court could offer a criminal the choice of a prison term of a course of medication. This creates an ethical issue of implicit coercion; the criminal is left with little choice about the medication.

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Enhance Neurological Functions

Ethical: Neuroscience could be used to improve abilities of 'normal' people, for example, while doing complex academic tasks. Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS) involves passing a small electric current across specific regions of the brain. Kadosh et al (2012) found that TDCS can lead to improvements in problem-solving, and mathematical, language, memory, and attention capabilities. This could be used in preparation for exams.
-It could be argued that neuroenhancements are not such a new thing. Many students already 'neuroenhance' by using things like caffeine based drinks to block adenosine receptors in the brain and stay more alert while revising.

Non ethical: Kadosh at el warn of ethical limitation to TDCS technology. There are no training or licensing rules for practitioners, which could lead to poorly qualified clinicians administering ineffective treatments, or could actually end up causing brain damage to patients. Although it is relatively cheap, TDCS apparatus is not available to everyone, so it may not be fair to allow some individuals benefit from a treatment that is not available to all.
-It raises the question whether we should consider banning the use of neuroenhancing technologies in the same way that performance enhancing substances are banned in sports. This could be especially important when using the treatment on brains that are still developing

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Improving Marketing Techniques

Ethical: Neuroscience can be applied to the world of marketing and advertising, 'neuromarketing'. We may show social desirability bias when being interviewed by market researchers, but this can be avoided by using eye tracking equipment which provides objective evidence of what really catches a person's eye while shopping or watching adverts. EEG can also be used to analyse neurological responses.
-One company, Sands Research, used this neuromarketing research when creating a highly successful advert ('the force', volkswagen). The creative team behind the ad notes that it 'upped traffic to the VW website by half, and contributed to a hugely successful sales year for the brand'.

Non ethical: Use of loyalty cards and analysing online browsing records of individuals is effective at making marketing more effective, but this type of information is not new. However, there is a difference between that and neuromarketing, neuromarketing can access our inner thoughts. Wilson et al (2008) believe that using neuromarketing research to influence advertisements to allow individualised messages to be sent can manipulate our free will. Is it right to allow corporation to produce marketing messages that influence our ability to make informed decisions about whether we purchase a product or not?
Neuromarketing firms are not obliged to abide by ethical codes of practise. Nelson (2008) found that 5% of brain scans by marketing firms produced 'incidental findings', meaning they find things they weren't looking for, like brain tumours or abnormalities. As the researchers are not board-certified, they are not obliged to follow appropriate ethical protocol, such as informing the person of their findings.

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Ethical, Social, and Economic Implications

Improving marketing techniques can aid the economy by enhancing sales and profits, however these are not the only social and economic implications of neuroscience, and some are more beneficial to us all.

The Nuffield Trust (2014) shows that since the financial crisis started in 2008, there has been an increase in the amount of antidepressants being prescribed. They also found that there was a greater rise in antidepressant usage in areas of the population with higher unemployment rates. Thomas and Morris (2003) estimated that the total cost of depression in adults in England was £9.1 billion in 2000. Alzheimer's Research UK showed that the cost of treating dementia to the UK economy is around £23 billion a year.

Neuroscientists that help or cure these disorders could help save the UK economy save billions of pounds. 

Neuroscientists have the responsibility to make sure that the society in which they work is informed and aware of the implications of their work.

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Knowledge in the field of neuroscience has grown exponentially since the case of Phineas Gage, and it has offered us great insight into how our brains work and has led to the development of explanations of both normal and abnormal behaviour. It offers 'stigma-free' explanations of behaviour.

However, like every other area of science, the knowledge it produces becomes accessible to all when published, and we cannot be sure whether it could be used for good or not good. Neurosciences are not solely responsible for how their research is used, but it is also the responsibility of governments, regulatory bodies, and other institutions in society to ensure that the neuroscientific knowledge is being applied in an appropriate, ethical way.

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