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Neuroethics is most commonly understood to be the bioethics subcategory concerned with neuroscience and neurotechnology. However, some philosophers, ethicists, and scientists have increasingly stressed the possibility that neuroscience can shed light on wider ethical questions.

Rees and Rose (as cited in "References" on page 9) claim neuroethics is a neologism that emerged only at the beginning of the 21st century, largely through the oral and written communications of ethicists and philosophers. They state that neuroethics addresses concerns about the effects neuroscience and neurotechnology will have on other aspects of human life: namely "personal responsibility", law, and justice. Further, they claim that neuroethical problems will become real by the 2020s.



What is the scope of neuroethics?

Unsurprisingly, no specific definition of neuroethics is universally accepted.

According to the Web of Science, the term was probably coined by A.A. Pontius in a 1993 Psychological Reports paper on moral development.

There are earlier uses, dating back as far as 1978. Illes (2003) records uses, from the scientific literature, from 1989 and 1991.

Current definitions of neuroethics emphasize the ethical, legal and social implications of neuroscience. Writer William Safire defined it as "the field of philosophy that discusses the rights and wrongs of the treatment of, or enhancement of, the human brain."

If neuroethics is understood in this way, a typical question investigated by the field might be: What is the difference between treating a human neurological disease and simply enhancing the human brain? Another such question might be: Is it fair for the wealthy to have access to neurotechnology, while the poor do not? Neuroethical problems could complement or compound ethical issues raised by genomics, genetics, and human genetic engineering (see Gattaca argument).  

However, Dartmouth College Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Director Michael Gazzaniga argues that definitions such as Safire's are inadequate, since knowledge of brain mechanisms can illuminate a broad range of ethical questions. Gazzaniga states that "neuroethics is more than just bioethics for the brain." In his book The Ethical Brain (see References), he defines the field as: "the examination of how we want to deal with the social issues of disease, normality, mortality, lifestyle, and the philosophy of living informed by our understanding of underlying brain mechanisms" (Gazzaniga's emphasis).

Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga puts this view succinctly by stating that "It is—or should be—an effort to come up with a brain-based philosophy of life."

Two categories of problems

Neuroethical problems can be divided into two categories, which roughly correspond to the narrower and broader understandings of the field offered by Safire and Gazzaniga, respectively.

There are problems that result from engineering advancement, and those that result from philosophical (including scientific) advancement. Relevant advances in engineering include the development of functional neuroimaging, psychopharmacology, brain implants, and brain-machine interfaces. Philosophical advancement includes the biological study of ancient questions about the human person, relating to behavior, personality, and consciousness.

Important activity in 2002 and 2003

There is no doubt that people were thinking and writing about the ethical implications of neuroscience for many years before the field adopted the label “neuroethics,” and some of this work remains of great relevance and value. However, the early 21st century saw a tremendous upsurge in interest in the ethics of neuroscience, as evidenced by numerous meetings, publications and organizations dedicated to this topic.

The years 2002 and 2003 saw significant development of neuroethics as a subject of wide discussion. Judy Illes of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics (as cited in "References") claimed the neuroethical discipline "emerged formally" sometime in 2002 or 2003, though she actually dates its development to 1989. Regardless of whether this is true, it is undeniable that neuroethics rose to new relevance during the early 21st century. Indeed, four major neuroethics conferences occurred in the year 2002 alone:

  • The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the journal Neuron conducted a meeting in January.
  • The Center for Bioethics (of the University of Pennsylvania) and the Center for Neuroscience held a conference in February.
  • The Royal Institution of London conducted a conference in March.
  • A conference was conducted in May by the Dana Foundation. meeting was the largest, and resulted in a book, Neuroethics: Mapping the Field, edited by Steven J. Marcus and published by Dana Press. That same year The Economist ran a cover story entitled “Open Your Mind: The Ethics Of Brain Science“[1] (as cited in "References")and articles on neuroethics began to appear in neuroscience journals, specifically in Nature Neuroscience, Neuron and a special issue of Brain and Cognition.

Sources of information on neuroethics

The books, articles and websites mentioned above are by no means a complete list of good neuroethics information sources. For example, readings and websites that focus on specific aspects of neuroethics, such as brain imaging or enhancement, are not included. Nor are more recent sources, such as Walter Glannon’s book Bioethics and the Brain (Oxford University Press) and his reader, entitled Defining Right and Wrong in Brain Science (Dana Press). We should also here mention a book that was in many ways ahead of its time, Robert Blank’s Brain Policy (published in 1999 by Georgetown University Press). The scholarly literature on neuroethics has grown so quickly that one cannot easily list all of the worthwhile articles, and several journals are now soliciting neuroethics submissions for publication, including the American Journal of Bioethics – Neuroscience, Biosocities, the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, and the forthcoming Neuroethics. The web now has many sites, blogs and portals offering information about neuroethics. A list can be found at the end of this entry.

Key issues in neuroethics

Neuroethics encompasses a wide range of issues, which can only be sampled here. Some have close ties to traditional biomedical ethics, in that different versions of these issues can arise in connection with organ systems other than the brain. For example, how should incidental findings be handled when a presumed healthy research subject is scanned for neuroscience research and the scan reveals an abnormality? How safe are the drugs used to enhance normal brain function? These are neuroethical issues with clear precedents in traditional bioethics. They are important issues, and luckily we can call upon society’s experience with the relevant precedents to help determine the best courses of action in the present cases. In contrast, many neuroethical issues are at least partly novel, and this accounts for some of the intellectual fascination of neuroethics. These relatively newer issues force us to think about the relation between mind and brain and its ethical implications.

Brain interventions

The ethics of neurocognitive enhancement, that is the use of drugs and other brain interventions to make normal people “better than well,” is an example of a neuroethical issue with both familiar and novel aspects. On the one hand, we can be informed by previous bioethical work on physical enhancements such as doping for strength in sports and the use of human growth hormone for normal boys of short stature. On the other hand, there are also some arguably novel ethical issues that arise in connection with brain enhancement, because these enhancements affect how people think and feel, thus raising the relatively new issues of “cognitive liberty.” The growing role of psychopharmacology in everyday life raises a number of ethical issues, for example the influence of drug marketing on our conceptions of mental health and normalcy, and the increasingly malleable sense of personal identity that results from what Peter Kramer called “cosmetic psychopharmacology.”

Nonpharmacologic methods of altering brain function are currently enjoying a period of rapid development, with a resurgence of psychosurgery for the treatment of medication refractory mental illnesses and promising new therapies for neurological and psychiatric illnesses based on deep brain stimulation as well as relatively noninvasive transcranial stimulation methods. Research on brain-machine interfaces is primarily in a preclinical phase but promises to enable thought-based control of computers and robots by paralyzed patients. As the tragic history of frontal lobotomy reminds us, permanent alteration of the brain cannot be undertaken lightly. Although nonpharmacologic brain interventions are exclusively aimed at therapeutic goals, the US military sponsors research in this general area that is presumably aimed at enhancing the capabilities of soldiers.

Brain imaging

In addition to the important issues of safety and incidental findings, mentioned above, some arise from the unprecedented and rapidly developing ability to correlate brain activation with psychological states and traits. One of the most widely discussed new applications of imaging is based on correlations between brain activity and intentional deception. A number of different research groups have identified fMRI correlates of intentional deception in laboratory tasks, and despite the skepticism of many experts, the technique has already been commercialized. A more feasible application of brain imaging is “neuromarketing,” whereby people’s conscious or unconscious desire for certain products can be measured.

Researchers are also finding brain imaging correlates of a myriad of different psychological traits, including personality, intelligence, mental health vulnerabilities, attitudes toward particular ethnic groups, and predilection for violent crime. Unconscious racial attitudes are manifest in brain activation. These capabilities of brain imaging, actual and potential, raise a number of ethical issues. The most obvious concern involves privacy. For example, employers, marketers, and the government all have a strong interest in knowing the abilities, personality, truthfulness and other mental contents of certain people. This raises the question of whether, when, and how to ensure the privacy of our own minds.

Another ethical problem is that brain scans are often viewed as more accurate and objective than in fact they are. Many layers of signal processing, statistical analysis and interpretation separate imaged brain activity from the psychological traits and states inferred from it. There is a danger that the public (including judges and juries, employers, insurers, etc.) will ignore these complexities and treat brain images as a kind of indisputable truth.

The neuroscience worldview

Neuroethics also encompasses the ethical issues raised by neuroscience as it affects our understanding of the world and of ourselves in the world. For example, if everything we do is physically caused by our brains, which are in turn a product of our genes and our life experiences, how can we be held responsible for our actions? The question of whether and how personal responsibility is compatible with neuroscience is a central one for neuroethics.

The widely held assumption that people have a body and a soul would also appear to be incompatible with the worldview emerging from neuroscience. As neuroscience teaches us more about the way the brain instantiates personality, love and moral values, there is less and less reason to hypothesize any immaterial component of a person, and consequently any possibility of an immortal soul. Thus neuroscience calls into question some of the most deeply held religious beliefs.

Academic Journals on Neuroethics

  • Neuroethics

Main Editor: Neil Levy, CAPPE, Melbourne; University of Oxford

Neuroethics is an international peer-reviewed journal dedicated to academic articles on the ethical, legal, political, social and philosophical issues provoked by research in the contemporary sciences of the mind, especially, but not only, neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology. The journal publishes high-quality reflections on questions raised by the sciences of the mind, and on the ways in which the sciences of the mind illuminate longstanding debates in ethics. Neuroethics will launch in early 2008 and will offer FREE ACCESS to the FULL TEXT of all articles during 2008 and 2009.


  • Gazzaniga, M. S. (2005). The Ethical Brain. The Dana Press.
  • Illes, J. (2003, October 24). Neuroethics in a new era of neuroimaging. In American journal of neuroradiology, 24, 1739 – 1741.
  • Rees, D. & Rose, S. (2004). New brain sciences: perils and prospects. Cambridge University Press.
  • Glannon, W. (2006).Bioethics and the Brain. Oxford University Press USA
  • Racine, E., Bar-Ilan O, Illes J. (2005). fMRI in the public eye. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 6(2):159-64
  • Farah Martha J. (2002). Emerging ethical issues in neuroscience, Nature Neuroscience, 2002 Vol. 5, No. 11, p. 1123 – 129.
  • Farah Martha J.(2005) Neuroethics: the practical and the philosophical. Trends in Cognitive Sciences January 2005, Vol. 9, No.1, s. 34-40.
  • Illes Judy (2002). Brain and Cognition: Ethical Challenges in Advanced Neuroimaging, Brain and Cognition 2002, 50(3), p. 341-344.
  • Riis P., Neuroethics, European Journal of Neurology 2003, Vol. 10, p. 218-223.
  • The Economist Magazine (2002) Open Your Mind: The Ethics of Brain Science [2]
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Neuroethics". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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