Neuroethics, defined as “[an] area of inquiry concerned primarily with the provenance and implications of knowledge about the brain, and the use of such knowledge to treat, manipulate, and possibly enhance brain function” (Greenly, Ramos, Grady, 2016), is a complex and ever-evolving issue, with both controversy and innovation surrounding the issue on all sides. As of right now, we are in an age of exploration and brain projects such as the American BRAIN (Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative and European HBP (Human Brain Project), both of which are drawing attention to the field of neuroethics and the questions surrounding it.
These arising questions mainly deal with concerns from the public, such as what are the implications of increasing knowledge of the brain? How should people’s right to privacy be considered when doing neurology-related studies? What are the potential benefits of this knowledge and technology?
To start with, possible benefits of expanding knowledge of the human brain and developing new technologies is practically endless.
Projects such as brain mapping can lay the groundwork for developing new treatments for neurologically involved conditions that develop at a range of ages, such as schizophrenia and autism or Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, by giving those developing the treatments maps for reference (n/a, 2013). Research has shown that hypnosis and other forms of cognitive behavioral therapy is efficient treatment for conditions including chronic and acute pain, substance abuse (Jensen et al, 2016). Other technology like DBS (Deep Brain Stimulation), which has been used to treat ailments including Parkinson’s before, is now being explored as an option in treatment of mental illnesses, for example obsessive-compulsive disorder and major depression (Shen, 2013).
Studies conducted on everything from how much sleep people need to their brain capacity has led to a multitude of breakthroughs on how we should be educating youth (Lynch, 2017). Solution A One the most prominent concerns stems from the public, regarding their right to privacy. As one could imagine clinical studies, animal models, and other sorts of research methods are a key part of studying neuroscience and cognitive innovation. While effective on their own, unfortunately these methods, even combined, cannot top one other which we have a plethora of: real world data. Actual patients with real histories, medical files, genetic tests, brain images, and just as real rights to privacy. While they may be crucial to science, these materials also hold very intimate details of one’s life, some of which these patients may strongly object to being shared with any number of medical professionals, scientists, and possibly general public.
Even for those who would allow their records being shared, going through every single file and then attempting to contact someone to get consent would take far too much time and manpower to be logistically possible. A potential solution to this is a complete anonymization of the patients personal information. At its core, this would simply mean that the data supplied to the researchers would have no identifying information that could be used to connect the data with the actual patient it belongs to. While that does sound fairly simple to do, all it would require would be to delete some names and personal history, there is unfortunately another level of complication behind it; some of that deleted information is crucial to researchers in certain instances (Rose, 2014). Personal histories, for example, may show patterns in patients that do or do not respond to certain treatments, patterns that would otherwise go unnoticed because they do not seem directly related to medicine.