Basics of Neuroethics

What is neuroethics?

It’s a field that studies the implications of neuroscience for human self-understanding, ethics, and policy.

What are some examples of neuroethics?

As we understand better the circuitry and molecular biology of how the brain’s memory systems work, the next step might be to think about drugs to help us remember better. This could appeal to students seeking better grades. Drugs that could enhance athletic performance might be attractive to people seeking a competitive advantage.  Ethical issues arise, when we begin to consider whether these drugs should be available, to whom, under what circumstances, and whether they are even safe and effective, or how their use would affect the way we view the value of education and sport in our culture.  There also might be consequences for social policy. For example, understanding how a child’s brain develops could inform educational policy and impact a child’s educational potential.

Another example is the potential to use neuroscience to design neurotoxins (nerve agents) that disrupt memory or alter brain functions in other ways, which would be formidable bioweapons.

Ethical dilemmas also arise when we think about brain imaging techniques that could make it possible to tell when someone is lying, or make assumptions about sanity or guilt in criminals with different brain characteristics. There are also questions about the use of brain imaging in the workplace and marketing experts are using neuroscience studies to find ways to influence the way we make decisions and purchases.

What are some differences between neuroethics and bioethics?

There are a lot of general issues related to research in the nervous system that are contained within bioethics—informed consent and people with cognitive impairments are traditional kinds of bioethical issues.

But if instead you want to ask about the essence of personal responsibility and how we should think about personal responsibility in light of neuroscience, and in light of our criminal justice system, that is something that is well beyond bioethics. It involves neuroscience, philosophy and the law.

If you want to ask about brain privacy—since we have more sophisticated imaging devices that can in a crude way begin to give clues to observers about what you’re thinking or feeling—some of that might be dealt with in legal or philosophical writings about privacy, but again you want to incorporate with it a deep understanding of the technologies.

It applies even if you want to talk about the fundamental basis of ethical thought itself. Traditionally, people have appealed to principles that might be transcendent or outside of the human brain, but at the same time increasingly we’re aware that the way our brains have been shaped by evolution and the way they function has an enormous impact on our own moral understanding and how we think about ethics.

How do we think about interventions, drugs or devices that change cognition or change personality? If your spouse only really likes you when you’re on antidepressants, well, which person did they marry? These kinds of issues are not really core issues for existing bioethics and seem to require a new kind of forum.

What are some of the most interesting topics in neuroscience right now?

I think issues of cognitive enhancement, drugs and interventions that affect a person’s identity; brain privacy; and the neural basis of morality, or what’s called moral cognition, are among the really interesting areas. Another is understanding the neurobiology of decision making; that itself is not per se neuroethics, but as it gets applied to areas such as marketing, it begins to touch on ethical concerns.

How is neuroethics relevant to the daily lives of most people?

It is quite relevant, in areas from the widespread use of psychopharmacology to treat children to our sense of responsibility and justice in the courtroom to the moral status we confer on people with mental illnesses or addictive disorders. Much that we have not been reflective about or have handled with pop psychology can be thought about more deeply in the context of advances in neuroscience.

Many aspects of our daily lives can be thought about more deeply in the context of advances in neuroscience. Some examples include:

  • Drugs that alter the brain to treat children with learning disorders
  • Our sense of responsibility and justice in the courtroom
  • The moral status we confer on people with mental illnesses or addictive disorders

Why was a neuroethics society formed?

A group of neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, bioethicists and lawyers—who knew each other and who had all been involved in the Dana Foundation–sponsored Neuroethics: Mapping the Field conference that was held [in 2002] in San Francisco—got together a second time at a seminar and discussed whether this would make sense. We decided to form a society because we feel that there are issues related to the nervous system that are not neatly contained within traditional bioethics. In particular, there are issues that relate to the functioning of the brain—after all, the brain, being the seat of thought and emotion and behavioral control, has a special resonance for, among other things, being itself the seat of ethics. We wanted to create bridges between advances in neuroscience and the world of policy and ethics.


Much of the above material was derived from an interview with Stephen Hyman in advance of the 2008 Annual Meeting of the International Neuroethics Society in Washington, D.C. The material is courtesy of The Dana Foundation. 

Hyman HeadshotSteven E. Hyman, M.D. is the director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute. He is also Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology. Hyman joined the Broad after a decade of service as provost of Harvard University. From 1996 to 2001, he served as director of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Prior to his government service he was the first faculty director of Harvard University's interdisciplinary Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative. Hyman is the editor of the Annual Review of Neuroscience and the founding president of the International Neuroethics Society. He is a member of the Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academies of Science where he serves on the Council, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a fellow of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, and a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. Hyman received his B.A. summa cum laude from Yale College and an M.A. from the University of Cambridge, which he attended as a Mellon fellow studying the history and philosophy of science. He earned his M.D. from Harvard Medical School.