Meeting Summaries

Emerging Genetics of Human Cognition and Behavior: New Challenges for Ethics and Policy

Flash Talk presenters

Steven E. Hyman, Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute and former INS President

Steve Hyman began the Fred Kavli Distinguished Neuroethics Lecture by presenting several studies that demonstrate the genetic complexity of many psychiatric disorders. Unlike Huntington’s disease, which is attributable to a single allele, these studies show that most psychiatric conditions are polygenetic.

Lecture sponsored by the Fred Kavli Foundation

Kavli Foundation logo

Additionally, Hyman discussed how many psychiatric disorders are governed by more than just genes. In doing so, he presented several studies including one that found that a monozygotic twin of a schizophrenic only has a 50% chance of developing the disease despite sharing 100% of his affected twin’s DNA. As he pointed out, this variability may be in part due to environmental factors. He further posited that interactions between disease and non-disease genes could account for some differences in how psychiatric disorders manifest.

As scientists parse these complexities further, they will gain a deeper understanding of the brain and human behavior. While Hyman acknowledged the relatively uncontroversial application of this knowledge to the development treatments for psychiatric diseases, he voiced concern that it could also be used in more ethically problematic ways.

To illustrate this concern, Hyman discussed how other aspects of the brain, such as cognitive ability and educational attainment (i.e. years spent in school), have been found to have genetic components. Hyman posed several ethical issues that could arise from a deeper understanding of this connection, e.g. genetic engineering of embryos to create smarter children or the use of genetic information to determine who should go to college. Furthermore, given the myriad factors that mediate cognition, he expressed worry that the role of genetics could be inappropriately overestimated. In fact, he cited the growing tendency of social scientists and courts to view genes as deterministic to demonstrate that this problem already exists.

Given the issues that can arise as we expand our understanding of the mind, Hyman called upon neuroethicists to think about how such research may be used or misused. Hyman also recommended building ethics into neuroscientific education and research as the field increasingly touches upon essential aspects of humanity.

– Jennifer Gummer, Columbia University, USA