The brain is the most complex organ in our bodies. It consists of millions of inter connected neurons that work together to give us our personalities, motivations, memories, etc. The brain is capable of things beyond our imagination; we have just started to see what it might be capable of doing. However, the complexity of the brain also makes it a very difficult organ to study because we are still unaware of all of its functions. As scientists, we have to be extremely careful about how we deal with the brain and what advances we make public because any wrong decision could become detrimental and costly for the human race.
In recent years, there has been a huge advancement in the field of neuroscience and this advancement has led to areas of research of the brain that may be ethically questionable. Neuroscience has now gone beyond the clinical applications to a variety of new areas that are well beyond our imagination. From the measurement of mental processes using functional imaging to the manipulation of the brain using selective drugs, the new capabilities of neuroscience raises many ethical and social issues and requires us to question how far we will go before putting individuals’ lives in danger. Technological advances in neuroscience have led to innovations in medicine that have therapeutic, as well as non-therapeutic implications that extend beyond areas explored by scientists. We are coming to a point in history where technology that we have invented can go beyond helping just the medical community. The question that scientists need to ask now is what ethical issues arise because of these innovations and what ethical standards should be applied to brain research?
Research done on the brain thus far has greatly improved our ability to understand and treat people with neurological disorders. We now understand many neurological disorders and have came up with various treatments to treat these disorders. There are various drugs on the market that are currently used to improve the mood, cognition, or behavior of people with problems in these areas. However these drugs are now starting to gain the interest of the general public. People are now starting to experiment with these drugs in order to see how they can help them with their normal brain functions. From a science perspective, this growing interest is very dangerous and can lead to many problems in the future. These drugs, which are meant for people with mental disorders, can enhance normal people’s brain activities and therefore have the capability to intervene with normal brain functions. Using these drugs, normal people have the capability to focus more clearly anywhere, be cheerful all the time and even have enhanced memory. What might happen if the industry decided to sell these drugs that are supposed to help individuals with neurological problems to ordinary people? Will society come to the point where we will be medicalizing normal behavior?
Drugs like Ritalin and Adderall are currently used to improve the attention of people with ADHD, but they are also known to enhance attention in healthy individuals. Surveys have shown that many Americans are now buying these drugs from people that they know or from dealers in order to help them enhance brain functions in their daily lives. Everyone from college students to office employees are using these drugs to have some kind of advantage and to help them get ahead of their peers. So far only a few people know about the effects of these drugs and can purchase them. However, it will not be long before these drugs will be provided to the public for brain enhancement. Even though the effects of these drugs sound great, and we would all love to use them in our daily lives, there are many ethical issues that scientist need to think about and address before making these drugs commercially available to the general public. These drugs seem to help people with neurological disorders but we have little research on the long term effects of these drugs even for these people. We are far away from knowing how these drugs will affect ordinary people and therefore cannot allow people to have access to such drugs in order to have brain enhancement.
As we have seen with other scientific advancements in the past, it takes a very long time for the scientific community to be fully aware of the negative connotations associated with the advancement. With the case of tobacco, for instance, thousands of lives were lost due to lung cancer before it became well known that tobacco causes cancer. Tobacco was made available to the public before its effects were fully understood by the scientific community and this lack of knowledge led to many people dying unknowingly. With brain enhancement drugs, are we ready to take that same risk again? These drugs work on the organ that is the seat of our knowledge, the organ that controls our every move. Can we really afford to make the same mistakes again? Side-effects and unintended consequences are always a concern with any type of drug, but neuroscience based enhancement involves intervening in a far more complex system and therefore we face an even greater risk when we intervene with brain functions. With the little knowledge that we have about the long-term side effects of these drugs, it is unsafe for us to make such drugs publically. If we have learned anything as scientists from our past, we know that those who profit from these drugs will always claim that these drugs are safe and will find ways to prove themselves right. We, as scientists, cannot put the lives of millions of people at risk until we have enough proof that these drugs will not cause any harm and will only help those who are taking them.
Neuroscience has also made great advancements in the area of brain imaging. Even though we are not at a point where we can read minds using imaging, the advances that are taking place ensure us that we are not far away from reaching this goal. The neuroimaging techniques are becoming so advanced that it is now possible to infer not only people’s mental states but also their unconscious attitudes and predispositions. Recent FMRI studies show that measurements can now be obtained for complex human processes such as decision making, moral and non-moral social judgments, and even personality.
Scientists are now working towards providing us with a society where everyone will be transparent and no one will be able to hide any bad intentions or cause harm to society. However, these advancements raise many critical ethical issues that need to be addressed. Brain processes and thinking are a very private matter and these advances could jeopardize personal identities and privacy of people in the future. Imagine a legal system where you are forced to have your brain scanned in order to see if you are lying or telling the truth. Imagine your employer routinely performing brain scans to view your intelligence level, mood, and even criminal intentions. Is the public ready to live in a world where everything they think about can be easily accessed by those who have the authority to do so? Should they even be provided with the power and means of authorities to carry out such actions? As scientists, it is our job to look at the long term consequences and implications of such advancements. We have to realize that these advancements in neuroscience can have many negative consequences that could put the public in harm’s way and take away their privacy.
Techniques for manipulating the brain and its functions are advancing at a very fast pace and few people are looking into the consequences associated with these advancements. We do not know how the different systems of the brain interact with each other or the consequences of intervening with normal brain functions. We are not aware of how these interventions effect human beliefs, desires, intentions, emotions, memory, and etc. Should we even be allowed to make such interventions in the brain? Evolution has made us who we are today and maybe there is a reason why we cannot read each other’s minds. Maybe there is a reason why we do not have super memory or the capability to always be happy. The knowledge that we have gained so far is very powerful but we have to remember that there is a lot more to learn before we take huge leaps to advance our society. What little we do know about our brain and its functions may be enough to lead to great advances, but we have to think about how these advances can affect our future. The knowledge that we have gained so far is very powerful, but with this knowledge comes the responsibility to prevent its misuse and abuse.