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Neuroethics Comes of Age

MRI image of a brain

Originally, the Neuroethics Society expected 50—maybe 80—people to show up for its First Annual Meeting. But over 200 neuroethics devotees assembled last week at the American Academy for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. for the two-day series of presentations, discussions, and poster sessions.

Neuroethics is the subfield of bioethics that studies the ethical, legal, social, cultural, and policy issues that arise from our ability to understand and manipulate the brain through basic, applied, and clinical neuroscience.

Several members of the Science Progress advisory board either spearheaded the effort to get this conference together or participated in the meeting’s discussion panels. Martha Farah led a session on the up-and-coming neurotechnology industry featuring Zach Lynch. Hank Greeley discussed the legal and ethical controversies surrounding neuroscience-based lie-detection technologies. Paul Root Wolpe moderated an unexpectedly agreeable discussion between two neuro-partisans on the ever-prescient issue of brain enhancement. Science Progress Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Moreno spoke on a panel about the ethics of deep brain stimulation research and also led a panel on neuroscience research and the use of neurotechnology by the military and intelligence communities.

The success of the meeting is a clear sign that neuroethics has come a long way in a short period of time. Although not the first person to use the term, New York Times columnist William Safire coined “neuroethics” in its contemporary sense. Safire and others refined the term at the 2002 conference, “Neuroethics: Mapping the Field,” convened by the Dana Foundation. According to its website, the Neuroethics Society itself was founded in May of 2006 after a small meeting in Asilomar, California. Shortly thereafter, in October of 2006, the Society aligned with the International Neuroethics Network in an effort to broaden its scope. Harvard University’s Steve Hyman currently serves as the society’s president.

In these few short years, websites such as, the Neuroethics and Law Blog, and journals such as Neuroethics and AJOB-Neuroscience have sprouted up, adding intellectual heft and scope to the field. In fact, it is the breadth of the field that has made neuroethics so popular. The community sees itself as a big tent and incorporates scholars from the humanities, hard sciences, and social sciences, along with doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, and policy professionals. Indeed, the program agenda from last week’s meeting is a testament to the community’s commitment to breadth, diversity, and interdisciplinary.

The society’s will expand its impact with activities like the First Annual Penn Neuroscience Bootcamp on August 2-12, 2009 at the University of Pennsylvania. The Bootcamp will introduce the methods and findings of neuroscience research to educators, economists, businesspeople, policy professionals, along with anyone else whose work requires them to “understand, predict, or influence human behavior.”

Neuroscience is becoming increasingly relevant in our everyday lives. fMRI brain scan images already flood the science sections—and advertising space—in newspapers and magazines. In order to properly separate the reality of advances in brain technology from the hype, consumers, citizens, and professionals have to get educated on the science and engaged in the ethical conversation.

For more details on the Penn Neuroscience Bootcamp, including application instructions, check out the program website.

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