Ethics of Neuroscience Research Examined

Neuroscientists gathered in Washington, D.C., in May to discuss the ethical boundaries of their work. Since the 1960s, scientists have been exploring ways to link computers to the brain. Such research promises to help the disabled, but also presents the possibility of abuse.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Stem cell researchers aren't the only ones dealing with ethical issues. Neuroscientists gathered in Washington this month to discuss what they can do and also what they should do. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports.

JON HAMILTON reporting:

The meeting at the Library of Congress offered a mix of cutting-edge research and cautionary reflections. John Donoghue of Brown University described his work connecting computers directly to the human brain.

Dr. JOHN DONOGHUE (Brown University): The concept is to help individuals to restore their ability to communicate or move or interact with the world when they've been paralyzed.

HAMILTON: That requires implanting sensors in the brain connected to a computer. Donoghue showed a video of a young man whose spinal cord was severed when he was stabbed in the neck.

Dr. DONOGHUE: So here's a robotic hand and that robotic hand is connected to an output. And he can just open and close that hand at will.

HAMILTON: Remarkable, but Robert Goodman of Columbia University recalled an earlier effort to link computer and brain. That came in the 1960s. A Yale researcher named Jose Delgado put a radio-controlled device in a bull's brain. Flipping a switch stopped the animal in its tracks. But Delgado's goal was to let governments use computers to control human behavior. Goodman says that sort of work should never have been allowed.

Dr. ROBERT GOODMAN (Columbia University): We've been here before, and one of the reasons that we're here today is to make sure that we do it differently than we did.

HAMILTON: Goodman says involving the public in scientific decisions is the best way to avoid future mistakes. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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