Thanks to Adam for having me back as a guest on this blog. As he announced last week, my main purpose in returning is to report about, and reflect upon, the discussions at the Neuroethics Society’s annual meeting held in San Diego a little more than a week ago now (on November 11th -12th). It packed an incredible amount of fascinating and thought-provoking discussion into little more than a day’s worth of talks and panels.
For those who couldn’t be there, let me begin – in this first post – with a quick run-down of the day’s events. Patricia Churchland opened the meeting with a talk that explored the biological basis of moral behavior – and why we shouldn’t be deterred from looking for such a biological basis, or giving it normative significance, by David Hume’s famous is-ought distinction. Nor -- as she pointed out drawing on both Charles Sanders Peirce and The Colbert Report -- should we be wedded to the idea that such moral behavior is always structured by rules.
Her talk was followed by a terrific and animated panel discussion on the neuroethics of addiction: Wayne Hall, the moderator, posed a set of intriguing questions to panelists Steven Hyman and George Koob, framing a conversation that addressed –among other topics -- whether (and when) addicts should be held responsible for criminal acts, whether it is ethical to require addicts arrested for crimes to undergo pharmacotherapy treatments, such as taking naltrexone, as a condition of avoiding prison, and whether gambling, video-game playing, or pornography-viewing might constitute addictions.
The afternoon talk by NIMH Director Thomas Insel discussed conflicts of interest in psychiatry, and reviewed evidence that the prescription decisions of psychiatrists (like those of other doctors) are strongly influenced by pharmaceutical marketing. He looked at some historical developments to help explain how we got to this point and at what doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and academics can and should do about such concerns. (Peter Reiner has a nice summary and discussion of this talk over at Neuroethics at the Core).
In the final panel of the meeting, Judy Illes served as moderator for a terrific set of presentations on the impact that neuroethics is having across the globe: Gonul Peker explained the neuroethics curriculum that she and her colleagues have developed at Ege University Medical School in Izmir Turkey, and data she has collected about students’ perceptions of, and specific interests in, neuroethics questions. Adriana Gini discussed a multi- and interdisciplinary effort she is a part of aimed at addressing the ethical dimensions of impaired consciousness, and the importance of interdisciplinary conversation to address other important neuroethics questions. Julie Robillard discussed the work led by Elana Brief (who couldn’t be in attendance) on the specific challenges and responsibilities of neuroethics researchers working with First Nations communities in Canada (to address the treatment of Alzheimer’s among their members). And Gladys Maestre discussed the important role that neuroethicists can (and should) play in Haiti in the wake of the recent earthquake there.
These formal discussions were not, of course, the only opportunities at the meeting for exchanging ideas about neuroethics and neuroscience. Just as interesting were the numerous informal conversations occurring among participants on the sidelines. The ones I was fortunate enough to be involved in gave me new information and perspectives on topics as diverse as neuromarketing, the use of fMRI in courtroom proceedings, and whether compelling someone to provide brain scan or similar evidence would violate the right against self-incrimination, the neural correlates of consciousness, and the possible implications of neuroscience research for criminal law. Many such conversations were prompted by the forty-one papers presented as part of the meeting’s poster session.
There were also some wonderful discussions that were somewhat less formal than the planned talks and panels but more structured than the spontaneous conversations: These included two concurrent sessions, one led by Steven Hyman, on careers at the intersection of Science and Society, and another led by Martha Farah on Teaching Neuroethics (with comments by Eric Racine, Stacey Tovino, and Judy Grisel). There were also informal dinner chats among the Society’s working groups. I participated in one combining the working groups on Brain-Based Legal Implications an on Neuroscience and National Security. Others focused on Addiction Neuroethics, Global Health and Neuroethics, Predictive Biomarkers for Alzheimer's Disease, Deep Brain Stimulation, Cognitive Enhancement, and the topic of Neuroscience and Free Will.
The 2011 meeting will take place on November 10-11, 2011 at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington D.C. (once again, just ahead of the Society for Neuroscience’s Annual Meeting). We will probably be hearing more about that in the coming months at the Neuroethics Society Web site.
Rather than give a more detailed summary of each talk or set of comments at the meeting, what I’d like to do is to take the fascinating questions covered at the meeting as a starting point for some additional reflections. Since I’m a law professor (and a lawyer and political theorist by training) these reflections will probably tend to emphasize the legal and/or regulatory dimension of each topic. But I hope some folks with other backgrounds and areas of expertise, and perhaps some of the others who were at the Neuroethics Society meeting, will consider adding their own thoughts and reflections in the comments section.
Congratulations to the Neuroethics Society President Steven Hyman and Program Chair, Turhan Canli (as well as the other members of the Executive and Program Committees) – and congratulations to Neuroethics Society Executive Director Karen Graham and to the Society’s staff members, Andrew Rosenthal and Chelsea Ott, for putting together such an intellectually-exciting event.