Imaging or imagining? A neuroethics challenge informed by genetics

American Journal of Bioethics 5 (2):5 – 18 (2005)
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Abstract

From a twenty-first century partnership between bioethics and neuroscience, the modern field of neuroethics is emerging, and technologies enabling functional neuroimaging with unprecedented sensitivity have brought new ethical, social and legal issues to the forefront. Some issues, akin to those surrounding modern genetics, raise critical questions regarding prediction of disease, privacy and identity. However, with new and still-evolving insights into our neurobiology and previously unquantifiable features of profoundly personal behaviors such as social attitude, value and moral agency, the difficulty of carefully and properly interpreting the relationship between brain findings and our own self-concept is unprecedented. Therefore, while the ethics of genetics provides a legitimate starting point - even a backbone - for tackling ethical issues in neuroimaging, they do not suffice. Drawing on recent neuroimaging findings and their plausible real-world applications, we argue that interpretation of neuroimaging data is a key epistemological and ethical challenge. This challenge is two-fold. First, at the scientific level, the sheer complexity of neuroscience research poses challenges for integration of knowledge and meaningful interpretation of data. Second, at the social and cultural level, we find that interpretations of imaging studies are bound by cultural and anthropological frameworks. In particular, the introduction of concepts of self and personhood in neuroimaging illustrates the interaction of interpretation levels and is a major reason why ethical reflection on genetics will only partially help settle neuroethical issues. Indeed, ethical interpretation of such findings will necessitate not only traditional bioethical input but also a wider perspective on the construction of scientific knowledge.

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