04/10/2013 06:52 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2013

The BRAIN Initiative: Ethical Challenges Ahead

When President Obama made his April 2 announcement about the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative, he hailed it as "the next great American project":

As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom. But we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears. [T]oday, scientists possess the capability to study individual neurons and figure out the main functions of certain areas of the brain. But a human brain contains almost 100 billion neurons making trillions of connections... So there is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked, and the BRAIN Initiative will change that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember. And that knowledge could be -- will be -- transformative.

Included in the BRAIN initiative is the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, "to make sure all of the research is being done in a responsible way."

At a minimum, this means protecting the participants in human subjects research. The president's bioethics commission published a thorough study of that topic in 2011, and we may confidently expect that anyone who participates in research sponsored by the BRAIN initiative will be treated with all due respect for their rights, dignity, and health.

The ethical issues do not stop there, however. If the BRAIN initiative is to achieve its goals and fulfill its lofty promise, it will need to address several other ethical challenges as well. These challenges involve values-laden decisions that will influence the research methods, analytic models, and policy recommendations arising from the initiative. We need open discussion and honest debate about the values guiding these important decisions.

1. How much of the data generated by this initiative will be publicly available, and how much of it will be the private intellectual property of commercial businesses? This is a key ethical question facing any public/private partnership in science. I would argue in favor of maximal public access to all the research data, while granting patents to individuals and businesses who develop innovative applications and products using that data.

2. Will the BRAIN initiative take advantage of "citizen science" resources, inviting the public to participate in the mammoth task of sorting through all the data? This kind of approach has worked well for other large-scale, data-rich scientific projects. If the BRAIN initiative holds the kind of transformative potential President Obama foresees, we should do whatever we can to make sure as many people as possible are aware of the project, appreciate its benefits, and feel some personal connection to it.

3. Will the researchers seek a diverse range of participants who are demographically varied in terms of age, gender, race, education, economic status, family structure, sexual orientation, health history, religious background, etc.? All of these variables shape people's lives and experiences over time, which in turn shapes the functional organization of their brains (as social neuroscience is beginning to recognize). If you only study the brains of a limited segment of society, you're going to get a limited view of how the brain works, making it easier to over-generalize from that partial sample and treat other people's brains as deviations from the norm.

4. Will the researchers take into account sleeping as well as waking conditions of brain activity? A surprisingly high proportion of neuroscientists pay little attention to the brain in sleep, even though humans spend around one-third of their lives in that mode of behavior. This reflects a rationalist bias that only waking life is worthy of scientific attention. The BRAIN initiative should not be swayed by this misconception. The new neuroimaging technologies envisioned by the president can, and should, be applied to study both waking and sleeping conditions of brain functioning.

5. Along the same lines, will the researchers study the brain's functioning not only in conditions of ordinary consciousness but also in conditions of extraordinary, unusually intensified consciousness? Examples of the latter might include musical performance, athletic competition, meditation and prayer, sexual experience, video game playing, religious ritual, and certain kinds of dreams. If, as the president says, we need "to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action," then we must consider the full spectrum of the brain's activities and not limit the analysis to any one form of consciousness. Indeed, I would argue, taking a "black swan" approach, that these extreme types of experience may well offer especially deep scientific insights into the tremendous power and creativity of the human brain.

6. Perhaps most importantly, who will be monitoring the potential abuses of all these revolutionary new findings about brain functioning? What if, for example, BRAIN initiative researchers find a way to limit aggressive impulses and increase cooperation? Would it be ethical to use that knowledge to "cure" criminals of their anti-social behavior? What if the researchers discover how to de-sensitize soldiers to traumatizing incidents during combat? Would we sanction the military using that information to produce emotion-free troops? These and other dystopian possibilities are not merely the vain musings of science fiction. They loom ahead of us in the very near future, a future the BRAIN initiative is speedily helping make a reality. We'd better get ready.