Kevin Ochsner: Neuroscience Research and the Rise of Neuroethics

In this podcast, we continue our discussion of the ethics of neuroscience research with an excerpt from a panel entitled “When Social Psychology and Neuroscience Research Merge” at the 2007 HRPP Conference during which Dr. Kevin Ochsner of Columbia University addresses the pragmatic concerns of a social cognitive neuroscientist. Play the podcast in the player below or download it to your computer, smart phone, or tablet. Or, subscribe to the podcast on iTunes& or Stitcher, listen on Google Play Music, or sign up to be notified when a new podcast is available.

Dr. Ochsner looks at the complicated nature of consent in neuroscience and behavioral research, acknowledging that the risks and benefits of this type of research can be hard to define, making it difficult for IRBs to review.

Some of the common ethical issues that arise:

  • The issue of deception and when it is justifiable in social-psychological studies
  • How to effectively safeguard and screen participants
  • Addressing safety concerns about (f)MRI, e.g., restrictions for pregnant women
  • Allowing imaging researchers some flex room in their protocols
  • Having a realistic assessment of risks associated with the study, and making counseling available to vulnerable participants if necessary

In short, it's necessary to educate IRBs about aspects of the work with which they aren’t familiar and also to encourage cooperation between IRBs with differing amounts of expertise with this kind of interdisciplinary work.

These issues and others have given rise to the new field of neuroethics, which attempts to address two types of concerns:

  1. The "very real" issue of incidental findings, e.g., scanning someone’s brain for a study and finding something odd. In this case, it’s crucial to let participant know in a careful way, e.g., any potential anomaly will be passed to a radiologist, followed by predetermined procedures for contacting the participant.
  2. The "not as real" notion that brain data itself will allow us to bypass psychological processes and provide insight into the psyche, almost like a lie detector. The truth is that we can’t really do that right now. Dr. Ochsner explains "neuroscience means nothing outside of careful behavioral measures to which you can relate brain data."

Therefore, you cannot infer what someone is thinking or feeling just by observing patterns of brain activity. This may become something we need to seriously consider at some point in the future, but we are simply not there yet.