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Investing in brain sciences: the “who gets what?” questions of neuroethics

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Katherine Shats, Dan J. Stein, and James Giordano
The United States’ Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative announced last year, seeks to infuse over $1billion (USD) to basic and clinical neuroscientific research agendas. Hailed as a “Big Science” agenda focusing on the “Grand Challenge” of furthering capabilities to both understand and affect the structure and functions of the brain, the US initiative joins ranks with the European Union’s multi-billion Euro Human Brain Project, to translate brain science into knowledge and tools that can be employed in a variety of fields of medicine (e.g. neurology, psychiatry, rehabilitation, pain care, geriatrics, etc.).
Neuroscience as a powerful socio-economic force: what does this mean for global equity?
While the potential medical benefits of brain research may be obvious, let’s not overlook that neuroscience and neurotechnology are also powerful socio-economic forces. Occupying a greater than $160 billion annual market share, neurotechnology has been classified as one of the fastest growing – and most influential – fields of the 21st century. Current estimates predict a 60-70% growth in neuroscientific enterprises in Asian and Pacific Rim nations, so that Asian presence in the neuroscience and technology market will surpass that of the United States and Europe by 2020.
As investment in the technologies grows, its development, use and any potential benefits will be shaped by the priorities of these investor nations – and their economic, social and international agendas. Existing asymmetries between developed and non-developed countries may become more evident, and impact how the technology is developed, used and how any potential benefits are distributed. The cultural contexts within which the technology develops will also dictate the direction it takes – including why, how and for whom it is created.
This is where the field of neuroethics will be put to task and to test
While still a relatively new discipline, neuroethics enters its second decade facing the challenges and opportunities arising from the ever more world wide engagement of neuroscientific information, techniques and technologies. Neuroethics looks at issues ranging from the philosophical to the political, and prompts careful consideration of cultural diversity, as well as the economic and political forces that exist in and across cultures.
But the idea of a globally-relevant neuroethics is not simply geographical, economic, or political. It comes from neuroscience: the study of embodied brains, and the ways that brains generate behaviors for all inter-personal and social conduct.
Shaping a globally and culturally equitable development of neuroscience
As we continue to invest in neurosciences, we must be conscious of the global implications. Neuroethics calls for a culturally-sensitive and pragmatic assessment of neuroscience and its technological capabilities and limitations. We must recognize our responsibilities to prudently use neuroscientific information, outcomes, and tools in the various cultural contexts of the international social sphere.
It is important for neuroethics to ask: How will neuroscientific research, the clinical and social benefits provided by neuroscience, and the burdens, risks, and harms that may be incurred through the misuse or purposive abuse of neuroscience and its technologies be leveraged in the 21st century?
Answering this question will not be easy. It will mean turning our minds to the tensions between ‘global’ and ‘local’ needs and values, as these will affect the definition, assessment, and implementation of neuroscientific research and its varied applications. Of course, each country can and likely will pursue its own neuroscientific – and neuroethical – interests. Still, is upon this global stage of multi-cultural settings, needs, and values that we must develop the principles that will shape the trajectory of this powerful socio-economic and cultural force.

Katherine Shats and James Giordano lead the O’Neill Institute-Pellegrino Center Program in Brain Science and Global Health Law and Policy.
Dan J. Stein, MB, PhD, DPhil, is Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health at the University of Cape Town, South Africa where he also serves as Director of the Brain and Behaviour Initiative.

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