The false mouse memories made the ethicists uneasy. By stimulating certain neurons in the hippocampus, Susumu Tonegawa and his colleagues caused mice to recall receiving foot shocks in a setting in which none had occurred1. Tonegawa, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, says that he has no plans to ever implant false memories into humans — the study, published last month, was designed just to offer insight into memory formation.
But the experiment has nonetheless alarmed some neuroethicists. “That was a bell-ringer, the idea that you can manipulate the brain to control the mind,” says James Giordano, chief of neuroethics studies at Georgetown University in Washington DC. He says that the study is one of many raising ethical concerns, and more are sure to come as an ambitious, multi-year US effort to parse the human brain gets under way.
On 20 August, US President Barack Obama’s commission on bioethics will hold a meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to begin to craft a set of ethics standards to guide the BRAIN project. There is already one major mechanism for ethical oversight in US research: institutional review boards, which must approve any studies involving human subjects. But many ethicists say that as neuroscience discoveries creep beyond laboratory walls into the marketplace and the courtroom, more comprehensive oversight is needed. “The long-term consequences of more brain knowledge — whether it’s good for an ethnic group or threatens your personal identity — there’s sort of no one in charge of that,” says Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.The BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative will develop technologies to understand how the brain’s billions of neurons work together to produce thought, emotion, movement and memory. But, along with the discoveries, it could force scientists and society to grapple with a laundry list of ethical issues: the responsible use of cognitive-enhancement devices, the protection of personal neural data, the prediction of untreatable neurodegenerative diseases and the assessment of criminal responsibility through brain scanning.