Stanford Center for
Biomedical Ethics

Joint Stanford - UCSF Bioethics Conference Tackles Moral Issues

Research in neuroscience has brought promises of treatment for debilitating neurological diseases. However, those same treatments -- stem cells, gene therapies, electrical implants and drugs like Prozac and Ritalin -- have the potential to enhance a person's basic personality and change how people think about responsibility and personal identity.

In order to reflect on the social and ethical implications of these discoveries, neuroscientists and bioethicists at Stanford University School of Medicine and UC-San Francisco are cohosting a conference intended to encourage the growth of a new field - neuroethics.

"What happens in brain science in the next 25 to 30 years will be as important as what has happened in genetics in the past 10 years," said Zach Hall, chairman of the conference and an adviser to the New York-based Dana Foundation, which is sponsoring the conference. Hall hopes bringing scholars in ethics and policy together with researchers will help lay the groundwork for how to proceed. "The conference is meant not to provide answers but to stimulate new questions," he said.

Advanced imaging technology that allows scientists to predict debilitating conditions such as Alzheimer disease is one area of concern. With no known cure for the disease, this technology raises more issues than it addresses. Another issue overdue for debate concerns what the neurosciences can tell us about people who might be predisposed to become addicted to drugs. Technology that helps pinpoint such predisposition raises the question of what society should do with the information. Should a person be held accountable for drug use if they are biologically susceptible to addiction?

The conference is intended to help neuroscientists and bioethics scholars hammer out the language and thinking that will influence this budding field. "It's no longer enough that ethicists sit in their office thinking about problems and that neuroscientists work in their labs creating them," said William Mobley, John E. Cahill Family Professor and Chairman of the Department of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University Medical Center. "Given the importance of the topics that they address, and the expertise they bring to the work, neuroscientists and ethicists really need to begin working together." Mobley is a meeting organizer and speaker.

Research into how the brain functions and develops has helped spawn some of the debate. "How will our new understanding make us feel about a complex topic such as aggression," Hall asked. "Through genetics and neurological science, we may discover that there is a strong biological basis for traits that we now believe are under our control."

Barbara Koenig, associate professor of medicine and executive director of Stanford's Center for Biomedical Ethics, said philosophers have been thinking about these issues for hundreds of years. "The difference today is that theoretical debates are being transformed into real policy choices," said Koenig, who is chairing a session on brain science and social policy. She added that each session is designed as a conversation, with neuroscientists, bioethicists and policy experts bringing their unique perspectives to a given topic.

The conference takes place May 13-14 at the Golden Gate Club in San Francisco's Presidio National Park. To obtain further information and to sign up to obtain the conference report, visit the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics Web site at http://bioethics.stanford.edu/conference/ Please note that the event is closed to further registration. If members of the press would like to attend, please contact Judy Illes (650-724-6393).

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