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Ethics of Neuroscience

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Ethics of Neuroscience

The ethics of neuroscience in psychology are critical to successful and applicable research. Every psychologist and neuroscientist will ask whether an area of research is ethical before beginning a project.

Neuroscience is a complex field of study that deals with the nervous system. When conducting research in this area, neuroscientists must weigh how ethical their studies are and whether they can continue their studies without compromising the rights of their participants.

In psychology, we have to consider the following ethical issues:

  1. Informed consent
  2. Voluntary participation
  3. Protection of the participants
  4. Confidentiality
  5. Anonymity
  6. The right to withdraw
  7. Debriefing

Ethics of Neuroscience, Nervous System, StudySmarterThe nervous system, flaticon.com/eucalyp

The ethics of neuroscience debate

The debate over the ethics of neuroscience is one of the most topical debates out there. When you decide to study an area of the human body (especially the brain), the big dilemma is asking yourself whether the information you want to gain is worth the potential burden you are putting on the person or animal you are studying.In addition, as research techniques and modern technology advance, there is the question of what to do with this new information. Will the insight into the nervous system’s workings be used to enhance research into more insidious plans? Or will it be used from a purely medical perspective?Here is a brief definition of what we mean by ethics in psychology to refresh our memory.

According to the APA Dictionary¹, ethics in psychology is defined as:

The principles of morally right conduct accepted by a person or a group or considered appropriate to a specific field. In psychological research, for example, proper ethics requires that participants be treated fairly and without harm and that investigators report results and findings honestly.

Ethics ensure research is conducted fairly, honourably, and according to a moral code.

The areas of ethics in neuroscience

Overall, there are several important areas we focus on when addressing the ethical debate in neuroscience, as these areas are generally prioritised:

  1. Research (sample selection, animal rights, diseases in research)

  2. Therapy (psychosurgery and personal identity, criminal behaviour)

  3. Why there is a debate at all (concepts such as eugenics, moral responsibility, and free will)

  4. Related theories (cognitive and biological theories, including the concept of free will.

Olds and Milner (1954): The Skinner Box

In 1954, Olds and Milner² modified the famous Skinner box to study the brain’s pleasure centre. What they found had a profound impact on all of neuroscience.To begin the experiment, they attached electrodes to specific brain areas in rats. One area proved more reliable in producing the reward phenomena they studied:

  • The septal area

The rats were then placed in the Skinner box with the electrodes attached.

The Skinner box is famous for its contribution to operant conditioning research. In the Skinner box, an animal is placed in a confined box with levers that it must operate to receive a reward or punishment in response to a specific behaviour (usually the one being studied).

One lever allowed the rats to stimulate the areas of the brain where the electrodes were attached when they pressed it. Each time they pressed it, it produced a pleasant, reward-like sensation in the brain.The number of times the rats pressed the lever over a period of time was recorded.One rat (the highest scoring rat) was found to self-stimulate over 7500 times in 12 hours – an astonishingly high number.

Further studies found that when given a choice between pressing the lever and eating, drinking, and caring for their young, the rats chose to get the pleasurable sensation of pressing the lever.The experiment might have continued until the rats starved to death (the experiments were stopped before this point was reached).

Ethics of Neuroscience, Rat The Skinner box Olds Milner, StudySmarterThe Skinner box, flaticon.com/Freepik

Problems arose when this experiment was performed on human patients. These were usually mental patients. Researchers used the use of electrodes to stimulate regions of the brain to see if certain diseases could be cured.

For example, some neuroscientists believed electrode brain stimulation could help cure depression and anxiety, which seems to be a fruitful and useful endeavour. However, since the times were not so acceptable, it was also used for more sadistic ‘treatments’ (which, unfortunately, also applied to cases of homosexuality).

Ethical benefits of using neuroscience in psychology

The ethical benefits of using neuroscience in psychology include advancing treatment techniques, rehabilitation of offenders, and other areas involving neuroscience.

Because neuroscience is a biological branch of research, it has proven particularly useful for biological therapies.

Rehabilitation of offenders

Biological psychology holds that genes and biological predisposition influence criminal behaviour. People are predisposed or prone to commit crime because it is in their genes. Or they are more inclined to commit a crime because of their gender and/or aggression levels (biologically controlled).

One aspect of this branch is the role of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers).Consider the role of serotonin in the brain.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps stabilise mood (i.e., whether you feel happy, sad, angry, etc.) and helps in areas such as sleep. Some consider it the happiness hormone, affecting how good you feel.

Cherek et al. (2002) examined the role of serotonin in human aggression in 12 male subjects with criminal histories. Six subjects received a placebo, and six received paroxetine, an antidepressant. Aggression was measured using the point-subtraction aggression paradigm (PSAP). They measured impulsivity using a reward system; those who could wait longer received better rewards.

They found that after 21 days of paroxetine administration, impulsive responses decreased, and toward the end of treatment, so did aggression. They concluded that paroxetine’s inhibition of serotonin lowers aggression levels and can be used as a treatment to reduce aggression in general.

The study raises the question of whether we can offer pharmacological treatment to criminals to reduce their impulsive behaviour and thereby lower crime rates. This treatment would benefit society as a whole and make neuroscience more ethical.

Brain abnormalities in murderers

A particularly important study is that of Raine et al. (1997).They examined the potential brain abnormalities of 41 murderers who pleaded not guilty to murder by insanity. They used positron emission tomography techniques to analyse brain structure.They found murderers were characterised by reduced glucose metabolism in their:

  1. Prefrontal cortex
  2. Superior parietal gyrus
  3. Left angular gyrus
  4. Corpus callosum

They also found asymmetrical activity levels in:

  1. The amygdala
  2. The thalamus
  3. The medial temporal lobe

They then suggested abnormalities in these areas might predispose people to murder.

If this is the case, we can identify potential murderers before they even commit murder. But is it fair to convict someone before they have ever committed a crime just because they are expected to do so based on these studies?

Treatment using neuroscience

Thanks to neuroscience research results, we have developed various methods of treating both abnormal behaviour and mental disorders.One of the most prominent examples is the introduction of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These are antidepressants used to treat mental health problems such as:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Bulimia
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

SSRIs have been shown to be useful with significant effects on those who undergo treatment. Addressing these problems makes neuroscience more ethical and provides ethical benefits through the use of neuroscience in psychology.

Ethics of Neuroscience psychology, Antidepressant drugs, StudySmarterAntidepressant drugs, flaticon.com/Freepik

As we understand more and more about the localisation of brain function, a treatment called deep brain stimulation (DBS) has also been used primarily for obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Understanding consciousness

For a long time, many people have been trying to understand the phenomena of consciousness. It is a complex field of research, and philosophers of all eras have pondered the meaning of consciousness and its significance.Crick and Koch (1998) provide insight into the depths of consciousness and what it means to be human. They argued science of consciousness should be based on the fundamentals of identifying its neural correlates. They also postulated consciousness provides useful biological stimuli that facilitate survival.

Visual consciousness, for example, allows us to experience, interpret, and think about visual events.

Crick and Koch (1998) consider the frog, which, as Milner and Goodale (1995) showed in a paper, has two separate brain systems that function unconsciously to cause the frog to jump away from large, threatening, disc-shaped objects (for safety) and to bite at small, prey-like objects (out of hunger). This response is automatic behaviour, not a conscious decision.

Therefore, Crick and Koch (1998) asked why our brains do not have specialised ‘zombie’ systems like the frog and why we have evolved such complex structures of consciousness.

Koubeissi et al. (2014) investigated the roots of consciousness in their study of a 54-year-old woman.

  • The woman had intractable epilepsy and was treated with electrode implantation and stimulation mapping.

  • Consciousness was disrupted when the electrode stimulated and disrupted function between the left claustrum and the anterior-dorsal insula.

    The claustrum is a sheet of neurons in the middle of the brain.

Koubeissi et al. investigated this process further. Stimulation of the claustrum electrode caused:

  • The complete arrest of volitional behaviour (wilful behaviour)

  • Unresponsiveness

  • Amnesia upon waking (without negative motor symptoms, or aphasia).

This disturbance did not persist after the stimulation was stopped. The researchers concluded the claustrum is an important area associated with consciousness and it can be disrupted.

With this knowledge, we can approach different areas of the brain with a better idea of how they function. Those who have problems with consciousness can then receive better-informed care. We know where the seat of consciousness might theoretically be, and decisions about life or death and what it means to be alive can be made based on more knowledge about the brain.

People who are in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) are recognised as dead by law (at least in the US). Recent research has led to the use of such a term being considered unethical. Instead, physicians now prefer to use the term ‘unresponsive waking state syndrome’ because there is an ethical debate about whether the vegetative state is entirely accurate and whether we can treat it.We can also use neuroscience research to understand whether the person in PVS is conscious fully, and if not, make a better decision about whether we should let them die through medical intervention.

Enhance neurological functioning

Neuroscience research can enhance our neurological function, which can be seen in the Kadosh et al. (2012) study.

They used transcranial direct stimulation (TDCS) that passes an electrical current through the brain (and this can be directed by placing the electrodes on specific areas). When placed in certain areas, problem-solving skills, mathematical skills, and language skills all improved.

This finding demonstrates a way to enhance the neurological functioning of human beings using neuroscience.

Ethical problems of using neuroscience in psychology

Although the ethical benefits from the use of neuroscience in psychology are evident, there are also issues, which we have touched upon with the points made above.

Neuroscience in crime and punishment

Considering the study on the brains of murderers by Raine et al. (1997), basing a judicial system on preliminary information raises ethical concerns.

Should we remove these people with abnormal brain structures from society to prevent potential murders? Is it ethical to treat them before they have done anything wrong?

Farah (2004) highlights the issue of basing our judicial system on neuroscience, correctly pointing out that personal freedom is one of the first basic human rights, and infringing upon that with neuroscience to alter ‘innate’ behaviours raises genuine concerns. It is unethical to force people into treatments that will change their behaviours, especially considering prisoners are technically vulnerable people when imprisoned.

Another question we need to ask is, who decides who gets to change who? Do we give this power to the government, and if so, how do we make sure they do not abuse this power?

Also, how do we know that the data we are using is correct? It is not uncommon for theories to be disproven, and neuroscience is a rapidly developing area of research. One paper says today may not be true tomorrow, and with better technology, what we learn can quickly be expanded upon, improved upon, and debunked.

What if the scans we perform on prisoners are also misread? Or, what if they report a false positive?

As we can see, it is a tricky area to navigate.

Ethics of Neuroscience, debate, StudySmarterEthics, flaticon.com/Freepik

Issues with treatment using neuroscience

Although the advent of SSRIs has proven effective in treatment, alongside other techniques, there are side effects we cannot ignore when using these treatment plans.

Despite the benefits, side effects such as:

  • Memory issues
  • Speech impairment issues
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Headaches
  • Fatigure
  • Sickness

Amongst other issues exist. Those with depression who take antidepressants have been reported to commit suicide at a higher rate after initially starting treatment (Ferguson et al., 2005).

Those with schizophrenia who take dopamine medication have issues with headaches, developing depression, dry mouth, and other symptoms.

Medication developed from neuroscience advancements are not perfect.

Treatments have also been misused. Homosexuality was previously believed to be a mental disorder (sexual deviation), and lobotomies, electrical stimulation, and chemical castration were all avenues of possible ‘treatment’ plans to cure it.

There is also the issue of being able to ‘pinpoint’ consciousness for those in a vegetative state. Does this mean doctors have the right to turn off life support for those scientifically deemed ‘unconscious’?

Kadosh et al. (2012) point out there is currently no restrictions on who can use the TDCS. As a result, improperly trained practitioners could offer TDCS as a treatment that could be dangerous if not used in a proper way or in unsuitable brain areas.

Social and economic issues in ethical uses of neuroscience

As neuroscience is a rapidly developing area of study, it has made significant advancements in research techniques.

Brain organoids are stem cells used to produce brain structures to be studied outside of the body; they are artificially grown.

  • Previous research relied on the use of corpses to identify brain structures.

  • When we invented imaging techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) and computerised tomography (CT) scans, these processes evolved.

  • As a result, access to researching areas of the brain increased. However, the implantation of these organoids raises ethical concerns. We could technically implant a human brain organoid into a dog, and see how the dog deals with this.

There are also issues with neuromarketing.

  • Consider how much information companies around the world have on you now. They analyse your browsing preferences, information, how long you look at a video, what videos you like, and how quickly you swipe off of an image.

  • All of this is compiled to create an ‘image’ of who you are, and using this, they then use targeting techniques to direct specific content to you.

  • These techniques can influence your decisions.

  • When they access our inner thoughts, it raises ethical concerns, which worsens with the betterment of neuroscientific techniques in analysing patterns and the human conscious.

Consider a study by Nelson (2008), where they found that the use of MRI scans to investigate brain function used by economic firms has risen in recent years. There have been incidental findings (findings of medical conditions discovered unintentionally). Yet, these are not properly addressed – 5% of brain scans used by these firms found evidence of brain tumours and other problems. Researchers are then not obliged to inform participants about this – they do not have to follow ethical guidelines, as they are not medical professionals.

However, how much money can effectively treat disorders such as depression save is something to consider. Thomas and Morris (2003) found that the cost of depression amongst adults in England in 2000 was around £9 billion. 109.7 million working days were lost, and 2,615 deaths were recorded due to depression. It would be ethically correct to treat these disorders.

However, looking at mental health issues from a monetary angle poses its issues.


Ethics of Neuroscience - Key takeaways

  • The ethics of neuroscience debate is one of the more contemporary debates out there.
  • The ethics of neuroscience debate poses the ethical benefits of using neuroscience in psychology (including rehabilitating offenders, improving treatment techniques, and understanding consciousness). Still, it also raises ethical concerns (pre-emptive incarceration or treatment of potential criminals based on previous findings on abnormal brain structures, infringement of human rights through forced treatment to alter innate behaviours, and the side effects of treatments).
  • Areas we tend to focus on when concerning ethics of neuroscience are:
    • Research (sample selection, animal rights, diseases in research)

    • Therapy (psychosurgery and personal identity, criminal behaviour)

    • Why there is a debate at all (concepts such as eugenics, moral responsibility, and free will)

    • Related theories (cognitive and biological theories, including the concept of free will.
  • Ethical benefits of using neuroscience in psychology include the rehabilitation of offenders, the treatment of mental health disorders, and its role in increasing understanding of how the brain works. Studies have identified where the seat of consciousness may lie (Koubeissi et al., 2014). We can also improve neurological functioning with neuroscience.

  • The socioeconomic benefits include better treatment plans and less crime in society; however, looking at the brain and human nature through monetary value raises concerns.


1. G.R. VandenBos, APA dictionary of psychology. American Psychological Association, 2007

2. J. Olds & P. Milner, Positive reinforcement produced by electrical stimulation of septal area and other regions of rat brain. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 47(6), 419–427., 1954

Frequently Asked Questions about Ethics of Neuroscience

In psychology, we have to consider the following ethical issues:


  1. Informed consent
  2. Voluntary participation
  3. Protection of the participants
  4. Confidentiality
  5. Anonymity
  6. The right to withdraw
  7. Debriefing

Yes and no. The ethics of neuroscience debate poses the ethical benefits of using neuroscience in psychology (including the rehabilitation of offenders, the betterment of treatment techniques, and understanding consciousness), but it also raises ethical concerns (pre-emptive incarceration or treatment of potential criminals based on previous findings on abnormal brain structures, infringement of human rights through forced treatment to alter innate behaviours, and the side effects of treatments).

The most important ethical issues arise in ensuring the person is protected, respected, and not unfairly targeted or excluded. 

Concerning the structure of the brain, this depends entirely on which area controls behaviours, emotions, and conscious decision making. We can suggest the frontal lobe plays a prominent role in morality, and as such, controls a portion of ethics. 

Ethical considerations in neuroscience are important as they ensure we are conducting research with the safety of our participants in mind. This reduces the likelihood of psychological and physiological harm occurring and increases our knowledge and awareness of subjects within neuroscience. 

Final Ethics of Neuroscience Quiz

Question

What are ethics in psychology?

Show answer

Answer

According to the APA Dictionary, ethics in psychology is defined as:


‘The principles of morally right conduct accepted by a person or a group or considered appropriate to a specific field. For example, in psychological research, proper ethics requires that participants be treated fairly and without harm and that investigators report results and findings honestly.’


Ethics ensure research is conducted fairly, honourably, and according to a moral code.

Show question

Question

Is neuroscience ethical in psychology?

Show answer

Answer

Yes and no. The ethics of neuroscience debate poses the ethical benefits of using neuroscience in psychology (including the rehabilitation of offenders, the betterment of treatment techniques, and understanding consciousness), but it also raises ethical concerns (pre-emptive incarceration or treatment of potential criminals based on previous findings on abnormal brain structures, infringement of human rights through forced treatment to alter innate behaviours, and the side effects of treatments).

Show question

Question

What four areas are the ethics in neuroscience concerned with?

Show answer

Answer

Research, therapy, the reason for the debate, and related theories (including cognitive and biological theories, neuromarketing, and free will).

Show question

Question

What did Olds and Milner (1954) find in their modified version of the Skinner Box?

Show answer

Answer

They found the rats would favour pressing the lever to stimulate the pleasure centre of the brain over eating, drinking, and raising their young, even if this meant death.

Show question

Question

How many times did the highest-scoring septal rat in the Olds and Milner (1954) study press the lever in 12 hours?

Show answer

Answer

7500

Show question

Question

What implications did Olds and Milner’s (1954) study have on neuroscience?

Show answer

Answer

Issues arose when this experiment was used on human patients. Usually, these were the mentally ill, and electrode stimulated brain areas were used in experiments to see if certain ailments could be cured (including homosexuality, which was classed as a mental disorder).

Show question

Question

What are the ethical benefits of neuroscience in psychology?

Show answer

Answer

The rehabilitation of offenders, the betterment of treatment techniques, and understanding consciousness.

Show question

Question

What are the ethical issues in the use of neuroscience in psychology?

Show answer

Answer

The use of pre-emptive incarceration or treatment of potential criminals based on previous findings on abnormal brain structures, infringement of human rights through forced treatment to alter innate behaviours, and the side effects of treatments.

Show question

Question

What did Raine et al. (1997) find in their study on brain abnormalities in murderers?

Show answer

Answer

They found murderers were characterised by reduced glucose metabolism in their:


  1. Prefrontal cortex
  2. Superior parietal gyrus
  3. Left angular gyrus
  4. Corpus callosum


They also found asymmetrical activity levels in:


  1. The amygdala
  2. The thalamus
  3. The medial temporal lobe

Show question

Question

What treatments have been created using neuroscience research?

Show answer

Answer

SSRIs, electrostimulation treatments, and deep brain stimulation are a few examples.

Show question

Question

What did Crick and Koch (1998) say was important in understanding consciousness in neuroscience?

Show answer

Answer

They argued science of consciousness should rely on the foundations of identifying its neural correlates. They also postulated consciousness provides helpful biological boosts that aid survival. 

Show question

Question

What did Koubeissi et al. (2014) find in their study on a 54-year-old epileptic woman?

Show answer

Answer

Stimulation of the claustrum electrode caused:


  • The complete arrest of volitional behaviour (wilful behaviour)
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Amnesia upon waking (without negative motor symptoms or aphasia).


They concluded that the claustrum is an important area associated with consciousness that can be disrupted. 

Show question

Question

How is understanding consciousness an ethical benefit in neuroscience?

Show answer

Answer

With this knowledge, we can approach different areas of the brain with a better idea of how they function. Those who have problems with consciousness can then receive better-informed care. We know where the seat of consciousness might theoretically be, and decisions about life or death and what it means to be alive can be made based on more knowledge about the brain (in the case of people in a persistent vegetative state, for example). 

Show question

Question

Who found that we can improve neurological functioning with transcranial direct stimulation, and how is this an ethical benefit?

Show answer

Answer

Kadosh et al. (2012) demonstrate a way to enhance the neurological functioning of human beings using neuroscience.

Show question

Question

What did Farah (2004) highlight about the issues with basing judicial systems on neuroscientific research?

Show answer

Answer

They pointed out that personal freedom is one of the first fundamental human rights, and infringing upon that with neuroscience to alter ‘innate’ behaviours raises genuine concerns. It is unethical to force people into treatments that will change their behaviours, especially considering prisoners are technically vulnerable people when imprisoned.

Show question

Question

What issues with neuroscientific treatments exist?

Show answer

Answer

Side effects such as memory and speech issues, the rising cases of suicides in those with depression taking antidepressants, and headaches, fatigue, and sickness (amongst other issues).

Show question

Question

What are brain organoids?

Show answer

Answer

Brain organoids are artificially grown stem cells used to produce brain structures to be studied outside of the body.

Show question

Question

How are brain organoids an ethical concern in neuroscience?

Show answer

Answer

Whilst this increased access to researching areas of the brain, the implantation of these organoids raises ethical concerns. We could technically implant a human brain organoid into a dog, and see how the dog would deal with this.

Show question

Question

How is neuromarketing an ethical concern in neuroscience?

Show answer

Answer

Considering how much information companies worldwide have on you now, they can target and influence your decisions and behaviours based on algorithms.


Nelson (2008) also found that 5% of scans used by financial firms found abnormalities, and these researchers are not required to report them to the participant. 

Show question

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