Food for thought: brain research in the EU
Neuroscience research should develop hand-in-hand with reflections on neuroethics.
The cost of disorders of the brain in Europe is estimated by the European Brain Council to amount to about 300 billion euros from the beginning of the current year until the time this article was written (end of May). The continuous ageing of the European population will do nothing but aggravate the situation: one in three persons are expected to be affected by such disorders during their lifetime. Neuroscience, the basic research into the brain, is the key to addressing this challenge. And the EU is aware of it.
A better understanding of the brain will strongly impact on the field of pharmacology, driving innovation in Europe's pharmaceutical industry; and also in the field of neurosurgery, minimizing the occurrence of adverse events – loss of memory, emotional troubles – that might prevail. Healthier ageing and a better control of neurodegenerative diseases – Alzheimers, Parkinsons – will also be a highly positive consequence of such research.
Taking this into consideration, research on chronic conditions and diseases, including neurological and neurogenerative ones, is a key feature of the section «Societal Challenges» of Horizon 2020, the EU research and innovation programme running from 2014 to 2020. Moreover, in the ambit of the section «Excellent Science», one of the FET (Future and emerging technologies) flagships is the HBP, the Human Brain Project , expected to last ten years and aiming at better understanding the human brain so as to develop new diagnostic tools and treatments for brain disorders and new technologies with brain-like intelligence, such as neuromorphic computing.
Within HBP, the initiative FETPROACT 2 – 2014 «addresses the interdisciplinary fundamentals of knowing, thinking, doing and being, in close synergy with foundational research on future artificial cognitive systems, robots, smart artefacts and large scale cyber-physical systems » in order to take such systems (in the context of smart infrastructures and cities for example) «beyond the level of dull task execution or repetitive problem solving». HBP's European Research Programme on the themes of the flagship will bring together academics, national funding agencies and industry groups for exchange of information and to agree areas and forms of possible collaboration. Innovation-driving partnerships with industry will be specially cultivated.
Major ethical considerations
Owing to the particular nature of its subject, use of non-invasive techniques (brain imaging for example) should be given preference in neurosciences research, as much as animal experimentation prior to experimentation on human beings.
The development of neurosciences will also help better understand situations which are ethically very problematic such as the post-coma unresponsiveness state (see Opinion of COMECE’s Reflection Group on Bioethics) and brain death. Moreover, a deeper knowledge of the brain and of the origins of our perceptions, thoughts and emotions – indeed, of our consciousness – will permit, in general, to more effectively influence human behaviour. Such influence might be legitimate in a therapeutic context, where the behaviour concerned is a source of suffering for the patient (linked with anxiety or depression for example) and not simply a result of a failure to adapt to the prevalent moral or political values of the society.
Any such influence will always have an impact on free will and responsibility and even on the identity of the person. As will also be the case in the application of the knowledge of the brain, particularly when associated with the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) implants, for purposes of human enhancement (cyborgs, post-humanism), an issue already tackled in an Opinion of the European Group on Ethics of the European Commission and in COMECE’s Reflection Group on Bioethics. Artificial intelligence and brain-machine interfaces are also associated with a modern quest for ‘immortality’. At the limit, it is our own understanding of what makes us distinctively human that might be at stake.
Finally, there are also concerns with regard to the abuse of the increased knowledge of the brain to develop computational cognitive architectures aimed at implementing new systems of mass surveillance and new weaponry.
In the ambit of the HBP, a specific sub-project called «Ethics and Society», absorbing 3% of the total budget, is dedicated to foster debate on such ethical challenges as the above-mentioned among researchers, stakeholders and the different currents of ethical thought present in our society.