Unpicking the impact of brain research

30 April 2010

A major new project, which will investigate developments in neuroscience and their implications for society, is to be carried out by the Royal Society, the UK’s independent science academy, with the first of a series of five reports to be published in the Autumn.

Module one of the Brain Waves project will be a broad assessment of the relevance of neuroscience to areas of public policy. This report will outline what we now know – and do not yet know – about the brain, the current state of technologies to study the brain, and the ways in which brain research might develop in the coming decades.

Neuroscience: insights for policy will address such issues as the ethics of neuroscience technologies and their commercialisation.  It will also discuss the benefits and risks of neuroscience for society, while reviewing past aspirations and failures in this field, as well as the popular perceptions and misrepresentations of brain research.  It aims to consider where neuroscience is heading and what the key areas for decision-making might be to maximise the benefits while minimising any risks for society.

The project is being led by a Steering Group chaired by Professor Colin Blakemore FRS. Commenting on why this project is so timely, he says:

“Our increasing understanding of the brain and associated advances in technologies to study the brain, including the human brain, are beginning to give us the tools to improve the treatments for neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and mental illnesses, including depression and schizophrenia. But these advances will also increase our insights into normal human behaviour and mental wellbeing, as well as giving the possibility of enhancement, manipulation and degradation of brain function.

Brain research is likely to have have huge implications for society.  We need to do something that scientists usually don’t like to do – to speculate about the future. There’s a lot to think about and we must begin now the process of providing the best possible information in areas of public policy such as health, education, law, and security. Progess in neuroscience is going to throw up all sorts of questions about personality,  identity, responsibility and liberty. We need to be prepared to answer and respond to those questions.”

The successive reports will focus on the following topics:

Neuroscience, education and lifelong learning -  How can neuroscience help explain (and potentially enhance) memory, creativity, attention, motivation and other brain processes that are essential for learning? The project will look at these issues as well as the challenges, opportunities and limitations of applying the lessons from neuroscience to learning in the classroom and beyond.

Neuroscience, conflict and arms control - Addressing concerns around the military and security applications of rapid advances in the neurosciences; the risks of ‘militarisation’ of neuroscience. These include indications that advances in neuropharmacology are stimulating new interest in the development of toxic chemical and biological agents as incapacitating weapons. These would target the central nervous system to degrade human cognition, performance, or consciousness.

Neuroscience, responsibility and the law –Assessingthe possible future impact of brain research on the legal system.  This could include such issues as the possible prediction of criminality, behaviour change, surveillance and mental privacy, as well as wider discussion about what neuroscience could mean for understandings of decision-making, intention, responsibility and free will.

Lessons for the governance of novel areas of science and new technologies -  Bringing together lessons and common themes from the first 4 reports, this part will reflect on the governance, regulation and public accountability of science and technology, principally for neuroscience but also for other developing areas of science and technology, such as synthetic biology, genomics and nanotechnology.

The project is expected to conclude in Summer 2011. Find further information on the Brain Waves project.