The CSNE Neuroethics Roundtable explores tough ethical issues 

Wayne Gillam

"What is a Neuroethics Roundtable?" you may ask. Simply put, it's a gathering of those who are actively engaged in the fields of neuroscience, neurosurgery and neural engineering to discuss, collaborate, and increase awareness and understanding of the ethical aspects of their work. The Roundtable is a place of commonality, providing a shared space for attendees to connect neuroethics to their own areas of expertise in science, medicine or research. Presentations given at the Roundtable inform attendees about what research the CSNE neuroethicists are working on, provide an opportunity to discuss current research in progress, and encourage reflection on how neuroethics can positively impact practical, day-to-day realities.

The latest Neuroethics Roundtable was held at the CSNE on Wednesday, April 6, and it was facilitated by Dr. Laura Specker Sullivan, Postdoctoral Neuroethics Fellow at the CSNE. Participants included neuroscientists, neurosurgeons, researchers, graduate students and lab assistants.

The session began with a presentation by Dr. Specker Sullivan, who is involved in on-going research on Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI). She is interested in exploring the given justifications for BCI research using qualitative analysis, a method of examining meaningful themes that can't easily be quantified. She hopes this research will point towards ways researchers can be more reflective about the reasons that justify their work and the broader ethical implications of their research.

After the presentation, Roundtable attendees discussed questions about ethics in neural engineering such as:

• How are BCIs and BCI-studies defined? 

• What does successful neural engineering look like from a neuro-ethical standpoint? 

• What are common justifications for neural engineering research using human subjects? 

• How do we encourage researchers to look more carefully at end-user needs and feedback, factoring that into their rationale and justification for research?

• How do we ensure that clinical applications for BCI research are identified, and go beyond simply improving technology for the sake of technology?

• How do we deal with the ramifications of multiple uses of BCI technology outside of the medical field?

Attendees then divided into small groups to discuss a host of neuroethical issues and topics, which included informed consent for Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) research, how to best respect an individual's autonomy, ethical risks and liabilities involved with research subjects, and how to know when an adverse event is reason to stop experimentation and/or research.

Attendees in one of the small groups also focused on questions around ethics education for researchers. For many people, it can be surprising to learn that most university-level science and engineering programs have little to no ethical training embedded within their curriculum.

As Dr. Specker Sullivan stated, "When I think about engineering and science ethics, it's similar to medical ethics when it first started. People realized that medical ethics were important, that physicians needed ethics training, but there weren't yet pedagogical (teaching) models to make that training possible."

The CSNE neuroethicists, Dr. Specker Sullivan, Dr. Sara Goering and Dr. Eran Klein are exploring, creating and developing pedagogical models for neuroethical education at the university-level. They are also actively involved in finding creative ways, like the Neuroethics Roundtable, to help make neuroethical content, guidelines and discussions easily available to the CSNE students, faculty and staff. Over the long-term, pedagogical models developed at the CSNE have the potential to be applied and adopted by higher-education institutions, both nationally and internationally.

There have been three Neuroethics Roundtables that have taken place in the past year. The first was conducted with the CSNE researchers at San Diego State University, The second with the CSNE researchers and graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and this latest Roundtable, which took place at the CSNE on the University of Washington campus. Plans are currently being formed to hold the next Roundtable within the July to August 2016 timeframe. For more information about neuroethics or the CSNE Neuroethics Roundtable, please contact Dr. Laura Specker Sullivan, Postdoctoral Neuroethics Fellow at the CSNE.