Tuesday, January 24, 2006


Things to THINK About/Love them Pharmaceutical Cos.

Who is messing with your head?

23 January 2006
NewScientist.com news service
Helen Phillips

WHAT if there was a drug that helped you do your job better, and your boss was pressuring you to take it, even though it could be bad for your health? There are already drugs that can boost memory or alertness, but whose long-term effects are unknown. Or what if scientists could tell what you were thinking or planning to do before you knew it yourself? Brain scans can now do this. Should these drugs and procedures be regulated - or permitted at all?

That is the inspiration for the "Meeting of minds" project, a brainchild of Belgian organisation the King Baudouin Foundation. For the past two years, a citizens' panel of 126 Europeans from different age groups and backgrounds has been considering the ethical dilemmas emerging from brain science research. This weekend they are meeting in the Belgian capital, Brussels, to finalise their recommendations before presenting them to the European Parliament on 23 January (see "Causes for concern").

"This is something new that we have to deal with from a legislative and social point of view," says Axel Cleeremans, director of the cognitive science research unit at the Free University of Brussels (ULB), who is taking part in this weekend's discussion. Just this week, researchers at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia, revealed the possibility of a genetic test that could predict whether or not someone was likely to develop bipolar disorder (Molecular Psychiatry, DOI: 10.1038/sj.mp4001784), while researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, suggest that injecting immune cells into the brain might slow cognitive decline in old age (Nature Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1038/nn1629).

"We are already performing the equivalent of plastic surgery on the brain," says Cleeremans, through processes such as deep brain stimulation, which is used to treat Parkinson's but can also have an effect on mood and behaviour.

There are big questions to be answered, Cleeremans says: do we really want cognitive enhancement via surgery or medication, and if so how do we regulate it? It is already possible to detect a person's intention or perceptions regardless of whether they are aware of them, and even if they try to cover them up. How will we deal with issues such as privacy and responsibility?

Panel member Sue Burne, a freelance artist from the UK, says some of the most interesting debates have focused on the issue of what it is to be normal: working out where creativity or eccentricity end and illness begins. Another tricky issue is the increasing level of brain disease, including dementia, depression and some brain cancers, which will affect our ageing population. "We are quite happy for many of the wonderful advances," she says.

"The issues were more about fair distribution and access to information." Steven Rose, a neuroscientist from the UK's Open University and an adviser to the project, says the discussions and some of the recommendations put forward by the citizens' panel have been useful. "While some of the recommendations are statements of hope and apple pie, some are more specific and useful. If we have a set of principles, they should be helpful to policy-makers."

Causes for concern

The "Meeting of minds" panel has highlighted several areas that politicians need to pay attention to:

Policy and regulation: Funding fundamental research.
Strengthening patients' rights and the role of citizens in policy and regulation.

Normalcy versus diversity: Discussing the divide between normal and pathological personalities. Dealing with the possibilities of brain enhancement.

Economic pressures: Encouraging research with a low potential for profit. Promoting alternatives to medical treatment.

Access to treatment: Recognising the future burden of brain disease and mental health.

Freedom of choice: Making informed choice and consent possible.

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