Ethical Guidelines in the Works for Developers of Brain Technologies

The IEEE Brain Initiative seeks volunteers to help frame ethical, legal, and social issues for neurotechnologists to consider

3 min read
Illustration of a brain
Illustration: iStockphoto

THE INSTITUTE For neuroengineers and others who are developing technologies to fix diseases of the human brain, the work can be fascinating. After all, the brain guides the decisions we make. But neuroscientific research is fraught with moral and ethical dilemmas concerning the potential uses and misuses of technology.

To help navigate that tricky area, the IEEE Brain neuroethics subcommittee recently released the first public version of its IEEE Neuroethics Framework.

A work in progress, the document is organized into a matrix that covers five types of neurotechnologies including those used to stimulate the nervous system or control it. It then breaks down the technologies into current and potential applications. Examples include optimizing a student’s learning abilities to excel in school or modifying an employee’s brain to make the worker more efficient. Within each application the framework explains the ethical, legal, and social issues that might arise from the use of technology.

“Brain science generates a number of ethical issues, and any attempts to assess and/or affect the brain—ergo the mind and the self—have profound philosophical, social, cultural, and perhaps even religious implications,” says James J. Giordano, chair of the subcommittee. The Professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C., and Chief of the Neuroethics Studies Program at the university’s Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics is an IEEE senior member.

“We want to ensure the research being done is conducted in a way that’s responsible,” Giordano says. “In addition to building neural technologies well, we’re seeking and striving to guide and direct how such research will be used in ways that are morally, ethically, and legally sound.”

The framework was created by a multidisciplinary group of experts from the fields of engineering, technology, science, philosophy, anthropology, ethics, and law.

Ready to go

The document looks at techniques and technologies that are capable of assessing and affecting brain structure and function, and also that will be fully developed and either ready for use, or in use, within the next two to five years, Giordano says.

The matrix is organized into five columns of neurotechnological methods: recording/sensing, stimulating/actuating, controlling, direct physical and biological modification, and augmentation and facilitation. The nine rows represent potential applications of those methods in the areas of medicine; wellness; education; the workplace; military/national security; sports and competitions; entertainment; analytics, marketing and advertising; and the justice system.


Several application working groups have been launched this year to begin discussion and develop content to expand the IEEE Neuroethics Framework. The education application working group has created several dilemmas, for example. Using technologies to modulate or stimulate the brain include issues of coercion, with implications of mind control, as well as the creation of students with enhanced mental abilities, known as super scholars, who could have an unfair advantage over other students. Two of the questions the medicine working group is grappling with are: What is meant by health in a neurological context? Could neurotechnologies cause mental disorders?

The application working groups plan to share their documents with the public to get input and engender involvement from other stakeholders.

“It will be a usable, living document that is iterative and modifiable,” Giordano says. “The document will represent those things that are factual, not fictional or merely speculative. The ethical, legal, and social issues will be addressed in a way that is cosmopolitan and will seek to illustrate the implications, issues, questions, and potential solution paths that would be tenable.”

Giordano says he expects the process to be completed by late next year.

If you’re interested in volunteering to help complete the matrix, fill out this form.

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