Thomas Edison, one of the great minds of the second industrial revolution, once said that “the chief function of the body is to carry the brain around.” Understanding the human brain – how it works, and how it is afflicted by diseases and disorders – is an important frontier in science and society today.
Advances in neuroscience and technology increasingly impact intellectual wellbeing, education, business, and social norms. Recent findings confirm the plasticity of the brain over the individual’s life. Imaging technologies and brain stimulation technologies are opening up totally new approaches in treating disease and potentially augmenting cognitive capacity. Unravelling the brain’s many secrets will have profound societal implications that require a closer “contract” between science and society.
Convergence across physical science, engineering, biological science, social science and humanities has boosted innovation in brain science and technological innovation. It offers large potential for a systems biology approach to unify heterogeneous data from “omics” tools, imaging technologies such as fMRI, and behavioural science.
Citizen science – the convergence between science and society – already proved successful in EyeWire where people competed to map the 1,000-neuron connectome of the mouse retina. Also, the use of nanoparticles as coating of implanted abiotic devices offers great potential to improve the immunologic acceptance of invasive diagnostics. Brain-inspired neuromorphic engineering aims to develop novel computer systems with brain-like characteristics, including low energy consumption, adequate fault tolerance, self-learning capabilities, and some sort of intelligence. Here, the convergence of nanotechnology with neuroscience could help building neuro-inspired computer chips; brain-machine interfaces and robots with artificial intelligence systems.
Future opportunities for cognitive enhancement for improved attentiveness, memory, decision making, and control through, for example, non-invasive brain stimulation and neural implants have raised, and shall continue to raise, profound ethical, legal, and social questions. What is societally acceptable and desirable, both now and in the future?
At a recent OECD workshop, we identified five possible systemic changes that could help speed up neurotechnology developments to meet pressing health challenges and societal needs.
1. Responsible research
There is growing interest in discussing and unpacking the ethical and societal aspects of brain science as the technologies and applications are developed. Much can be learned from other experiences in disruptive innovation. The international Human Genome Project (1990-2003), for example, was one of the earlier large-scale initiatives in which social scientists worked in parallel with the natural sciences in order to consider the ethical, legal and social issues (ELSI) of their work.
The deliberation of ELSI and Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) in nanotechnologies is another example of how societies, in some jurisdictions, have approached R&D activities, and the role of the public in shaping, or at least informing, their trajectory. RRI knits together activities that previously seemed sporadic. According to Jack Stilgoe, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London, the aim of responsible innovation is to connect the practice of research and innovation in the present to the futures that it promises.
Frameworks, such as ELSI and RRI should more actively engage patients and patient organisations early in the development cycle, and in a meaningful way. This could be achieved through continuous public platforms and policy discussion instead of traditional one-off public engagement and the deliberation of scientific advances and ELSI through culture and art.
Research funders – public agencies, private investors, foundations, as well as universities themselves – are particularly well positioned to shape trajectories of technology and society. Through their funding power, they have unique capacity to help place scientific work within social, ethical, and regulatory contexts.
It is an opportune time for funders to: 1) strengthen the array of approaches and mechanisms for building a robust and meaningful neurotechnology landscape that meaningfully engages human values and is informed by it; 2) discuss options to foster open and responsible innovation; and 3) better understand the opportunities and challenges for building joint initiatives in research and product development.
2. Anticipatory governance
Society and industry would benefit from earlier, and more inclusive, discussions about the ethical, legal and social implications of how neurotechnologies are being developed and their entry onto the market. For example, the impact of neuromodulatory devices that promise to enhance cognition, alter mood, or improve physical performance on human dignity, privacy, and equitable access could be considered earlier in the research and development process.
3. Open innovation
Given the significant investment risks and high failure rates of clinical trials in central nervous systems disorders, companies could adopt more open innovation approaches in which public and private stakeholders actively collaborate, share assets including intellectual property, and invest together.
4. Avoiding neuro-hype
Popular media is full of colourful brain images used to illustrate stories about neuroscience. Unproven health claims, including those which give rise to so-called ‘neuro-hype’ and ‘neuro-myths’. Misinformation is a strong possibility where scientific work potentially carries major social implications (for example, work on mental illness, competency, intelligence, etc).
It has the potential to result in public mistrust and to undermine the formation of markets. There is a need for evidence-based policies and guidelines to help the responsible development and use of neurotechnology in medical practice and in over-the-counter products. Policymakers and regulators could lead the development of a clear path to translate neurotechnology discoveries into human health advantages that are commercially viable and sustainable.
5. Access and equity
Policymakers should discuss the socio-economic questions raised by neurotechnology. Rising disparities in access to often high-priced medical innovation require tailored solutions for poorer countries. The development of public-private partnerships and simplification of technology help access to innovation in resource-limited countries.
In addition to helping people with neurological and psychiatric disorders, the biggest cause of disability worldwide, neurotechnologies will shape every aspect of society in the future. A roadmap for guiding responsible research and innovation in neurotechnology may be transformative.