The field of neuroethics is relatively new, having been formally inaugurated at a conference only in 2002. Neuroethics was created because of new questions and concerns arising out of the rapidly developing fields of neuroscience and neurotechnology. Scientists have been making significant progress in observing previously unobservable operations of the brain. And technologies with the potential to heal, interact with, and perhaps even control elements of the human brain and behavior are rapidly becoming available.
Scientists have long understood that there is a connection between the normal and injured brain, and distinctive human behaviors. One of the first insights into this connection came in the strange case of Phineas Gage, an American railroad worker who was terribly injured in 1848. When Gage used an iron rod to tap down a charge of gunpowder, a premature explosion shot the rod through his cheek and out the top of his head, passing through his left frontal lobe. Gage survived the accident, but his personality underwent a total change. Gage went from being a quiet, even-tempered man to a being a rude man who often indulged in profanities. Since then scientists have sought to better understand the structure and functioning of the brain.
From the late 20th century, cutting -edge technologies have begun fulfilling these aspirations. The use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) — using magnetic waves as a kind of “radar” to track the electrical impulses of neurons in the brain — is among the most important. fMRI has been used to learn whether patients in profound states of unconsciousness (a.k.a. PVS) have any awareness (short answer: “probably yes”). fMRI also has been used to locate a part of the brain which appears to be active when people make moral judgments, and then to experiment with disrupting the neurons to see if it changes people’s ability to make those moral judgments. A more recent experiment with animals involves seeding their brains with “neural dust” — hundreds of sensors the size of a grain of rice to monitor brain activity. With emerging nanotechnology, scientists hope to shrink these sensors to a microscopic size and use them to stimulate the brain in various ways to obtain some desired result.
What should Catholics be thinking and doing as the fields of neuroscience and neuroethics develop? They should find ways to become engaged, affirming the good work being done, identifying the potential for abuse, and seeking to keep all of the knowledge and power gained within a framework of Christian anthropology. Advancing a Christian anthropology at this time is critical because trends in neuroscience can support some approaches to the human person which are potentially harmful, such as thinking that humans are essentially machines or objects, or that the soul is nothing but complex matter.
Apart from integrating neuroscience and neuroethics with the Church’s understanding of the dignity of the human person, and with the main tenets of the moral tradition, Catholics should be engaged as new opportunities and issues arise. For example, Catholics should be encouraged to enter these fields, to better understand and help human persons. St. Augustine famously said that “A good and true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature, but rejecting superstitious vanities . . .” Catholics should feel free to participate in well- designed, safe, and ethical research projects. They should learn the science and skills necessary to use neuroscience for legitimate ends, and then prioritize applications related to healing significant illness and injuries, such as epilepsy, strokes, and significant states of unconsciousness.
The challenges to life and human dignity are not going to diminish. But we can help to improve the field of neuroethics so that neuroscience and neurotechnology contribute to human flourishing in the orders of Creation and Redemption.
JOHN F. BREHANY, PH.D., STL, is director of institutional relations at the National Catholic Bioethics Center (Philadelphia) and past executive director of the Catholic Medical Association.