Neuroscience and Society Dialogue

Note: This SNC'11 event is open to general public and no registration is required.

Ethical dilemmas in neuroscience

Through their brief presentations and a moderated panel discussion, a group of scientists will tackle some of the ethical dilemmas facing neuroscientists and society today, and answer select questions from the audience.

The Topic

Our brains are responsible for all our thoughts and actions. The ethics of neuroscience research is, then, philosophically intriguing. Is the organ of ethics capable of explaining its own ethical judgements and behaviour? Beyond this little philosophical paradox, it is clear that research on the brain, and its applications in everyday life, raise important ethical questions.

  • Is it acceptable to use animals in research, especially when that research is directed at understanding diseases or processes (such as pain) that are likely to cause suffering?
  • Should we set limits to the use of neuroscientific techniques (especially neuroimaging) to monitor personal, subjective experiences and intentions, and the use of methods of brain stimulation to methods of modulating and modifying brain activity and behaviour?
  • How should we approach the potential military use of neuroscientific knowledge (e.g. the possible development of new methods of incapacitating or altering the thought processes of populations?
  • Do we need to reconsider the basis of our legal systems as our understanding of the causal basis of decision-making casts doubt on the standard concepts of free will and responsibility?

Consideration of ethical issues arising from advances in science should not be left to scientists alone: the general public and politicians must be involved in making difficult ethical decisions. But scientists themselves should lead the debate. Neuroscientists have a responsibility to inform the public about the ethical issues raised by their research, and to provide the information and evidence on which sensible decisions can be made.

The Panelists

Colin Blakemore Colin Blakemore, FMedSci, FRS, is Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Oxford. He studied Medical Sciences at Cambridge, completed a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, and taught at Cambridge for 11 years. In 1979 he became Waynflete Professor of Physiology in Oxford, where he also directed the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience. From 2003-2007 he was Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council. His research has been concerned with many aspects of vision, early development of the brain and plasticity of the cerebral cortex. He has been President of the British Neuroscience Association, the Physiological Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Society of Biology. He is also strongly committed to public communication and engagement.


Jože Trontelj Jože Trontelj, physician, PhD in neurosciences, Professor of neurology. His research has focused on microphysiology of human reflexes, neuromuscular electrophysiology and disorders. He contributed to development of Single Fibre Electromyography, a sensitive method in diagnosis of disorders of neuromuscular transmission. Most of his recent publications are on bioethical issues, such as dignity of the human being and human rights at the beginning and end of life. In 1991 he was elected to the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts and became its President in 2008. He chairs the National Medical Ethics Committee and serves as a Slovenian delegate in the Steering Committee on Bioethics of the Council of Europe.


Marian Joels Marian Joels studied biology in Amsterdam and obtained her PhD degree in Utrecht with David de Wied. She held postdoctoral positions at the University of Texas and at the Scripps Institute in La Jolla. Between 1991 and 2009 she worked at the University of Amsterdam. In 2009 she moved to Utrecht where she currently is professor in Neuroscience and director of the Rudolf Magnus Institute. Her scientific work focuses on the effect of stress on the morphology and function of neurons, in health and disease. She published around 200 papers. Since 2002 she is a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.


Gilberto Pizzolato Gilberto Pizzolato, M.D. is Full Professor of Neurology at the University of Trieste, Director of the local Neurologic Clinic and Residency program in Neurology, and past Director of the B.R.A.I.N. Centre of the University of Trieste. He undertook his professional and academic training at the Neuroscience Department of the University of Padua and at the Laboratory of Neuroscience, National Institute on Aging, N.I.H., Bethesda. His main clinical and research focus has been the neurodegenerative diseases of the CNS (dementia and Parkinson disease), particularly with regard to therapeutic interventions and diagnostic approaches using functional neuroimaging techniques (PET and SPECT). More recently, in collaboration with the Neurobiology Sector of the International School for Advanced Studies of Trieste, he has been interested in genomic studies in the same diseases.


Srećko Gajović Srećko Gajović, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Histology and Embryology at the University of Zagreb School of Medicine, Head of Section for Neurogenetics, Cytogenetics and Developmental Genetics at Croatian Institute for Brain Research. His teaching activities cover from neuroscience, histology and embryology to molecular genetics. In his research he uses transgenic animals and stem cells addressing the reparative and regenerative processes after brain damage, in particular after ischemic injury. He is Vice-Chair of the Working Group for Ethical Evaluation of Research on Humans, and a member of the Working Group for Ethical Evaluation of Research on Animals at his institution. He is a member of COST (Coopoeration in Science and Technology) Action „Bio-objects and their Boundaries: Governing Matters at the Intersection of Society, Politics and Science“. Within the COST system he serves as Vice-Chair of the Domain Commitee for Biomedicine and Molecular Biosciences. He is President of Croatian Microscopy Society. Recently, he became the Editor-in-Chief of Croatian Medical Journal, a leading medical journal in the region.


Luka Omladič Luka Omladič, Ph.D., researcher and assistant at philosophy department of University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Arts. His main research interests are bioethics, environmental ethics and political philosophy. He engages in scientific journalism and is a frequent commentator on environmental topics on public media. He is also the initiator of annual Ljubljana bioethical conference.


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