The Neuroethics and Feasibility of Genetic Engineering on the Nervous System

Therapeutic Neuro-Genetic Engineering

For a long time now, genetic research has been conducted on criminality, addiction, aggression, altruism, impulsivity, sexuality, parenting prowess, etc., all areas which have met with at least some, often questionable, success in animal models that could be generalised to humans, if not some success for gene identification in humans as well. With the ability to change gene expression in the brain, using bacterial, viral or mammalian vectors for new genetic information, we open the door on rehabilitative and therapeutic treatments, which could ‘fix’ anti-social attributes not classically seen as medical concerns, and not progressing one’s abilities in a way that could be considered a neuro-enhancement. This is a sort of middle ground between the issues discussed in the last and next sections, and as such is greyer even than those.

The use of this biotechnology, then, could stretch from the ward to the shrink’s sofa, and even the court room, as perhaps a part of a sentence signalled by the judge’s gavel. It may become psychologists’ prescription for difficult, heavily biologically engrained cases and corrective neuro-genetic procedures could also possibly become part of court ordered rehabilitative intervention in the future. The possibility seems all the more likely when one considers the plummeting cost of genetic procedures and the increasing strain on government’s budgets, burdened by the costs of keeping prisons and rehab centres running. Compliance with medication is already commonly court demanded for offenders posing a threat to themselves or others. In the future, they would be forced to comply with NGE treatments. Of course, this may seem more dramatic given how our current social landscape reacts to GE generally, but this may not be so in the future, just as there is no great opposition to many court ordered drugs in the modern day.

However, less subtle interventions still strike many as to heavy handed. For example, several US states employ laws that permit or demand sex offenders to take as manufactured hormone, medroxy-progesterone acetate. This reduces sex drive and relapse. It is in this instance that we most see the divide between criminal and commercial psychological use, because one may safely wager that opposition to commercial availability to such a drug would be stronger than use on criminals. Historically, criminals and ‘criminal classes’ have been served a less complete portion of human rights than law abiding citizens, and even today in British society opinions as to what is permissible to more extreme offenders can stretch towards the suggestion of the death sentence – so, what is forcing them to comply with NGE, in the face of death, even if many people in our society cannot stomach the idea of it for themselves?

Hence, perhaps, the use of this hormone in American courts, but not American pharmacies. It is possible to predict, from simple inspection of human behaviour, that passing NGE corrective treatments for paedophiles, for example, will be easier than introducing the simplest of neuro-enhancements. But, once that threshold is breached, what is to stop genetic sexuality meddling being used to make homosexual into heterosexuals, or vica versa? Homosexuality may have genetic, and is popularly thought to have significant epigenetic, groundings. It is no longer considered an affliction in progressive societies, but as an alternative, and socially acceptable sexuality, whereas paedophilia is not, because it is considered a heinous form of abuse. This is where we might first see elements of cosmetic psychology coming into play, once enabled in terms of NGE, which would highlight the conflict of morality on an individual versus societal scale. For whatever reason, a person may wish to convert to heterosexuality from homosexuality, or vica versa, and for whatever reason this may represent a great increase in quality of life for them. One then may plainly argue that it is an appropriate course of action for this individual. However, at the societal level such choices seem more disturbing, because the social profile of the treatment user will have completely changed in a way that will force many associated persons to treat them differently. For example potential partners would likely be wary of people who had undergone such NGE. In the case of paedophilia, NGE sexuality correction may appear socially just.

Court ordered NGE treatment would be aimed at bettering society, potentially in opposition to bettering the stance of the individual. This need not, and almost definitely would not, be a case of subjugating individuals, offenders or otherwise, to conform to government wishes – we may be in the realm of, but we are not talking about, science fiction after all – however there is a genuine question of using NGE therapy to tangible benefit, as with current medications (Farah 2002). For example, violent offenders are often made to attend anger management classes, to both their personal benefit and the benefit of their community, which has to deal with less hot-blood. GE may have the same effect, in less time and perhaps more surely, though intuitively we feel uneasy about this (Farah 2002). Perhaps the reason for this is that the neurological use of GE precludes the ability to accept or resist the progression of the change, at least in an instantaneous or direct fashion. There is something about the locked in course, and the possibly permanent nature of NGE therapy, which raises warning flags. It is the inability to opt-out effectively after a treatment, which is most worrying.

When it comes to genetic engineering in the brain, one immediately leaps to thinking about intellectual enhancement technologies. However, one relatively overlooked, and at the moment seemingly even more farfetched, idea is that of genospiritual engineering in order to ‘choose one’s degree of religiosity or spiritual sensitivity’ (Charlton 2008) by altering genes associated with inducing trance, delirium and dreams. Scientifically, the concept seems rather fanciful, because of the complexity of inter-gene relations, pleiotropy and the vast environmental impact on the manifestation of these attributes, though inducing or making more inducible at will trance-like states, euphoria, satisfaction, etc., as created by misbalances of neurotransmitters in the brain is certainly a possibility. Charlton suggests that such technology may have commercial appeal, as well as societal in allaying spiritual unease and perhaps promoting altruism (e.g. by expanding the range of ‘greenbeard’ markers (West and Gardner 2010) to which altruists respond), which has been shown to have a genetic basis.

Charlton speaks of engineering shamanistic, animistic and revelatory experiences in a fashion that would appeal to those seeking ‘a more powerful experience’, likely in a trade-off with determination, productivity and status mentalities. However, the desirability of such engineering is probably more questionable than Charlton assumes. It would be opposed both by theists concerned with the artifice and un-spontaneity of engineered religiosity, and atheists who would regard it a nonsensical proliferator of unsound spirituality. Ultimately, this type of NGE would be more comparable to the use of hallucinogens than an enhancement or medical treatment, and suffers risk the same pitfalls of psychedelic drugs no matter how on demand the NGE modifications switch on and off. Genospirituality suffers from a plethora of ethical concerns, more so even than most other areas onto which NGE may one day impinge, because one’s ‘spiritual’ self is wildly seen as innate and integral to an identity which may be substantially altered by such a use of GE, whatever the reality may be.


Introduction: Medicine and Synthetic Biology

Medical Neuro-Genetic Engineering

Therapeutic Neuro-Genetic Engineering

Enhancement Neuro-Genetic Engineering

The Core of the Neuroethical Debate