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Why Look At Neuroethics?

Our project deals with an idea which may seem, on the face of it, frightening to some; the insertion of modified brain cells, microglia, to try and alleviate Alzheimer's disease (AD). Although more similar to a macrophage than a neuron, engineering microglial cells represents both a scientific and an ethical challenge, not least because it seems like the stuff of zombie B-movies. After all, using microglia to halt the progression of AD, and therefore cognitive loss, by dissolving senile plaques is only one philosophical step (albeit very many scientific steps) from a genetic system for cognitive gain, so the implications of our project stretch past medical bioethics. In the interests of assessing the feasibility of the project in social terms, we are producing this report dealing with the attitudes and neuroethics of the potential use of neuro-genetic engineering in medicine, therapy and enhancement technology, as well as expounding a little on some of the scientific concepts behind various approaches.

The Essay

In a comprehensive report, team member Alexander Bates takes a look at the medical ethics, the neuroethics and both the plausible and fanciful neuroscientific applications of synthetic biology:

Neuro-Genethics Report.PDF

Read On Our Site

Introduction: Medicine and Synthetic Biology

Medical Neuro-Genetic Engineering

Therapeutic Neuro-Genetic Engineering

Enhancement Neuro-Genetic Engineering

The Core of the Neuroethical Debate



Team member's opinions on Neuroethics

Alex Bates

Our project is, as yet, highly theoretical, but it's implications lead us to one of the most fundamental questions in life: what is it to be human? Only once in our history has the human existence been radically redefined - at the origin on mankind, the transition from animals to intelligent, self-conscious beings. We are, perhaps, moving towards the frontier of another transition - the ability to induce dramatic changes in our consciousness at will. The question, "Should we genetically engineer the brain?" essentially asks, do we want to, or even have the right to, fundamentally redefine our existence for only the second time in our history.

Ruxi Comisel

I agree with the use of genetic engineering as part of a therapy provided that the only point of using it on the brain or in other parts of the human body is to alleviate the disastrous effect of disease on human integrity. I believe that the public should not reject this therapy as long as it is an available alternative and it can be used safely and under strict legal regulation, so that only the patients in advanced/terminal stages of suffering can benefit from it. On the other hand, I strongly oppose using genetic engineering in the context of patients who can benefit from other means of therapy known to be successful for the stages of disease they are at.

Tom Johnson

Genetic Engineering has been around for a while, but it has typically been associated with crops rather than people. If GM crops are questioned by the public then surely we need to look long and hard at how we will influence sentient beings. Unfair advantages could be had for the rich - people could effectively buy intelligence etc. which could divide the rich - poor barrier even further.

Andy Cheng

I personally believe genetic engineering is an amazing tool to program biological systems to perform tasks. However, the introduction of genetically engineered cells appear somewhat disturbing. We have to be able to prove these foreign cells would not interfere with integrity of the mind.

Oran Maguire

My feelings about Synthetic Biology as a whole are quite confused. There are a huge number of potential applicaions which are capable of impacting on every part of our lives. These could come off very well or very badly for us. I think that the objections which are grounded in the importance of unaltered life and identity do not convince me. What does make me cautious about this technlogy is the potential for environmental hazards, and its potential to be socioeconomically divisive. Who knows how that will pan out. Right now, I get the impression that the way these projects are frequently presented, largely by young and the technically gifted students, will seem rather hubristic to many people looking in from the outside. Anyone aged 50 or under has every reason to take these extraordinary developments rather gravely, so to call projects such as these "cool" will ultimately strike a bad chord, and it will set people's opinions about Synthetic Biology prematurely.