The Human Brain Project is committed to implementing responsibility in research and innovation practices. But implementing responsibility means more than setting standards or enforcing compliance. It also means changing mindsets and promoting an ethical culture: A culture where scientific excellence also includes ethical excellence. In the Human Brain Project, we are integrating neuroethics and philosophy as key components in the careful consideration of ethical and societal issues. This means understanding neuroethics not only as applied ethics, but as a type of philosophical reflection that actually enriches the interpretation of scientific results.  

According to Arleen Salles, deputy leader of the Human Brain Project’s work on responsible research and innovation, this emphasis on a conceptual philosophical analysis of concepts and interpretations of assumptions is quite unique to the Human Brain Project. Moreover, the approach sets it apart from other big brain initiatives. But, she says, the focus on philosophical reflection doesn’t mean that practise and normative discussion are not important. Quite the contrary: Addressing foundational issues conceptually is the starting point and probably key to productively addressing applied issues.

But how does it work? Arleen Salles notes that the Human Brain Project is addressing ethical and societal considerations at different levels:

“We work across the project engaging different stakeholders. In the last phase of the project, we are working to further integrate ethical and societal considerations throughout the project. This is expressed through “embedded” neuroethics and philosophy tasks in the different scientific work packages”, she says.

For example, one of the lines of research within the Human Brain Project is the development of a simulation tool known as the virtual brain. The virtual brain is a construct that is intended to provide a formal account of the brain of a person or a part of a brain. Its goal of course is to enrich brain medicine and is intended to benefit society. For a number of reasons, Including the fact that the brain is very complex, and that we still don’t have enough knowledge of the brain, building virtual replicas of the brain is challenging. Here, the more conceptual approach to neuroethics can add value by addressing some of these challenges. Within neuroethics and philosophy we focus on goals, methodologies, interpretations, and and address some of the challenges raised conceptually. We believe that this type of examination is a requisite for a fruitful discussion on the societal and ethical impacts and implications of brain research in general.

According to Arleen Salles, this approach is mirrored in all lines of research in the Human Brain Project and has proven to be very productive not only academically and intellectually but it has allowed the Ethics and Society team to build trust and to facilitate collaboration. And, she says, “ultimately it has allowed those of us who are in the humanities to use philosophy in a very unique and rewarding way”. Learn more about neuroethics and philosophical reflection in the Human Brain Project by visiting our website pages on Social, Ethical and Reflective research: www.humanbrainproject.eu

About Arleen Salles

Arleen Salles is a Senior Researcher in philosophy at the Centre for Research Ethics and Bioethics (CRB) at Uppsala University and Director of the Neuroethics Program at CIF (Centro de Investigaciones Filosoficas) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is a tenured professor of philosophy at Universidad Argentina de la Empresa (Buenos Aires, Argentina) and is also affiliated to Weill Cornell Medical College, (NY, United States). She is the Deputy Leader of the Responsible Research and Innovation Work Package of the EU-flagship Human Brain Project where she is a researcher and leads the task Neuroethics and Engagement. She is also board member of the International Neuroethics Society and serves as a member of the International Brain Initiative’s Neuroethics Working Group. Salles received her M.A and Ph.D in philosophy from State University of New York at Buffalo, USA.

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