“Human dignity in our hands – challenges through new technologies” – this is the topic that the German Ethics Council is putting into the focus of its annual conference on the occasion of its tenth anniversary.
Prof. Katrin Amunts, Deputy Chairwoman of the Ethics Council and Director of the Institute for Neurosciences and Medicine at Forschungszentrum Jülich comments on a technology area that particularly touches on human self-understanding and dignity: human dignity challenges through interference with the brain.
Legal regulations regulate the intervention in body and brain. This includes deep brain stimulation, which helps Parkinson’s patients, for example, to reduce tremor. At the same time, not all patients benefit equally from such procedures, and side effects associated with this treatment may include personality changes. “This can lead to difficult considerations, such as: When are interventions justified with knowledge of the possible side effects, especially if those affected can no longer actively agree due to cognitive limitations?”
Katrin Amunts points to concerns. “Sometimes this procedure is also used in dementia diseases; there, however, the benefit is the subject of intense discussion, unlike movement disorders. ”
Also, when it comes to administering pharmacological substances that can affect the brain and ultimately the personality, questions arise from an ethical point of view, especially when it comes to children. Thus, children with mild or moderate ADHD are increasingly being prescribed Ritalin. “This can create social pressure on the parents,” explains Katrin Amunts. “A study from Canada has shown that the prescription of Ritalin has risen sharply after the prescription regulations have changed and now, in particular, many boys with mild symptoms are increasingly taking Ritalin. There are also risks with this therapy, which must be weighed against a possible benefit. ”
“In so-called neuro-enhancement, healthy adults also take Ritalin, for example, to increase mental performance and duration,” says Amunts. “The ethical issues are different here than in children. Many colleagues advocate a positive approach to neuro-enhancement when the conditions for this are sufficiently clear. However, the exact mechanisms, especially in the long-term perspective, are not yet adequately understood. ”
Another topic is the growing possibilities of using artificial intelligence techniques to record and effectively evaluate health data via social networks. “With the help of big data analysis, health-relevant knowledge of the users can be gained, which can go far beyond what the person wants to make public,” Katrin Amunts describes the current possibilities. The analysis of natural language, internet behavior, movement patterns, etc. increasingly allows insight into individual health status and provides a starting point for influencing behavior without being obvious to the individual.
Katrin Amunts is involved in the ethics council mainly on the topics of neuroscientific research, brain and aging, data science and biomedical issues. In addition to the institute’s management in Jülich, she is the director of the Cécile and Oskar Vogt Institute for Brain Research at the University Hospital Düsseldorf. The researcher has also been the scientific director of the European Human Brain Project since 2016. The Europe-wide project links neuroscience with technology development and – as the only major brain research initiative worldwide – operates its own ethics department.
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