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Ethical Issues in Performance Enhancing Technologies: From Bench to Headline

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Neuroscience research creates challenges for policy-making and bioethics that build on the distinctive nature of the brain and the ethical implications of major interventions to it. Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMIs) in particular have sparked neuroethics debates on enhancement of normal human function and on consent in vulnerable populations. Print media represents an important avenue of information for the public as well as a forum in which these ethical issues related to neuroscience are raised and debated. This study investigates the process of science communication and the press coverage for a highly-publicized study in Nature of remote-controlled animal navigation involving Brain-Machine Interfaces (Talwar et al. 2002). This paper catalyzed contemporary discussions regarding the ethics of brain-machine interfaces. Methods included sampling of international print media coverage for this Nature paper using several keyword searches in the Lexis-Nexis Academic database. Analysis of print media article content based on prior validation and reliability assessments. Main outcome measures included: type of article (journalist reports, newswire/press agency, editorials and columns); item of content in the lead paragraph; source of quotations in the article (research team, independent researcher, ethicist/lawyer, interest group, policy-maker); items of content reported in the article; benefits reported; ethical issues raised; and overall tone (optimistic, balanced, critical, neutral). Most stories (91%; N=39/43) were published within two weeks of the original scientific report. The investigators were quoted in 93% of the articles but a significant number of other actors (N=28) including researchers not involved in the study, ethicists, lawyers and interest groups provided commentary. The headlines of the articles emphasized the remote control characteristics of the rats (40%; N=17/43) and their potential for military rescue operation (47%; N=20/43). 91% (N=39/43) of the articles had a lead paragraph that emphasized these two combined items of content. Ethical issues were featured in 74% of articles (N=32/43). Animal rights (60%; N=26/43) and the potential for Brain-Machine Interfaces to become mind-control technologies (42%; N=18/43) were the two most frequent ethical concerns in print media. The majority of articles were balanced (68%; N=29/43), i.e., discussed the benefits and issues related to this study. Results of this study support the view that science communication is a complicated process involving multiple stakeholders and perspectives. Brain-Machine Interface research in particular can lead to controversial news coverage and ethics debate. Increased public involvement and open deliberation will promote neuroethics discussions and public understanding of Brain-Machine Interfaces.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2008-06-01

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  • The journal Technology is a forum for presentation of information encompassing essentially the entire field of applied sciences. Owing to the broad nature of applied sciences, authors should be guided by the interest of the readers who are likely to be knowledgeable non-specialists.
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