Ethical challenges of human brain simulation

2013-01-29

One of the greatest challenges of modern science is understanding the human brain. The department’s Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB) is part of the European Commission flagship initiative to simulate the human brain and will look at the philosophical and ethical implications of this.

The Human Brain Project (HBP) is one of two FET Flagship Initiatives launched by the European Commission earlier today. The goal of the project is to use all the existing knowledge about the human brain and create models and simulations of it. Researchers in neuroscience, medicine, computing and philosophy from more than 80 research institutions will work together to make this possible. These models offer new understanding of the human brain and its diseases and help develop new computing and robotic technologies.

The project will also look at the ethical and societal implications of the simulation. Around 5% of the researchers in the project belong to the Ethics & Society Division and Kathinka Evers from Uppsala University’s Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics is one of the Division Leaders. Her own research in HBP deals primarily with the philosophical implications of human brain simulation:

“A main challenge is to analyse what simulating a brain means. Notably, what role the context plays in the simulation, and what kinds of consequences simulation might have for our understanding of mind, identity and consciousness”, says Kathinka Evers.

The Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics has a strong international multi-disciplinary research profile, currently leading ethics work packages in five EU-projects related to biobanking and registry research. Neuroethics has been part of the Centre’s research agenda since 2004. According to Mats G. Hansson, being part of the Flagship Initiative means strengthening this research profile:

“We have worked with neuroethics for years, building networks and competence. Being able to strengthen this profile further and perhaps recruit young researchers in this field is very exciting”.

The Human Brain Project
The Human Brain Project will last ten years and joins more than 80 European and international research institutions. The selection of the Human Brain Project as a FET Flagship is the result of more than three years of preparation and a rigorous evaluation by a large panel of independent scientists selected by the European Commission.

The cost is estimated at 1.19 billion euro and will be co-ordinated at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland by neuroscientist Henry Markram, with co-directors Karlheinz Meier of Heidelberg University, Germany, and Richard Frackowiak of Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois and the University of Lausanne.

The Ethics & Society Division
Kathinka Evers is directing the Ethics & Society division together with Jean-Pierre Changeux from Institut Pasteur/Collège de France. Apart from Kathinka Evers’ own research, this division will anticipate, monitor and examine the consequences of the Human Brain Project’s achievements on society. The different work packages will look at the social consequences of the Human Brain Project, conceptual and philosophical issues,  dialogue and engagement with the public, researcher awareness as well as governance and regulation.

More information:
Kathinka Evers, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB). E-mail: kathinka.evers@crb.uu.se, phone +46 18 471 62 43. Kathinka Evers is currently in Argentina and will return to Sweden on February 15. Until then, she can be reached via e-mail.
Mats G. Hansson, Director, Professor of Biomedical Ethics, Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB). E-mail: mats.hansson@crb.uu.se, phone +46 18 471 61 97 or +46 763 41 20 50
Human Brain Project media contact: John Richard Walker, E-mail: richard.walker@epfl.ch, phone +41 21 6931868 or +41 795368792 (mobile)