Scientific Responsibility: Why Lawyers are Imperative in Scientifically Informed Neuro-ethics

Thomas Hale-Kupiec, MJLST Staff Member

In Volume 11, Issue 1 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science, & Technology, Eagleman, et al. conclude that “the neuroscientific community should continue to develop rehabilitative strategies so that the legal community can take advantage of those strategies for a rational, customized approach” in Why Neuroscience Matters for Rational Drug Policy. Though perhaps this assertion is valid in the context of Drug Addiction, I believe it is necessary to limit this assertion to solely rehabilitative drug addiction studies; to allow a further extension of this conclusion would be sociologically detrimental. I postulate that beyond ideas of who we define as a “Neuroscientist,” legal experts need to be at the forefront of this debate in order to better define and formulate ideas of “rehabilitation.”

In a related reflection entitled ‘Smart Drugs’: Do they work? Are they ethical? Will they be legal?, researcher Stephen Rose poses a number of ethical and neurological impacts of mind enhancing substances. The author posits an interesting question: what is “normal” for a brain? If someone undergoes pharmacological manipulation, what should the standard be for “abnormal?” For instance, Rose poses that some substances could be used for patients with Down Syndrome to allow for cognitive enhancement. Is this a valid designation as “abnormal?” Inexorably linked to this issue would be Autism Spectrum Disorder — where on the spectrum does a cognitive “abnormality” manifest? Further, how do we define potentially less visible disorders such as “anxiety?” With this spectrum of diseases and mental health conditions, variety of measured “abnormalities,” and varying pharmacological treatment effectiveness, I think we need to be mindful that neuroscientific constructions are often blurry, but always need to be conceptualized within the paradigm of ethics.

More than ever, the question of “what is abnormal” and “what mandates treatment” needs to be addressed in pharmaceutical policy. For instance, federally designated controlled substances like marijuana may be effective at treating anxiety and other medical conditions. Should the legal community allow for Eagleman’s assertion to snowball? Imagine an increasing number of states embrace evidence that the active ingredients in marijuana could treat certain medical conditions? Should the scientific community solely argue the validity of these findings? Legal professionals, bioethicists, and regulators need to be included in these questions. It is not that the data driven outcomes need to be pursued; rather, that a level of ethics and sociological morals need to be layered above these decisions.