Neuroethics provides an interface between empirical brain sciences, philosophy of mind, moral philosophy, ethics, psychology, and social sciences.

Neuroethics & philosophical reflection add conceptual clarification of neuroscientific evidence, shaped and informed by brain research. This is supporting our understanding of how neuroscientific knowledge is constructed and why or how empirical knowledge of the brain can be relevant to philosophical, social, and ethical concerns.

What is neuroethics?

Neuroethics is both applied and conceptual. It can be normative and prescriptive, using ethical theory and reasoning to address the practical issues arising from neuroscientific research, clinical and non-clinical applications or public perceptions of neuroscience, what is often referred to as neurobioethics. It can also be descriptive, using empirical data to inform theoretical and practical issues, what is called empirical neuroethics. The conceptual approach taken by the Human Brain Project includes a more ‘fundamental’ neuroethics, that provides a theoretical framework that can be used to analyse practical issues, and examine ethical and neuroscientific concepts. It also addresses the impact of neuroscientific findings on society.

Fundamental neuroethics

Basic research in neuroethics shaped and informd our work on applied neuroethical issues in the Human Brain Project. Neuroethics and philosophy can help with conceptual clarification, and conceptual analyses can address issues such as how neuroscientific knowledge is constructed and why or how empirical knowledge of the brain can be relevant to philosophical, social, and ethical concerns. This fundamental neuroethics is empirical and theoretical, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary: using elements from the natural sciences, philosophy of science, language & mind, as well as moral philosophy. 

Neuroethics & Philosophy in the HBP

Adding a layer of philosophical reflection for conceptual clarification of neuroscientific evidence. Shaped and informed by brain research. 

Models of the Human Brain

A digital twin, or virtual brain, is a computational model or digital replica of a living or non-living physical object or process. The human brain is the most complex and difficult to model. Our brains are different and we respond to treatment in different ways: requiring personal approaches to treating conditions that affect the brain. The Human Brain Project spent 10 years working to demonstrate the predictive and explanatory power of mechanistic human brain network models built to generate functional brain signals that can be linked to behaviour indicators. We used a framework from philosophy of science to assess the validity of these models, beyond statistics and mathemathics, demonstrating how models connect to the reality that they aim to model, which was then completed by the conceptual analysis of the clinical, ethical and societal impact the development of such models will bring. 

Consciousness Studies

We are moving towards looking at severe brain injury and damage in more graded terms and using new ways of assessing consciousness in a quantitative manner, for example through functional neuroimaging technologies. However, there are conceptual, empirical, and clinical issues that need to be addressed. Different approaches are not always compatible, which is having an impact on empirical research and interpretation of results. There is also controversy around how to define and detect consciousness that has a direct impact on the clinical management of patients, notably patients with Disorders of Consciousness. Conceptual clarification can help resolve some of these issues.

One part of this work in the Human Brain Project was the development of a definition of consciousness, informed by empirical research and clinical evidence. Our conceptual work in the Human Brain Project also includes the identification of criteria for a reliable theory of consciousness and the definition of a list of indicators for detecting consciousness in animals and artificial agents, looking at the possibility to translate this approach to patients with Disorders of Consciousness. Another contribution from the multidisciplinary research of the Human Brain Project is strategies for improving the quality of diagnosis and prognosis of patients with Disorders of Consciousness, and an ethical analysis of these disorders that goes beyond residual awareness. 

Human Identity

The development and application of neuro-technologies to modify the brain could have a significant impact on human and personal identity. Neurotechnology could help us identify universal traits that we all share: our human identity. It could also help identify more specific traits in individuals’ self-conceptions and sameness: our personal identity. During the Human Brain Project, we have identified and examined epistemological questions: What can neuroscience tell us about humanity? What are the limits of neuroscientific knowledge when it comes to understanding what human beings are? We have also explored ontological questions: What are human beings? These epistemological and ontological questions bring ethical issues to the fore: What does it mean to be human? Who are we? Is this an important question, and if so: why?


Neuronal Epigenesis

The brain develops in a natural and cultural context that has profound influence on its functional architecture. Lived developmental trajectories, interactions, and social environments impact synaptic connectivity and contribute to the formation of patterns of neural activity. Synaptic epigenesis theories of cultural and social imprinting on our brain architecture suggest that it is thus possible to culturally influence our neural predispositions. During the Human Brain Project, we have examined the relationships between genotype and brain phenotype: the paradox of non-linear evolution between genome and brain complexity; the selection of cultural circuits in the brain during development; and the genesis and epigenetic transmission of cultural imprints.

Artificial Intelligence

During the Human Brain Project, AI research was growing rapidly — raising various practical ethical issues related to safety, risks, and other effects that are still being widely discussed by researchers worldwide. Our aim was to further develop the theoretical reflection about AI that we needed to articulate feasible conceptual and ethical tools for assessing AI-related research within the Human Brain Project, as well as its potential applications, with the goal of ensuring that this work is ethically sustainable and will benefit society.

The conceptual analysis which constitutes the core part of our work on AI supported the conceptualisation of relevant notions like intelligence, agency, and moral status, among others, to facilitate a more informed and ultimately a more effective ethical analysis. We engaged in conceptual analysis of the intersection of AI and neuroscience, as well as neuroethics and AI ethics. Our goal has been to develop a conceptual platform that allows dialogue between scientific and other kinds of approaches (e.g. ethics, politics, sociology, etc.). 

Anyone can request to address ethical, regulatory and social issues raised by HBP research.

Register an Ethical Concern

Key contacts

Kathinka Evers

Michele Farisco

Manuel Guerrero

Selected publications

Neuroscience is ready for neuroethics engagement

Jayatri Das, Cynthia Forlini, Darrell M. Porcello, Karen S. Rommelfanger, Arleen Salles, Global Neuroethics Summit Delegates

Frontiers in Communication, Vol. 7 2022-12-21
Indicators and criteria of consciousness: ethical implications for the care of behaviourally unresponsive patients

Michele Farisco, Cyriel Pennartz, Jitka Annen, Benedetta Cecconi, Kathinka Evers

BMC Medical Ethics, Vol. 23, No. 1 2022-03-21
On the Contribution of Neuroethics to the Ethics and Regulation of Artificial Intelligence

Michele Farisco, Kathinka Evers, Arleen Salles

Neuroethics, Vol. 15, No. 1 2022-02-03
Epistemic Challenges of Digital Twins & Virtual Brains: Perspectives from Fundamental Neuroethics

Kathinka Evers, Arleen Salles

SCIO: Revista de Filosofía, No. 21 2021-12-03