Neuroscience research on the addictions: A prospectus for future ethical and policy analysis

  • Hall W
  • Carter L
  • Morley K
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Abstract

The increasing evidence that many addictive phenomena have a genetic and neurobiological basis promises improvements in societal responses to addiction that raise important ethical and social policy issues. One of the major potential benefits of such research is improved treatment of drug addiction, but in order to do the research required to realize this promise, it will be necessary to address ethical doubts raised about the capacity of addicted persons to give free and informed consent to participate in studies that involve the administration of drugs of dependence. Neuroscience research on addiction promises to transform the long running debate between moral and medical models of addiction by providing a detailed causal explanation of addiction in terms of brain processes. We must avoid causal models of addiction being misinterpreted as supporting simple-minded social policies, e.g., that we identify the minority of the community that is genetically and biologically vulnerable to addiction and hence can neglect social policy options for reducing addiction, including drug control policies. Causal accounts of addiction supplied by neuroscience and genetic research may also be seen to warrant the use of pharmacotherapies and drug vaccines under legal coercion. Neuroscientists also need to anticipate the ethical issues that may arise if the knowledge that they produce delivers interventions that enhance human cognitive and other capacities. Advances in neuroimaging that enable us to identify "addicts" or predict future risk of addiction will raise concerns about invasion of privacy, third-party use of neuroimaging data, the powers of courts to coerce defendants to undergo such tests, and consumer protection against the overinterpretation of test results. Given the strong public and media interest in the results of their research, neuroscientists and geneticists have a moral obligation, and a professional interest, to minimize popular misunderstandings of their work in the media that may rebound to its detriment. © 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Brain disorders
  • Drug abuse prevention
  • Drug addiction
  • Experimental ethics
  • Neurosciences

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