UO researchers look to future of neuroscience and data collection

MRI device and brain scan

Imagine that you have finished serving time for a crime you committed, but brain scan algorithms predict a high likelihood of recidivism. Some might ask whether that information should prevent your release. 

The same goes for other situations, like people seeking treatment for pain when an MRI tells doctors that they aren’t really hurting. Should such information play a role in treatment?

Those are the kinds of questions that researchers from the UO and Oregon Health & Science University are hoping to examine through a new interdisciplinary collaboration to address ethical and legal implications of applied neuroscience. The universities are teaming up to generate collaboration and discussion at an upcoming gathering, titled “Neuroscience, Ethics, & Law in an Era of Big Data.”

The event, which is open to all UO students and faculty members, features a series of speakers and panel discussions from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, April 26, in the Knight Law Center, Room 141.  

“Emerging advances in neuroscience are going to bring better diagnoses, innovative therapies and even cures,” said Colin Koopman, an associate professor in the UO Department of Philosophy. “But any time tech is moving this fast, it’s going to out-clip the pace of our existing ethical and legal frameworks. So we need to be asking those questions about social impacts now rather than 10 years down the line.” 

Supported by the OHSU-UO Partnership program, which develops and builds new collaborations between researchers at Oregon Health & Science University and the UO, the project is funded by a UO-OHSU Collaborative Seed Grant. Investigators hope their seed grant work will pave the way for a multiuniversity Center for Law, Ethics and Neuroscience in the future.

Once established, the center would leverage Oregon’s expertise in basic neuroscience and behavioral neuroscience and add experts in law, bioethics, data ethics, informatics, neurology, psychiatry, public health and public policy. If successful, the seed grant work could also interface with the Presidential Data Science Initiative and its goals of processing big data and supporting interdisciplinary research collaborations.

Current seed grant funds are being used to convene two workshop meetings of experts from the UO and OHSU, as well as authorities from the private sector and legal field, to deepen the understanding of the most pressing ethical issues within the realm of neuroscience. A debut event hosted by OHSU took place at the University of Portland in March, linking together a team of researchers across disciplines directly touched by developments in neuroscience.

If formed, the UO-OHSU Center for Law, Ethics and Neuroscience would be the first of its kind on the West Coast, representing a new push to formalize and address complex ethical questions.

“There haven’t been good mechanisms within science for prospectively exploring and addressing the social, ethical and legal implications of advances in neuroscience,” said Eran Klein, assistant professor of neurology at OHSU.

This deficit has meant that the potential impacts of technology haven’t been fully examined or understood.

“If we go back 20 years to the early stages of the internet, we may have thought, for instance, about how to protect data or build privacy protections into the design instead of being in a place now where everyone has given away a tremendous amount of their data,” Klein said.  “We have the opportunity to not travel the same path with neuroscience.” 

Data-driven advances in neuroscience — including big data analytics, machine learning methods, stem cell transplantation and gene editing — are rapidly transforming health, human behavior and society. For example, neuroscientists are developing deep brain stimulation implants that stimulate damaged or dysfunctional areas of the brain. Such treatments are already therapy for people with neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and essential tremor.

Technology offers substantive opportunities to advance treatments for populations where existing medicine has failed, but the translation of technology into effective treatment involves a marriage of science, research and industry that raises thorny ethical questions about data rights.

“Some of these devices have the potential to generate enormous loads of data about people’s brain states,” Koopman said. “In some cases those data will be accessible to the manufacturers of the devices, which include not only university labs but also Silicon Valley (startups), and then of course the bigger companies that will likely acquire them once they begin to deliver value.”

The questions Klein, Koopman and colleagues — including Kristen Bell, a professor in the School of Law; Nicolae Morar, a professor in the Department of Philosophy and the environmental studies program; Elliot Berkman, a professor in the Department of Psychology; and Dennis Bourdette, professor and chair of the OHSU Department of Neurology — plan to address aren’t hypotheticals relegated to the realm of science fiction.

In the field of neuroscience, technology is rapidly improving the ability to store large amounts of data while simultaneously enhancing the capabilities of scientists and clinicians to understand the function of the brain. Some portable devices that provide a limited capability to record brain waves or provide stimulation are already commercially available, with more ambitious capabilities for scanning human brains, tracking moods and even discerning beliefs on the horizon.

Some devices will be strictly consumer-facing and fall outside of the more rigorous regulatory frameworks of health care, opening the door for companies to gather vast amounts of data about people’s personalities, thoughts and emotions.

 “We need to think about not only the value of data but also the values built into data technology,” Koopman said. “Looking ahead by building ethical assessment into the framework of scientific research can only result in better science, better technology and better social outcomes.”

Earlier this year, the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation announced a second round of the OHSU-UO Collaborative Seed Grant funding program with three types of grant mechanisms: convening grants, which fund projects like the ethics of neuroscience and data collection event, bring together faculty members from both institutions to incubate collaborative ideas; phase 1 piloting grants to support studies designed to provide feasibility evidence or preliminary data for joint UO-OHSU grant applications; and phase 2 piloting grants for continued support for current piloting grant recipients to build their research program as they pursue or await receipt of external funding.

For more information about the program, view the request for proposals or visit the OHSU-UO Partnership website.