9th FENS Forum of Neuroscience
5-9 July 2014 – Milan, Italy
Neuroscientists whose research leads to new developments in understanding the brain and
treating brain disorders are calling for more interaction with the public and governments on how
new knowledge of the brain should be applied and regulated. Where to draw the line between
the promise of improving mental ability and protecting vulnerable people from false claims is
being debated today (6 July) at a conference in Milan.
Taking enhancement as an example, Professor Vince Walsh from University College London
said that there are an increasing number of claims that brain stimulation can boost memory,
attention and numeracy. Transcranial direct current stimulation is a technique which modifies
brain function by applying a weak electrical current using contact electrodes placed over the
scalp. It can, according to some, even improve reasoning, risk taking, mood, creativity and
The range of conditions claimed to benefit from these enhancements include
Alzheimer's, stroke, learning difficulties, addiction, obesity, depression, autism and
Speaking at the Forum of European Neuroscience, Professor Walsh said, “Brain stimulation is
being offered to families who are need help, and to those in education, the military and sport.
Yet no national medical authority in the world has seen fit to approve or recommend it for
treatment purposes.” An expert in brain stimulation, he is concerned by the experimental
methods that lead to false claims and today proposes new standards in this field “where the
noise currently far exceeds the signal.”
New technology to image the brain is undoubtedly valuable in guiding doctors to assess brain
damage. Professor Petra Huppi, director of the division of child development and growth,
Geneva University, Switzerland said that premature babies have a better chance of survival
thanks to progress in newborn medicine. But premature babies are at high risk of subsequent
developmental disorders. MRI brain scans produce a large amount of information on the
detailed anatomy of the brain and is widely used to monitor development and to identify
damage in the immature brains of humans and animals. It helps to understand brain injury and
alterations in development but it does not replace clinical assessment and measures of wellbeing.
It is rare to be able to record the activity of single neurons in patients undergoing surgery, says
Professor Itzhak Fried from the University of California Los Angeles, and Tel-Aviv University.
In this case, an electrode is placed deep within the brain to monitor seizures and identify
seizure focus in patients with severe epilepsy for potential curative surgery, for example, or
during deep brain stimulation procedures to treat Parkinson’s disease or in pilot trials of brainmachine interfaces which could enable paralysed people to communicate and be able to move
objects in the environment. These procedures are always done solely for clinical reasons and
under strict guidelines, yet the knowledge gained can significantly expand our understanding of
brain function potentially leading to the development of new therapies.
Chairing the William Safire seminar on neuroethics, Professor Barbara Sahakian from
Cambridge University, UK, and president of the International Neuroethics Society said, “Basic
research in humans involving procedures that might modify brain function could rapidly advance
our knowledge of the brain in health and disease. These studies may also reduce the need for
research on non-human primates. But at the same time, we have to examine the risks involved
to the individual participating, and when there is no direct benefit to those participating in the
research, ask, ‘Can it be justified?’”
In her concluding remarks, Professor Sahakian explained that there is not a single more
important problem than understanding the brain in health and disease. Neuropsychiatric
disorders are the second cause of disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) in Europe. There has
been an explosion of neuroscience techniques, which can be applied to tractable, important
problems. Many of these will be applied in the Human Brain Project. “We need to ensure that
techniques are applied for the benefit of society to ensure brain health and wellbeing for a
flourishing society. However, we must also be concerned about possible harms associated with
the use of these techniques and how they may alter society as we know it. Forward
consideration of the ethical, legal and social implications of neuroscience will ensure maximum
benefits and minimal harms for both the individual and society,” she said.
Special Interest Event SiE04 - William Safire Seminar on Neuroethics
FENS Press Office and all media enquiries:
Elaine Snell, Snell Communications Ltd, London UK (English language)
tel: +44 (0)20 7738 0424 or mobile +44 (0)7973 953 794
email: [email protected]
Mauro Scanu (Italian language)
tel: +39 333 161 5477
email: [email protected]
The purpose of the William Safire Seminar on Neuroethics is to increase interest in
neuroethics and to engage neuroscientists in a range of ethical issues surrounding
developments in brain research. The topic this year is basic research on the human brain. The
seminar is hosted by the International Neuroethics Society and the European Dana Alliance for
the Brain
The 9th FENS Forum of Neuroscience, the largest basic neuroscience meeting in Europe,
organised by FENS and hosted by the The Società Italiana di Neuroscienze (SINS) (Italian
Society for Neuroscience) will attract an estimated 5,500 international delegates. The
Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS), founded in 1998, aims to advance
research and education in neuroscience, representing neuroscience research in the European
Commission and other granting bodies. FENS represents 42 national and mono-disciplinary
neuroscience societies with close to 23,000 member scientists from 32 European countries.

how far should we go - 9th FENS Forum of Neuroscience