Connecting European Neuroscience

An interview with Prof Judy Illes, President of the International Neuroethics Society

It is 15 years since neuroethics emerged as a discipline and this year the International Neuroethics Society (INS) has become an associate member of FENS. Professor Judy Illes, president of INS talks to Dr Jane Haley (FENS Communication Committee) about the society, the importance of the field, and the relevance of neuroethics to all neuroscience researchers.

What is neuroethics and when was the term first used? Was there a trigger for the evolution of the field or simply a growing recognition that we needed to understand neuroscience ethical issues better?

JI: ‘Neuroethics is the study of the ethical, social, policy and legal implications of advances neuroscience and the word has been around for far more than 15 years. It was used earlier, for example, by the neurologist Ronald Cranford to refer specifically to end of life decision making in neurological diseases. In 2001 there was a growing realisation that advances in neuroscience were beginning to touch people in ways it had not before. From the expansion, and extraordinary potential, of imaging technologies, stimulation technologies and pharmacologic advances, we began to appreciate the need for those trained within the neurosciences and in scientific enquiry, to formally start thinking about the ethical implications of the work coming out of our own community.   

‘The study of the philosophy of mind has been around for a long time but this was really a matter of starting to work from the inside out; to think about where it is that the neurological sciences is going, anticipate where we are going, anticipate challenges, and start providing frameworks that are practical and pragmatic.

‘We attribute the launch of the field to William Safire, from the Dana Foundation, and a conversation with Zach Hall (UCSF) which led to a meeting ‘Mapping the field’ in San Francisco in 2002. It was at this meeting where we really established what, at the time, we called the four pillars of neuroethics.  To this day the four pillars still hold us up. They are: neurobiology of the self; ethics in brain sciences as it pertains to clinical medicine and research; ethical issues in neuroscience that are non-medical; brain science training and public discourse. 

‘There are now almost 50 programmes and centres around the world, including Europe, working in a very robust way, collaboratively. The INS is a wonderful professional society that just celebrated its 10th Anniversary (in 2016) and we are forging ahead. I think there was uncertainty fifteen years ago as to whether this field could stick and today we see that neuroethics has become a common word among neuroscientists and the neurologic and psychiatric communities.

‘I never imagined I would be a pioneer of anything. I share that pioneering with others and I do so very proudly.’

As President of INS, what do you see as the current priorities for your society and how is INS approaching the social, legal and ethical challenges in neuroscience?

JI: ‘We have both operational as well as content priorities. The operational ones relate directly to the excitement we feel about becoming an affiliate member of FENS. In order to reach our goals we need to have a robust, fully international, membership. So we want to grow our membership and ensure that it has representation from all corners of the world including Europe of course, with whom we share so much collaboration.

‘Content-wise, the society and its membership span everything from hard-core topics in the life sciences, such as brain stimulation and imaging techniques, neurotechnology (invasive, non-invasive) to the social sciences including philosophical issues about mind and free will. We have members interested in the intersection of neuroscience and criminal justice, childhood development, addiction, ageing and dementia.

‘We are always looking for new areas in neuroethics: my own is the interface between changes in the environment and changes in mental wellbeing. The appreciation of the diversity of humans, human rights, and cultural issues is also at the core of what we think about and talk about. We began as a mostly US-based group and we have opened up our ways of thinking and working to become global, highly inclusive of the global community, and inclusive of all disciplines that have an interest in ethics and the brain.’

Why has INS chosen to become affiliated with FENS and how would you like to see this new collaboration developing? 

JI: ‘This is an enormous opportunity for our networks to expand together, for us to share training opportunities, and to share grant opportunities. In Canada, for example, there is a bi-annual opportunity for Canadians to collaborate with European colleagues in an initiative called ERA-NET. INS would love to work with FENS and its members to see how we can realise more opportunities like this for cross-national partnership among our organisations, for research and training and also to share knowledge in our respective fields.’

The late 20th century saw unprecedented progress in the basic sciences of mind and brain; how is neuroethics part of the scientific discourse?

JI: ‘Our presence in the scientific literature – general journals like Science and Nature, medical journals, and being part of brain research conferences such as FENS, SfN and IBRO shows how we have a growing acceptance and discourse. At 15 years we are still a young field and we have to be attentive and proactive. It is important that what we do in neuroethics is practical and meaningful to neuroscientists. Ethics that seem overly burdensome or reactive will not be well integrated with scientific discovery so practical guidance and recommendations are vital to the close alignment of the fields.’

What are the emerging issues in neuroethics and what role do you think it will play in the future?

JI: ‘I’ve mentioned some of them already but, from my point of view, I think neurotechnology is a place we need to continuously work and provide frameworks for advancement. We are seeing both refinements of older technologies (in neuroimaging for example), as well as the emergence of new technologies. Multimodal technologies, such as, optogenetics, and the range of their applications really will require our attention. We also have an opioid crisis around the world at the moment and this is an area in which we need to do more work, perhaps with a focus on public policy, because so much of this crisis is placing a burden on the criminal justice system and the public as well. These are just my own thoughts!’

Rather than simply responding to issues arising from research, can neuroethics help advance neuroscience research?

JI: ‘I think that is the fundamental characteristic of neuroethics today. We are anticipatory and increasingly we are an empowering force for the neuroscience community and neuroscience discovery. By anticipating, we can bring the voice of the patient to the discussion. We can generate frameworks in which neuroscience discoveries can develop into practical applications. We can mitigate potential barriers down the road. We can put strategies for sharing knowledge and outreach to the public in place early on, and we can manage unexpected findings. So, it is all about being proactive and anticipating what’s ahead as an empowering force. That’s a huge goal.’

What is your main message to the European neuroscience community?

JI: ‘Join us!  Join the International Neuroethics Society. Let’s work together: the opportunities for discoveries, collaborations, and funding will be ever greater the more we work together in partnership. Neuroethics is a global endeavour so we invite and embrace the membership of FENS to join us and we will help to provide a platform for growth and expansion in all the fields represented by FENS.’ 

If you would like to find out more about the International Ethics Society (INS) and how to join then please visit their website at

Prof Judy Illes, President of the International Neuroethics Society