Neuroethics to form foundation of multi-pillar Canadian Brain Research Strategy

Dr. Judy Illes outside the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health.

“The world is mobilizing around a strategic approach to brain research,” says Dr. Judy Illes, “and neuroethics is an anchor point.”

While leaders in brain research around the world have been building toward an international brain research strategy, Canada has been working on a complementary approach that accelerates international efforts but leverages the unique advantages of Canadian researchers and Canada as a neuroscience-driven nation.

A new Canadian Brain Research Strategy (CBRS), highlighted for the first time in the journal Neuron this week, offers four strategic pillars of which neuroethics, as part of the application of neuroscience to society, is one. It is also critical to the applicability and implementation of CBRS vision overall.

Brain health issues, from learning ability to mental health to brain injury to neurodegenerative disease, affect Canadians at every stage of life. A 2016 report from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)’s Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction (INMHA) determined that neurological and psychiatric disorders cost the Canadian economy $61 billion per year, affecting workplace productivity, stressing the Canadian healthcare system, and straining individual and family resources. Canadians understand the need for considerable investment in brain research, and they support ethical health research.

“This is a time when everyone in Canadian brain research needs to come together,” says Dr. Illes. “The central question, how does the brain learn, remember, and adapt?, is about coming to a shared understanding of what makes us human and devising solutions to the issues that cause individuals to not feel like or be themselves. We want to understand the brain, and then use that knowledge to power innovation and discovery, leading to better preventive care and treatments and better health for all Canadians.”

The four pillars of the CBRS – Understand, Address, Apply, and Build – are supported by six enabling principles: collaboration, interdisciplinarity, open science, career development, education, and commercialization. In all of these, the influence of neuroethics is profound; it is the ethical foundation making the national strategy sustainable and socially valuable.

The CBRS was initiated under the leadership of Dr. Anthony Phillips, then Director of INMHA, and then emerged as a grassroot entity independent of INMHA in 2018. At that time, the need for a neuroethics perspective became clear.

“The CBRS approach is pragmatic, and it’s solution-oriented; everything we learn in one area of research informs another, and neuroethics is really able to unfold with every element of the strategy. It’s important that we ask questions along the way, and to incorporate ethical considerations not just in study design but in how we apply what we learn,” says Dr. Illes. “It’s not just about being leaders in neuroscience discovery; it’s about being careful in our approach, so that what we do maximizes individual potential and resilience. It’s about leading the conversation in a direction that improves science literacy, takes academics out of traditional siloes, and reduces harm in patient communities.”

“We know more about the universe than we do about the human brain,” says Dr. Sam Weiss, co-author of the Neuron paper with Dr. Illes and her team. “Understanding the brain is one of society’s greatest and most urgent challenges, and  Canada is uniquely positioned to provide leadership in neuroscience discovery and advances in the tools and technology to address some of our most pressing needs in the fields of healthcare, education, industry, and law.”

“This is truly a visionary partnership of Canadian researchers and academics, and I am thrilled to see how neuroethics will inform the evolution of the Canadian Brain Research Strategy over the coming years,” says Dr. Illes.

For more information on the Canadian Brain Research Strategy, visit canadianbrain.ca.