NERRI partners met in Rome for their fourth Consortium Meeting

NERRI members were in Rome to discuss the results achieved so far and to define a plan for the final months. The Meeting also hosted a public debate on neuroscience and methods for neuro-enhancement

On June 22nd and 23rd, NERRI partners met into the MACRO Museum in Rome to share and discuss experiences, to focus on the results of the MLEs (Mutual Learning Events) that took place all over Europe during the last year and to define what needs to be done in the following months. Partners also defined the final steps to contribute to the shaping of the future of the Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) European Agenda in the field of neuro-enhancement. They discussed the organization of the NERRI final events and how improve NERRI dissemination through the development of the website and the educational kit realized by Experimentarium partners, with the aim to get a prototype of a web based infrastructure for a sustainable societal dialogue.

The Meeting, which has been organized by the Italian partners of SISSA (International School of Advanced Studies) and TLS (Toscana Life Sciences) in collaboration with EBC (European Brain Council), also hosted a public debate on neuroscience and methods for neuro-enhancement to discuss responsible research and novel techniques as well as the results achieved so far by the NERRI project, comparing the opinions of several experts in the field. The public debate, untitled “Neuro-Enhancement? A Round Table Discussion” and coordinated by Agnes Allansdottir (Social Science Researcher,  TLS), saw the participation of many NERRI partners together with scientists and experts involved in neuro-enhancement. The meeting addressed the scientific, social and ethical aspects of neuro-enhancement, and stimulated interaction with the public.

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After a brief presentation of the NERRI project done by Vincent Torre (International School for Advanced Studies, Trieste), Frédéric Destrebecq (Executive Director of the European Brain Council, Bruxelles) introduced the “Year of the Brain”. Coordinated by the European Brain Council, with the support of over 200 patient, clinical and industry organisations, “Year of the Brain” highlights the needs of the millions of Europeans currently affected by brain disease, while raising awareness of the importance of everyone nurturing and protecting their most vital asset – their brain. The “Year of the Brain” has 3 objectives: to educate society about how to nurture and protect the brain and prevent brain disease, to improve care and treatment access for those affected by brain disease, to increase investment in brain-related R&D for the benefit of future generations.

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The debate came back to NERRI project with Hub Zwart (Professor of Philosophy at the Faculty of Science, Radboud University Nijmegen), who talked about one of the NERRI project’s aim: organize societal dialogue on different levels. How can we stimulate a debate on neuro-enhancement? Prof. Zwart gave as an example the movie as a good starting point for a debate on neuro-enhancement, because the use of fiction can help creating a scenario for the future. Prof. Zwart also focused on the need to test new consumer devices and apps that are meant to impact the brain waves and help people better control their emotional energy state, because of negative effects that those devices can have.

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Alexandre Quintanilha, former IBMC director (Instituto de Biologia Molecular e Celular, Porto) and one of the scientists of the Informal Consulting Commission for Science and Technology created by the ex President of the European Commission Durão Barroso, focused on drugs policy. Prof. Quintanilha chaired a Committee on National Drug Strategy in Portugal (nominated President in 1998), which recommended the complete decriminalization of drug’s use for personal consumption. The Committee developed four policy’s recommendations: prevenction, risk’s reduction, decriminalization of drug’s use for personal consumption and social rehabilitation (“reinsertion”). Despite the first reactions from different countries against that kind of policy, the result of the decriminalization of drug’s use for personal consumption has been a decrease in the number of drug users. The policy of a decriminalization of drug’s use for personal consumption has functioned quite well and, at the current situation, there are many countries around the world that would like to adopt similar policies.

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Gian Maria Galeazzi (Associated Professor of Psychiatry, University of Modena and Reggio Emilia) talked about college students attitudes to the use of cognitive enhancers, showing preliminary results about a survey distributed to 433 medical students of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. More than 70% of students reported use of substances to improve cognition in the last 30 days. Coffee and tea were the most used, followed by vitamin B supplements, caffeinated sodas, and tobacco in the same timeframe. Only about 1% reported psychostimulants lifetime, and the majority mentioned concerns about safety and side effects of these substances as main reasons not to use. Use of cognitive enhancers as a group of substances in the last 30 days slightly correlated with alcohol and cannabis use. The great majority of students thought that they would use a safe and effective cognitive enhancer, if this were available. 

Elisabeth Hildt (Director of the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago) focused on neuroethics and on social implications that the use of neuro-enhancers has. She also talked about her experience during a preliminary study when interviews were carried out among 18 German university students experienced in the nonmedical use of drugs, underlining differences on neuro-enhancers approach between students from USA and students from Europe.

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Helge Torgersen from the Institute of Technology Assessment (ITA) in Vienna focused on the relationship between technological change in terms of its underlying societal conditions and neuro-enhancement. He identified three groups with different attitudes on neuro-enhancement: people who want to experiment new types of devices (an example is given by the Hackathon’s team, who had the idea to bring together makers from a variety of backgrounds and to develop new devices and applications that enhance and expand the mind). The second group of people are more skeptic about the use of new devices related on neuro-enhancement because of their risks, side effects, etc. Finally there is a large group, more conservative, that considers neuro-enhancement illicit. This last group, which is prominent in Austria and in other countries as well, represents a public opposition to neuro-enhancement because it symbolizes a society they do not want.

The last intervention was by Prof. George Gaskell (London School of Economics), who focused on genetic-enhancement, on modern biotechnology and on some aspects of regulation. Prof. Gaskell gave an example of new research on genetic-enhancement: a group of Chinese researchers have genetically modified a human embryo using a tool called CRISPR (Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, and the related scientific paper was rejected by the more prestigious scientific journals on basis that this research was unethical. This rejection highlights a major divide in the world of advanced genetic research and raised some ethical questions. Where are new genetic technics currently developing and what kind of effect will they have in our way of life in 20 years? How to regulate genetic-enhancement? Prof. Gaskell also underlined the importance to discuss these issues engaging not only scientists and experts in the field, but also the general public to foster the debate on ethics issues.