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     * Journal List
     * EMBO Rep
     * v.8(Suppl 1); 2007 Jul
     * PMC3327529

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     * EMBO Rep
     * v.8(Suppl 1); 2007 Jul
     * PMC3327529

   Logo of emborep

   EMBO Rep. 2007 Jul; 8(Suppl 1): S1-S2.
   doi: 10.1038/sj.embor.7401012
   PMCID: PMC3327529
   PMID: 17726434

The biology of behaviour: scientific and ethical implications

   Halldor Stefansson^1

Halldor Stefansson

   ^1European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Heidelberg, Germany.E-mail:
   Find articles by Halldor Stefansson
   Author information Copyright and License information Disclaimer
   ^1European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Heidelberg, Germany.E-mail:
   An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc. Object name
   is 7401012-i1.jpg Halldor Stefansson is the Science & Society Programme
   Manager at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg,
   Germany, and Guest Editor of this special issue of EMBO reports.E-mail:
   Copyright (c) 2007, European Molecular Biology Organization

   The human brain is the most complex of all biological organs; it not
   only gives rise to consciousness--that most fascinating but elusive
   phenomenon--but also mediates our behavioural responses. The structure
   of the brain and its higher cognitive functions are the product of
   evolutionary history, embedded within the genome. One of the great
   scientific challenges today is therefore to integrate the results from
   two different lines of investigation into the biology of
   behaviour--using genes and the brain--with the goal of bringing both to
   a deeper level of understanding.

   Modern biology has taught us how genes and genomes serve as blueprints
   for all living organisms. Not only physiology, but also some forms of
   behaviour seem to be innate or predisposed by genes. Today, most
   scientists agree that genes alone do not cause behaviour, but merely
   influence how an individual will react to a particular set of
   environmental and biographical circumstances. Genes are seen as
   determinants of behaviour insofar as they code for the assembly of the
   neural circuits that are necessary for the development and survival of
   the organism. But how does the brain, which owes its functional
   structure partly to the concerted action of genes, give rise to or
   cause behaviour? These were some of the questions that were addressed
   at the seventh European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL)/European
   Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) joint science and society
   conference on `Genes, Brain/Mind and Behaviour', held on 3-4 November
   2006 at the EMBL in Heidelberg, Germany, which are discussed further in
   this special issue of EMBO reports.

   Basic research on behavioural genetics is thriving. Researchers have
   developed powerful tools to disentangle the underlying complexity
   between genes and behaviour, and are amassing a body of knowledge about
   how phenotypic variation relates to and influences distinct patterns of
   behaviour. Although researchers recognize the importance of
   environmental factors in the development of living organisms, they have
   also produced solid evidence showing how genes are relevant to basic
   forms of behaviour. Giovanni Frazzetto and Cornelius Gross emphasize
   the complex relationship between genotypes and phenotypes in their
   article (pS3). Similarly, Pierre Roubertoux critically reviews some of
   the overly simplistic assumptions that geneticists have made (pS7). In
   particular, Roubertoux stresses how pleiotropy, epistasis, interactions
   between genes and the environment, alternative splicing and neuronal
   integration give rise to, and contribute to, many aspects of behaviour.

   The manifold steps that lead from genes to brains to behaviour are
   highly complex, but scientists are gradually elucidating the molecular
   and cellular mechanisms behind brain structure and function. The
   biggest challenge now is to understand how neurons interconnect to form
   larger networks, and how these intricate neural structures give rise to
   consciousness and a sense of self. Neuroscientists are confident that
   they now have the tools to enable them to solve this mystery. As a
   background, the essay by Anne Harrington provides an illuminating
   historical overview of how people in the Western world have perceived
   the mind-body relationship (pS12).

   Even today, there are differing opinions on whether the human mind can
   be fully elucidated. Whereas many scientists remain wary that we will
   ever understand human consciousness, optimists claim that the brain
   sciences will eventually explain how we are constituted from the
   molecular level up to the cerebral level. Hence, the second main topic
   at the 2006 conference was neuronal organization and cognitive
   functioning of the brain, and how basic molecular mechanisms and neural
   networks give rise to awareness. In his essay, Wolfgang Singer
   succinctly deconstructs an image of a `self' that is seemingly
   disconnected from the brain (pS16). By explaining how neurons encode
   information through varying the amplitude and/or adjusting the precise
   timing of electric discharges, Singer lays out a model of the brain as
   a complex nonlinear system with emerging properties, which does not
   need a higher-order controlling structure or res cogitans to create

   The second group of essays in this special issue focuses on new
   technologies that have grown out of behavioural genetics and the brain
   sciences, and on the influence that their application has, or will
   have, on society. These essays deal with various applications of
   science to monitor and map the brain, and to influence human behaviour,
   as well as the ethical questions that many such applications entail.

   Stephanie Perreau-Lenz, Tarek Zghoul and Rainer Spanagel argue that a
   better understanding of clock genes can pave the way for new
   therapeutic approaches to treat pathological conditions such as
   addiction and depression (pS20). These are examples of what has been
   termed `neurotechnology': tools that are designed to analyse, cure and
   enhance the functions of the human nervous system, especially the
   brain. At the leading edge of neurotechnologies are various forms of
   brain imaging and neuropharmacology. These techniques not only have
   been used for understanding normal brain function, but also provide new
   insights into the physiological basis of neuropsychiatric disorders.
   Their future uses might extend to forensic and commercial purposes,
   such as in marketing or research on consumer preferences.

   Clinical depression is the leading cause of disability in the USA and
   other countries today, and is expected to become the second leading
   cause of disability worldwide--after heart disease--by the year 2020
   (Murray & Lopez, 1997). Klaus-Peter Lesch describes in more detail how
   variants of the serotonin system give rise to depression and other
   anxiety disorders (pS24), while Turhan Canli describes how his group
   has made the link from research on the molecular level of behaviour to
   clinical psychology, in an approach that he has termed genomic
   psychology (pS30). The pharmaceutical industry has already responded to
   the apparent increase in behavioural disorders with new
   anti-depressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and
   stimulants to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Although
   their prescription--to children in particular--is rapidly increasing,
   there are few clinical studies on young patients who take psychotropic
   drugs. The article by Ilina Singh therefore provides a unique insight
   into how children who are subjected to stimulant treatment engage in
   clinical research as capable and informed actors, and she convincingly
   refutes protective impulses to exclude children from clinical studies

   Degenerative disorders of the brain, such as Alzheimer disease and
   Parkinson disease, are among the largest public-health problems in
   fast-ageing populations. But intense efforts by the pharmaceutical and
   biotech industry have produced no cure or treatment to halt or even
   reverse neurological degeneration in older individuals. Lars Sundstrom
   describes a new drug-development strategy that might help to provide
   these much-needed therapies: so-called `chemical genomics' (pS40).
   Instead of identifying possible drug targets and then searching for
   compounds that interfere with them, numerous compounds are tested on
   biological material--cells, tissues or model organisms such as
   Drosophila or zebrafish, for example--to see if they can trigger the
   desired physiological response.

   Future neurotechnologies will not be limited to medical uses alone, as
   shown by the emerging field of `neuroeconomics', which analyses
   neurological determinants of decision-making as well as their social
   and economic implications. The essay by Michael Kosfeld provides an
   interesting introduction to the general approach of neuroeconomics
   through his case study of the neurobiology of trust (pS44). Kosfeld
   describes a key experiment that proves the important role of the
   neurohormone oxytocin in the willingness of individuals to trust

   The essays in the third and final section of this special issue are
   concerned primarily with the ethical questions that are raised by the
   new brain sciences and their applications. One of the main issues is
   whether philosophical and ethical questions about genetics and genomics
   acquire an accrued urgency when they are re-examined in the context of
   neuroscience. Many talks and debates at the Heidelberg conference
   focused on whether these developments justify the establishment of a
   new branch within the field of bioethics: neuroethics. This term seems
   to be used with two distinct meanings: on the one hand, neuroethics
   concerns itself with the study of moral dispositions, which it assumes
   are hard-wired in the human brain; on the other hand, neuroethics
   commonly refers to concerns about the sociocultural repercussions of
   the new knowledge and technologies of the brain. Kathinka Evers prefers
   to distinguish between `applied neuroethics' and `fundamental
   neuroethics', the latter being geared towards deciphering the network
   of causal connections between the neurological, sociocultural and
   contingent historical perspectives that allow moral `norms' to be
   enunciated at a given time (pS48).

   Adina Roskies (pS52) and Judy Illes (pS57) both argue for recognizing
   neuroethics as an emerging field within bioethics. In their view,
   neuroethicists should monitor how the brain sciences develop, and
   should critically review new ways of enhancing, controlling and reading
   the mind. According to these authors, the stakes might be high if new
   tools become available that allow us to distinguish lies from truth,
   veridical versus false memories, the risk of future violent crime,
   styles of moral reasoning, the inclination to cooperate and even
   specific contents of thought. Erik Parens and Josephine Johnston, by
   contrast, express reservations about the neuroethical turn in bioethics
   (pS61). Stressing the underlying commonalities between many different
   uses of modern-day science and technologies, they argue that dividing
   bioethics into several branches--each focusing on a separate set of
   issues--could do more harm than good. In the closing essay, Raymond de
   Vries provides the perspective of a sociologist on this new field in
   bioethics (pS65). de Vries proposes that, along with its declared
   objectives of weighing the ethical implications of imaging, measuring
   and altering the brain, neuroethics is just as much about the mindset
   and the interests of it practitioners. His sociological critique
   focuses on neuroethicists as being engaged in constructing new
   boundaries, carving out their territory within the academic landscape
   and `colonizing' a new area of bioscience. Together, the last two
   essays in this special issue of EMBO reports present a critical
   rethinking of the role that the practitioners of bioethics/neuroethics
   have assigned themselves.

   Time will tell whether the new brain sciences explain human
   consciousness, or provide the tools needed to analyse and treat
   neurological and psychiatric disorders. In the meantime, scientists
   will undoubtedly discover many of the fundamental determinants of
   animal and human behaviour. Such new knowledge will inevitably be
   applied, and it is important that this is done for the benefit of both
   individuals and societies--hence the need for a broad deliberation,
   well in advance and beyond disciplinary boundaries. The collection of
   essays in this special issue of EMBO reports should contribute towards
   those goals.


     * Murray CJ, Lopez AD (1997) Alternative projections of mortality and
       disability by cause 1990-2020: Global Burden of Disease Study.
       Lancet 349: 1498-1504 [PubMed] [Google Scholar]

   Articles from EMBO Reports are provided here courtesy of The European
   Molecular Biology Organization

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