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‘Urgent need’ to review African brain research ethics

Image: Moor Studio, via Getty Images

History of exploitation creates unique considerations for studies on the continent, ethicists argue

Brain research data from Africa needs to be safeguarded amid a global rise in technologies that target the brain, ethicists based in South Africa and the United States have said. 

Such so-called neurotechnologies include technologies that treat or prevent brain disease or mental illness, as well as consumer-oriented technologies to track or enhance brain function.

In their commentary in the May/June issue of the South African Journal of Science, the ethicists argue that African researchers, study participants and communities must be protected from exploitation and must also benefit from brain research.

Olivia Matshabane, corresponding author on the commentary and a neuroethics researcher at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, says consumer neurotechnology companies have previously collected brain data without consent, violating privacy rights.

“In Africa, there have been past experiences of African people’s health data being collected, analysed and reported in ways that go against a community’s cultural values and beliefs,” she told Research Professional News.

“This is something that should be cautioned against and prevented from re-occurring in the realm of new and emerging neurotechnologies,” she said.

Special considerations

While neurotechnologies may ease the burden of neurological, psychiatric and substance-use disorders in underserved communities, Matshabane says their development and use should align with “African people’s values, principles and priorities”.

She and her fellow authors say that special ethical considerations apply in Africa. For example, when conducting neuroscience research on children, scientists should consider that many African children are vulnerable to disruptions in healthy brain development due to increased exposure to risk factors such as poverty, trauma, alcohol and HIV.

Furthermore, some neuroscientific interventions used to prevent or treat brain disease or mental illness in other parts of the world may not work or be accepted in Africa due to cultural reasons or local contexts, they write.

Global input

According to the commentary authors, neuroethicists within Africa are in a unique position to focus their attention on how African values and priorities can inform the development of contextually appropriate interventions.

They add that African people and scientists should be included in global neuroethics discussions early on, for a more “robust and nuanced debate”, and call on academics, policymakers and others to develop local guidelines for neurotechnologies that reflect African contexts.

Matshabane says Unesco has convened a group of 24 “experts from diverse backgrounds” to make global recommendations around neurotechnologies.