Discovery, Guided by Morality

Elan Ohayon and his wife, Ann Lam, who is holding their daughter, at a meeting with student researchers at the Green Neuroscience Laboratory.

MENLO PARK, CALIF. — Ann Lam delicately places a laboratory slide holding a slice of brain from a living human onto a small platform in a room the size of a walk-in refrigerator. She closes a heavy door and turns to a row of computers to monitor her experiments.

She is using one of the world’s most sophisticated and powerful microscopes, the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, to learn about the distribution of metals in the brains of epilepsy patients. But she has another reason for being here as well.

Traditional techniques for staining brain tissue produce byproducts and waste that are hazardous to the environment. And often, this sort of research is performed on animals, something Dr. Lam insists on avoiding.

The radiation that illuminates the Stanford microscope was once a waste product produced by the particle accelerators. Now that it has been harnessed — recycled, in a sense — she is able to use it to examine tissue removed from living human patients, not animals.

For Dr. Lam, those are important considerations. Indeed, scientists like her worry that neuroscience has become a dirty business. Too often, they say, labs are stocked with toxic chemicals, dangerous instruments and hapless animal subjects.

Funding often comes from the military, and some neuroscientists fear their findings may soon be applied in ways that they never intended, raising moral questions that are seldom addressed.

In 2012, Dr. Lam and Dr. Elan Ohayon, her husband, founded the Green Neuroscience Laboratory in a former industrial building in the Convoy District, an up-and-coming San Diego neighborhood. Solar panels rest on the roof, and a garden is lovingly tended on the second floor.

Dr. Lam and Dr. Ohayon refuse to experiment on animals, a mainstay of neuroscience research, and will not conduct research with military applications. At scientific conferences around the country, they have been urging scientists to stop clinging to dated notions of normalcy and deviance.

“Our dream is to create an educational training program in green neuroscience where people can really study ethics, philosophy and experimentation all at the same time,” she said.

At a time when research often seems to suggest that humans are neural puppets, Dr. Lam and Dr. Ohayon are chasing projects intended to show how brain functioning is connected to free will and personal freedom. And they are believers in transparent, open-source science: They are committed to publishing findings and data without restrictions — sometimes even as they happens during experiments.

Their ideas have raised eyebrows in scientific circles — and hopes.

“The lab is one of the laboratories that has a chance to become a place where new ideas in artificial intelligence and neuroscience come from,” said Hava T. Siegelmann, a professor of computer science who studies neural systems at the University of Massachusetts.

But their rigid opposition to animal research in particular may come at a steep price.

“They don’t want to play the game,” said W. McIntyre Burnham, a neuropharmacologist at the University of Toronto, with whom Dr. Ohayon studied. “They may be the wave of the future, but I think they may also have trouble getting support.”

The two came to the idea of an alternative approach to neuroscience on a backpacking trip on Vancouver Island in 2011. Dr. Lam was ending a postdoctoral fellowship, and the two scientists were worried about the direction of neuroscience. As it turned out, they were not the only ones.

Eventually they found a kindred spirit in the neuroscientist Jay S. Coggan. The Green Neuroscience Laboratory is affiliated with — and shares offices with — the NeuroLinx Research Institute, which he founded.

Dr. Coggan had earlier grown disappointed with the “establishment” science in which, he says, academic research and corporate profit priorities are increasingly indistinguishable. He bootstrapped the research laboratory with his own money and now supports it with funding from a variety of private individual contributions and scientific research grants.

NeuroLinx now supports a range of research projects, including an exploration of the way dolphins sleep, an effort to create a computer simulation of the ubiquitous lab worm C. elegans (known as the Open Worm project), and an exploration of nerve damage in diseases like multiple sclerosis.

Dr. Ohayon had done early research in the field of autonomous agents based on neural networks, computing models inspired by biological nervous systems, but stopped for almost a decade because of worries about military applications of the technology.

Now he has returned to the research: In the Green Neuroscience Laboratory, a sandboxlike table is home to small robot used to model neural network behavior. The research group recently published work exploring the basis of neural activity needed to support movement in an environment.

But Dr. Ohayon is treading gingerly, looking for ways to ensure that his findings are not misused. “We have to treat neuroscience and robotics like we treat biological and chemical weapons,” he said.

Dr. Lam and Dr. Ohayon have decided that all of their research projects must have two components.

One is the “familiar and experimental” outline of the scope and requirements of the project, Dr. Lam said. The other is a bit more unusual: “A parallel green paper that guides the study and helps explore the application guidelines.” In short: How can the study be done ethically, and how can the finding be used ethically?

Dr. Lam and Dr. Ohayon have begun to travel around the country, speaking about the moral quandary they believe faces neuroscientists. They start by reviewing dystopian futures as described in science fiction. “You know all of that stuff?” they ask. “It’s much worse.”

Brain technologies emerging today may put anything that George Orwell might have imagined to shame, they say. The government’s ambitious effort to map the human brain, they note, also includes research into whether information can be “written” into the brain.

“The problem is that we haven’t learned from history,” Dr. Ohayon said. “Now we know what science can create.”

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