See Also: CCLE Neuroethics Project

Some fear loss of privacy as science pries into brain By Carey Goldberg, Boston Globe Staff, 5/1/2003

Using magnetic resonance imaging machines that detect the ebb and flow of brain activity, researchers have become so good at peering into the workings of the human mind that their work is raising a new and deeply personal ethical concern: brain privacy.

One study of white students found that although they expressed no conscious racism, the seat of fear in their brains still fired up more when they looked at unfamiliar black faces than at unfamiliar white faces. Another recent imaging study reported that certain parts of the brain work harder when a person is lying than when telling the truth, raising the prospect of a brain-based lie detector.

A marketing research company is already starting to use the machines to gauge consumers' unconscious preferences by looking at the pattern of brain activity as they respond to products or messages. Though brain scientists are nowhere near reading minds, their mounting success at mapping brains is sparking a discussion that echoes recent debate about preserving the privacy of people's genes. The issues of brain privacy, however, hold the potential for even more heat, say scientists and ethicists who are beginning to address them.

''Everybody's worried about genetic privacy, but brain privacy is actually much more interesting,'' said Steven E. Hyman, Harvard University's provost and a neuroscientist.

The need for discussing brain privacy is urgent, said Arthur L. Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics. ''If you were to ask me what the ethical hot potato of this coming century is, I'd say it's new knowledge of the brain, its structure, and function.'' Most people feel a much greater sense of privacy about their brains than their genes, Caplan and other ethicists say. Genes play critical but complex roles in what people become, while ''your brain is more associated with you,'' Caplan said.

Brain-scanning is too new and imperfect to have engendered real-life tales of invasion of brain privacy, but controversy is easy to imagine. What if a court, a potential employer, or a suspicious spouse wants to scan an individual's brain for telltale signs of something she would prefer not be known or something the individual may not even know about himself?

What if scans could be used to check a soldier for homosexuality? Or a potential parolee for lingering violent impulses? Or a would-be employee for a susceptibility to major depression?

Such questions are part of neuroethics, as the field is called by many participants in the fast-growing discussion of ethical implications of the explosion of knowledge about the brain.

A handful of neuroethics conferences have been in the United States in the last year or two. Emory University is holding a faculty seminar on neuroethics in mid-May. The American Association for the Advancement of Science plans a meeting on the legal implications of neuroscience in September.

If the brain privacy debate follows the model of genetic privacy -- which focused on concerns that genetic information could be abused by employers, insurers, and others -- it will lead to the proposal of new laws. It could also influence ethical guidelines for the operators of brain-scanning machines and help bring public opinion to bear on scientists and policy makers.

So far, the discussion is full of caveats. The automobile-sized MRI scanners needed to image brain activity are too expensive, generally $2 million or $3 million, and need too much expertise to be used by nonscientists, say researchers. Also, existing rules about experimenting on humans protect subjects from coercion.

Functional MRI -- the hottest of current brain-monitoring techniques, though far from the only one -- uses magnetism to peer into brain tissue just like any medical MRI. But it also picks up jumps in oxygen use that signal added activity in particular spots, illuminating them in the resulting images.

Though fMRI is broadly accepted as a valid way to track brain function, it is still relatively new, and many of the exciting findings about which areas of the brain ''light up'' during certain activities have rolled out only in the last couple of years and are far from established. As the technology has improved in speed and accuracy, functional MRI studies have been growing, and many of their findings are striking.

Consider a Yale experiment published in 2000 that appeared to detect unconscious racism in white students. The students reported no conscious racism, but when they were scanned, the amygdala, which generates and registers fear and is also associated with emotional learning, lit up more when students were shown unfamiliar black faces than unfamiliar white faces. They showed no amygdala response to familiar black faces.

''You can see that as an indicant of the kinds of things that might be unearthed about people,'' said Michael S. Gazzaniga director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth College, who is working on a book about neuroethics. ''That's an issue.''

Work published last year by Dr. Daniel D. Langleben, assistant profess of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, indicated that certain areas of the brain show more activation when people lie. His group is now trying to see whether they can use the technique to produce an effective lie detector, one that would far outperform the deeply imperfect polygraph.

Mind-reading is decades away, Langleben said, but ''if you ask your questions properly, lots of questions that are in the realm of mind-reading probably can be answered using existing neuroscience and functional imaging techniques.''

If a truly accurate lie detector could be developed, Caplan warns, current privacy guarantees might not provide enough protection against scanning requests from courts, the government, the military, or employers.

Other imaging work has turned up results that could prove clinically useful, including visible hallmarks of depression and signs of learning disabilities. But those findings, too, raise questions.

Scanning could prove a boon to psychiatrists and mental patients, by helping sort out diagnoses and by leading researchers toward developing better treatments. But what if someone with no symptoms is diagnosed as having a tendency toward mental illness because of a brain profile?

Other questions abound. ''Brain scientists have recently identified the cerebral area involved in intention, the region responsible when thoughts are converted into actions,'' Bruce H. Hinrichs, professor of psychology at Century College in Minnesota, wrote in the magazine The Humanist.

''Perhaps child molesters and other criminals in the future will wear headgear that will monitor that brain region in order to determine when their intentions will be carried out,'' Hinrichs wrote. ''Would this be a reasonable method of crime prevention or a human rights violation?''

He also identified the ''insidious threat'' that corporations could try to worm their way into consumers' minds.

But brain-based marketing research has already begun. BrightHouse Institute for Thought Sciences, an Atlanta company, announced last summer that it was starting to apply MRI scanning to the task of determining people's likes and dislikes, providing what it called ''unprecedented insight'' into consumers' minds and seeking to understand ''the true drivers of consumer behavior.'' Clint Kilts, professor of psychiatry at Emory University Medical School and scientific director at BrightHouse Institute, said he had been surprised at the level of concern people expressed about the prospect that marketers could be trying to get inside their heads.

''We're just an observational science,'' he said. ''We expose subjects to certain stimuli, but we don't have the ability to change their perception of that stimulus.''

Caplan predicted that the first time neuroethics becomes a real-life issue will be in the courtroom. Some lawyers have already tried to use brain scans to absolve their clients of responsibility, he said.

There are also questions of employment: For example, what if scanning became a condition of employment, like drug testing?

Such a scenario is many years away, but knowledge, often imperfect knowledge, of the use of brain scanners is spreading fast, and that, too, creates the potential for abuse. Within a few years, Caplan predicted, there will even be a television show that sensationalizes scanning, with a name like ''Is Your Brain Bad?''

Carey Goldberg can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/1/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.