CCLE Neuroethics Project
Some fear loss of privacy as science
pries into brain By Carey
Goldberg, Boston Globe Staff, © 5/1/2003
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
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
about genetic privacy, but brain privacy is actually much more
interesting,'' said Steven E. Hyman, Harvard University's provost and a
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
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
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.
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
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 email@example.com.
This story ran on page
A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/1/2003.
2003 Globe Newspaper Company.