Brave New Visions  pg. 5

What if you’re doing a study of people with schizophrenia and you find a mass? How do you handle that with that kind of population? What about children? What if something comes out and they end up with a result that may be stigmatizing? That could have a lifelong implication.

What if somebody develops a drug that can check addictive behaviors? What kind of interventions are developed and become available? All the more reason to start thinking about the ethics of it. If in fact we can use an imaging technology to predict addiction, then we definitely want to have a response ready.

And to the extent that we continue to do these studies that probe personhood, it’s not enough just to say “I’m not going to hurt somebody in my experiments.” But it is becoming, I believe, a requirement to think about, “If I find out that there is a locus or loci or network for making race judgments in the human brain, this is how I’m going to handle the information in terms of its dissemination.”

Without being too alarmist and certainly without being negative, I do feel that unless we start to introduce a reasonable—not a heavy, but a reasonable—ethical component to the kind of work that we’re doing, there are risks of adverse effects on people that then have the adverse effect of potentially slowing down the progress of research.

And so by being proactive, and by trying to address these issues jointly from within the neuroscience and bioethics community, we can get a very good handle on what the issues are and what are the ways that we can empower our science ethically so that we can either prevent the adverse events down the road or at least be able to manage them very efficiently.

What are the limitations of these technologies?

They start at the beginning with the design of an experiment. Any experiment, especially one that probes complex phenomena such as existential decisions, takes some pretty clever design and invariably will reflect—and I don’t see how it could not—the cultural orientation and biases of the experimenters developing it.

The way I value something might be very different from the way you value something at Vanderbilt. When we start to probe personhood, we’re unequivocally invoking issues of values and culture, ethnicity, so there’s a limitation right there.

Another limitation is, as we know, in the statistical processing of the data. The different kind of statistics you do may affect the results, and along with that we don’t have a very good handle yet on individual neuro-functionality in terms of blood flow, for example. We’re still using group averages, although people are really making some fantastic strides in that domain.

Some investigators are concerned that we’re only able to study subsets of certain disease populations. I think of autism, for example, where we have quite a few studies on high functioning autistic children but considerably fewer on those who are low functioning and more difficult to manage, certainly in the context of an MRI environment.

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