Brave New Visions  pg. 4

What are its limitations? What are we actually measuring, and how certain can we be about what we see? How has it been validated? If we do the same thing twice, do we get the same answer?

Does the field need standards? Yes, undoubtedly. Let’s be sure to use this tool to ask the unique questions that can actually be answered with it, rather than as a more complicated and expensive route to answers that could be obtained more simply and reliably another way. Otherwise, it can be neo-phrenology, can’t it?

At the end of the day, we need to use functional brain imaging carefully, and manage our excitement to make sure that we give clear context and boundaries to what we do and what we see.

Interview 2: Judy Illes, Ph.D.

Photo Courtesy, Judy Illes, Ph.D.

Imaging is at the intersection of neuroscience and bioethics, says Illes. Technology like functional MRI can provide measurements of cognitive phenomena ranging from fear and addiction to learning and memory. Imaging allows scientists to probe the deep recesses of the human mind, she says, “romance and hatred and prejudice, existential thinking.” Even the fetal brain is being imaged.

What are some of the ethical concerns about imaging?

What if we could use those data to predict behavior in the future? What if we could in an adolescent predict propensity to aggression or sociopathy or suicide? How are we going to handle people in whom we are able to predict potentially devastating behaviors?

What will it mean to be able to predict the onset of a disease may occur 30 years down the line, especially when there’s no treatment? Alzheimer’s a perfect case of that. The issues of prediction are immense.

Some hardcore MR (magnetic resonance) physicists who developed this technology would say, ‘Nah! Nah! Never!’ But I don’t know. I think that the evidence is that we haven’t been stopped yet in our innovations. It’s just a matter of time.

Are there places we shouldn’t go?

Is everything allowable as long as it’s done ethically? Should there be boundaries imposed on our science because of their new potential real-world applications?

I will argue that limitations on ethically conducted science are not appropriate. It’s just part of the human condition to be curious and innovate and push the envelope. But now we have every good reason to couple our ethical thinking with our neuroscience.

I think part of the ethical construction of research is not only good protocols and protection of human subjects, but actually thinking about the downstream implications of the research.

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