[Paleopsych] Slate: David Dobbs: Brain Scans for Sale

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Brain Scans for Sale - As brain imaging spreads to nonmedical uses,
will commerce overtake ethics? By David Dobbs

    Posted Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2005, at 2:45 PM PT

    The brain-imaging technology developed over the past three
    decades--first [22]positron emission tomography, or PET, and more
    recently the faster, simpler [23]functional magnetic resonance imaging
    known as fMRI--has given neuroscience a tool of unprecedented power.
    By tracing blood flow associated with neuronal activity, scanning
    methods enable researchers to see how different regions of the brain
    activate as a person thinks or acts. A subject, lying in a scanner,
    completes mental tasks or responds to various stimuli--solving a
    simple word puzzle, say, or a more complex task like characterizing
    facial expressions. As the subject works, the scanner tracks changes
    in blood flow to create images showing distinctive patterns of
    neuronal activation. The result is a visual representation of the
    "neural correlates" of various mental states.

    At first this technology served primarily to refine a basic map of the
    brain's main functional areas--showing, for instance, that certain
    regions in either hemisphere process and generate language or that the
    amygdala, an almond-sized area near the brain's center, acts as a sort
    of hub connecting sensory perception, emotion, and memory. Researchers
    also discovered patterns characteristic of difficult-to-diagnose
    afflictions ranging from autism to schizophrenia. But perhaps the most
    intriguing progress, most of which has come in the past five years,
    has been researchers' increasing ability to identify patterns
    distinctive to many of our more complex mental processes. Scan studies
    have tracked the maturation of decision-making regions during
    adolescence; clarified how we store, retrieve, and lose memories; and
    identified the neural correlates of fear, distraction, and affection,
    as well as of various character traits, including [24]extraversion,
    empathy, and [25]persistence. They've even seen patterns of alarm when
    volunteers viewed faces of people of another race--a sort of
    [26]neural correlate of racism. Researchers find new correlations
    every month.

    Neurologists stress that cognitive neuroscience is still young, its
    tools too rough and knowledge too patchy to predict behavior and
    diagnose personality. Even fMRI, the finest-grained tool, cannot
    capture events at the minute scale and lightning speed of the neuron.
    And while a certain activation pattern may be common to most
    murderers, for example, too many diseases and characteristics remain
    unexplored to know that the same pattern couldn't also show up in a
    Grand Theft Auto fanatic.

    Despite these caveats, some entrepreneurs and researchers are carrying
    brain imaging into new, nonmedical territory that could be ethically
    treacherous. Some of these uses, such as lie detection, are already
    upon us; others, such as the use of brain scans to screen job
    applicants, seem almost certain to be explored or developed. Close
    behind the neuroentrepreneurs are neuroethicists at places like the
    University of Pennsylvania's [29]Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and
    the [30]Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, who are trying to
    identify and resolve the ethical concerns raised by these
    applications: Are scanning technologies really appropriate for
    nonmedical uses? If personal information is collected by a nonmedical
    commercial interest, how can we ensure its confidentiality?

    Perhaps the best-known and possibly least threatening nonmedical use
    of scanning is the emerging "neuromarketing" industry. At least one
    well-funded firm, [31]Brighthouse Neurostrategies Group, is trying to
    learn how to better market everything from licorice to liquor by
    scanning volunteers as they view ads or other media to see how
    different advertising approaches activate different brain areas. This
    strikes many as offensive; do we need yet more insidious ways to stir
    consumer lust? Yet neuromarketing, while perhaps in poor taste, seems
    harmless next to other possibilities.

    More problematic is the use of brain-testing for high-tech lie
    detection. Neurologist Larry Farwell's [32]Brain Fingerprinting
    Laboratories is the most prominent such outfit. Farwell contracts with
    public and private investigators to conduct a brain-wave analysis
    called multifaceted electroencephalographic response analysis, or
    MERA, that he claims can tell whether a suspect is familiar with
    evidence--a crime scene, a face, a piece of furniture or
    clothing--that would be known only to the perpetrator of a particular
    crime. The suspect views a series of images on a computer screen while
    wearing a little cap full of EEG-like sensors; the sensors pick up a
    distinctive burst of neuronal activity when the suspect sees something
    familiar. Most neurologists consider this method sound. It's the
    application of it that gets messy--who uses it, whether proper
    controls are established, whether the images shown could truly be
    known only by whoever committed the crime. In high-profile cases like
    those Farwell has worked on, such as the successful effort to free
    wrongly convicted murderer [33]Terry Harrington, such issues get close
    scrutiny. But if brain fingerprinting becomes common, [34]shoddy or
    dishonest technique could produce false convictions.

    The most complex, fraught, and uncertain aspect of brain imaging being
    discussed by neuroethicists is the potential these technologies hold
    for screening job and school applicants. This so far remains more a
    hypothetical notion than a budding industry, and no company or school
    has announced plans to scan applicants. Yet many ethicists feel the
    temptation will be overwhelming. How to resist a screen that can gauge
    precisely the sorts of traits--persistence, extroversion, the ability
    to focus or multitask--that make good employees or students?

    The legality of such use is unclear. The relevant federal laws, the
    American With Disabilities Act and the Health Insurance Portability
    and Accountability Act (which governs privacy of medical information),
    allow pre-employment medical tests only if they assess abilities
    relevant to a particular job. An employer couldn't legally scan for
    depression or incipient Alzheimer's. Yet it's possible an employer
    could legally use a brain scan to test for traits relevant to a
    particular job--risk tolerance for a stock-trading job, for instance,
    or extroversion for a sales position. An additional attraction of
    brain scanning is that a tester can evaluate these and other traits
    while an applicant performs nonthreatening, apparently unrelated
    tasks--like matching labels to pictures. An unscrupulous employer
    could fashion such tests to covertly explore subjects that would be
    off-limits in an interview, such as susceptibility to depression, or
    cultural, sexual, and political preferences.

    Finally, widespread brain testing poses the risk that the results
    could be filed away in databases marketed to prospective employers,
    lenders, health and life insurance companies, or security officials,
    similar to the way credit rating information is now. Present law would
    forbid this if the scans were considered medical information. But if
    they were ruled nonmedical--or if consent were obtained, as consent
    for releasing certain medical information to insurers or employers
    often is now--some sharing might be allowed.

    How likely are these things, really? Your opinion on this will likely
    depend largely on your faith in how well the legal system will protect
    privacy and how well any emerging neuroinformation industry will heed
    ethical guidelines. Nonmedical brain imaging currently falls under no
    regulatory agency's purview. And the response of both industry and
    government will likely depend partly on public awareness and pressure.
    To the extent it pays attention, the public today seems to view
    neuroscience as a curiosity. But should a new brain-testing industry
    start to seem heedless or brash--lacking that adultlike prefrontal
    control, as it were--we may want to start setting limits.

    [35]David Dobbs writes on science, medicine, and culture. His latest
    book is Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the
    Meaning of Coral.
    Photograph on the Slate home page of MRI of brain and head from
    Royalty-Free Corbis.

    What did you think of this article?
    Join the Fray, our reader discussion forum

    Remarks from the Fray:
    Dobbs suggests that there is a distinction between medical and
    non-medical brain imagining, based entirely on the application of the
    data rather than on the procedure itself.
    Do we draw a similar distinction between medical and non-medical
    x-rays, ultrasounds or urinalyses? No: they are all considered medical
    procedures regardless of how one uses the data collected.
    Why should data retrieved from the brain be any less "medical" than
    data retrieved from the blood or tissue samples? I suspect that it is
    because of superstitious mind/body dualism: that somehow the brain is
    not as "material" as the rest of the body, and that any data retrieved
    is less concrete...less grounded in science.
    While it is true that much of the inner workings of the brain have yet
    to be fully understood, the brain is still an ORGAN, albeit a highly
    complex organ.
    When one performs a MEDICAL procedure upon an ORGAN, then that data is
    clearly medical data, and should be considered confidential under
    current law.
    (To reply, click [45]here)
    Dobbs frets over the possibility of "...a screen that can gauge
    precisely the sorts of traits--persistence, extroversion, the ability
    to focus or multitask--that make good employees or students?"
    Don't let BRAIN IMAGING take on a magical quality that good ol'
    paper-and-pencil neuroscience lacks. We HAVE tests to measure
    persistence, extroversion, and ability to focus along with
    "intelligence" and a teeming host of other traits. They just happen to
    display their effects on a test page instead of a picture of someone's
    head. And, for the time being at least, they are much more likely to
    be accurate measures of the traits in question. So, if the ethical
    questions surrounding giving someone an IQ test or an MMPI at a job
    interview are settled...well then, a brain image doesn't really add
    any new problems.
    (To reply, click [46]here)
    Mr. Dobbs makes a creditable effort to describe the frontier of
    functional imaging of the brain.
    The trouble is that now it is more like phrenology, or "animal
    magnetism", or the Orgone Box at this point -- a myriad of hucksters
    surrounded by hype with little in the way of careful study. That is
    because those who do the careful study are puzzling away at the
    complexities trying to figure them out while the hucksters hawk their
    snake oil, which in this case appears to be an oxygen isotope or some
    electrolytic cream...
    ... everything that we have learned from neuroscience at this point
    indicates that neural activity adapts to tasks over at least 3 time
    courses and progresses from a "recognition of novelty" or initiation
    pattern to a "habituation to routine" or familiarity pattern. It is a
    biological universality that even extend to Paramecium when they get
    bumped on the front or bacteria when exposed to a drop of sugar. This
    means that the only way that a brain scan can yield an accurate
    pattern that is unique to a particular stimulus/activity/task is to
    track the temporal changes of activity in all regions of cortex (and
    not simply the particular "brain centers" associated with the activity
    through neurological lesion studies). In fact, much of the supposedly
    demonstrated functional imaging is validated ostensibly by reference
    to the field potentials, an older technique. Statistical validity is
    rarely examined, and the reason the reputable scientists so rarely
    speak up is because they are busy trying to figure this out.
    (To reply, click [47]here)


   22. http://science.howstuffworks.com/nuclear-medicine2.htm
   23. http://www.fmrib.ox.ac.uk/fmri_intro/brief.html
   24. http://www.apa.org/journals/bne/bne115133.html#tbl1
   25. http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/full/100/6/3479?maxtoshow=&HITS=&hits=&RESULTFORMAT=&fulltext=fmri+persistence&andorexactfulltext=and&searchid=1105161998295_20992&stored_search=&FIRSTINDEX=0&resourcetype=1
   26. http://www.psychtesting.org.uk/hotissues.asp?id=80
   27. http://slate.msn.com/id/2112653/#ContinueArticle
   28. http://ad.doubleclick.net/jump/slate.technology/slate;kw=slate;sz=300x250;ord=1234?
   29. http://ccn.upenn.edu/
   30. http://scbe.stanford.edu/research/programs/neuroethics.html
   31. http://www.thoughtsciences.com/
   32. http://www.brainwavescience.com/HomePage.php
   33. http://www.brainwavescience.com/IowaSupCourtPR.php
   34. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/specials/chi-0410210285oct21,1,2210813.story?coll=chi-newsspecials-hed
   35. http://daviddobbs.net/
   36. http://slate.msn.com/
   37. http://slate.msn.com/id/2112653/
   38. http://slate.msn.com/id/2112151/
   39. http://slate.msn.com/id/2111499/
   40. http://slate.msn.com/id/2111023/
   41. http://slate.msn.com/id/2109808/
   42. http://slate.msn.com/?id=3944&cp=2657
   43. http://slate.msn.com/?id=3936&post=1&tp=medicalexaminer

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