Some fear loss of privacy as science pries into brain
By Carey Goldberg, 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
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
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
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
''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
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 gold...@globe.com.
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/1/2003.