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Vol. LXIV, No. 9
April 27, 2012
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Brain Science Is Changing Society, Says Legal Scholar Greely

On the front page...

Stanford’s Hank Greely speaks at NIH.

Stanford’s Hank Greely speaks at NIH.

Over the past several decades, neuroscience has created powerful technologies to peer into the brain and show us something astounding: the physical processes that create our minds. In a lecture on Mar. 13, law professor and bioethics expert Hank Greely asked scientists to consider the profound impacts that neuroscience could have on criminal justice, family life, employment and other aspects of our society.

The “dual-use technologies” that have come out of neuroscience “will have implications far beyond health,” says Greely, director of Stanford University’s Center for Law and the Biosciences and director of the Stanford interdisciplinary group on neuroscience and society. “Because what we care about in people is not fundamentally their bodies, it is their minds, it is their behavior, it is who they are.”

Continued...

In the lecture, part of the NIMH Director’s Innovation Speaker Series, Greely asked neuroscientists to consider their own responsibility to help society navigate the novel ethical questions arising from the wider application of neuroscience.

“Neurohype is everywhere,” he said. “Do what you can to be a cautionary influence.” A technology that works well for one purpose in the lab or hospital might not work well for a different purpose, he warned.

This common-sense caveat often goes unheeded, said Greely, describing commercial firms that are selling functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) for use as a “lie detector.” In hospitals, fMRI is used to monitor brain tumors and assess the effects of stroke. Research on its ability to detect lies, however, is limited and inconsistent. Furthermore, there is no research—and likely never will be any—on fMRI lie detection in a stressful criminal justice setting instead of in a laboratory.

Said Greely, “I’m an academic; we tend to think that information is good and more information is better, but in the real world, it doesn’t always work that way.”

Said Greely, “I’m an academic; we tend to think that information is good and more information is better, but in the real world, it doesn’t always work that way.”

Photos: Ernie Branson

Even if there is good evidence, Greely emphasized, the social applications of neuroscience advances should be approached with caution. He gave the example of a new brain-imaging radioligand, which the FDA is expected to approve soon. Positron emission tomography imaging using this compound shows the build-up of the plaque found in the brains of people who died of Alzheimer’s disease. Combined with biomarker and behavioral tests, this method can probably be used to identify people in late-middle age who have little plaque and thus probably will not be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s within the next 10 years.

Not everyone will want to take this test, Greely observed.

“I’m an academic; we tend to think that information is good and more information is better, but in the real world, it doesn’t always work that way,” he said. In addition to the personal and family stresses this kind of knowledge could create, there are potentially serious legal implications. For example, the law currently does not protect anyone against discrimination by employers or health insurance based on results from this kind of test.

It is difficult to know what the future will bring, Greely conceded, but he cautioned that we still should be prepared. He told his audience, “Some of the things I’ve told you about I’m sure will not happen, but I’m just not sure which. Other important social consequences will happen that I haven’t told you about because no one has thought of them yet.”

There are several ways that neuroscientists could help to steer society’s adoption of neuroscience’s dual-use technologies. Writing newspaper editorials and letters to members of Congress, giving interviews to journalists and even speaking up in casual conversations with friends can make a difference, he said.

“Take action to do what you can,” he exhorted. “I’m not saying you have to be a crusader, but be engaged.” NIHRecord Icon


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