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Can MRI Mind Probes Be Far Off?

June 8, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Medical Ethics, Neuroradiology
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Experts at a conference this week in Glasgow, Scotland, had a word for plans to use MRI scans to “read minds” of insurance customers, potential employees, or court witnesses:

Stop.

Some research indicates that MRI can reveal whether a person is lying by showing which parts of the brain are active during speech or viewing of objects, images, or people. According to BBC News, at least one American company offers scans to employers as a tool in assessing potential employees. However, American judges have (so far) rejected attempts to introduce MRI into the courtroom to test the veracity of witnesses.

“The promise to read a person’s mind is beguiling, and some applications will be greatly beneficial,” said Burkhard Schafer, codirector of the SCRIPT Centre for Research in Intellectual Property and Technology at the University of Edinburgh’s school of law.

“But a combination of exaggerated claims by commercial providers, inadequate legal regulation, and the persuasive power of images bring very real dangers for us as citizens.

“The task ahead is not just to ensure that the use of brain imaging in courts or by other decision-makers is scientifically sound and reliable. We also need to ensure that the law protects what is the innermost core of our privacy—our thoughts, deepest wishes, and desires—from unwarranted intrusion.”

“Commercial providers” aren’t the only ones who exaggerate. The public tends to latch on to such flashy concepts as mind reading and ignore protests from the scientific and medical community about the limitations of new technologies. Said Schafer:

As soon as public awareness increases, there will be interest from everyone from daytime entertainment programs to employers and the legal system. It would be sensible to be prepared.

Sensible indeed. Schafer added: “There should probably be a moratorium for insurance companies, as has happened over the use of genetic test information.”

The Scotsman newspaper quoted another conference participant, Joanna Wardlaw, MB, MD, professor of applied neuroimaging at the University of Edinburgh and director of its Brain Imaging Research Centre. Dr. Wardlaw said:

“Once outside the medical or scientific arena, the use of imaging is completely unregulated. Is it right that someone should be convicted of a serious crime, or let off, on the basis of evidence coming from brain imaging? We don’t think the technology is ready for that yet, but we need an open and frank discussion to decide where to go next.”

We feel confident in predicting this much: it’s going to get messy.

Related seminar: Neuroradiology Review

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