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Published: Sunday January 20, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday April 22, 2013 MYT 3:55:58 PM

Big Brother is watching your brain scans

IT is by now common knowledge that one's genetic information can be misused against the individual. It is less understood that a new kind of database being built up allows brain scans to be potentially abused too.

When the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, it gave rise to fears that employers and insurers may acquire personal genetic information about one's future health conditions or behavioural problems. This can then be abused to discriminate against job applicants or people seeking to buy health or life insurance.

Now another rapidly evolving project creates a similar kind of risk. The Human Connectome Project launched in 2009 will map all brain connections that exist and correlate them with actual or predispositions to disease and behaviour. Such data could be integrated into databases of normal brain structure and activity.

Then, just as with genetic tests being compared against the normal human genome database, a subject's brain could be scanned and compared to the “normal brain database”.

Differences could be used to identify or predict mental illness, brain disorders, personality traits, personal biases and so on.

This is one of the areas covered by the Bioethics Advisory Committee's recent call for the public to comment on ethical questions related to such neuroscience research, whose poster boy technology is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

If you have a chronic headache, say, the doctor may order a standard MRI. This images the brain structure and thus any structural problems such as tumour, stroke, aneurysm and so on. But it does not check how the normal, diseased or injured brain is working.

That is where the fMRI comes in it is used to identify critical brain regions (responsible for functions like speech, movement and sensation) to avoid during surgery to best preserve the patient's ability to speak, move or feel post-surgery.

In the fMRI scan, the subject is asked to think about, look at or listen to something tasks causing increased activity in the brain region of interest while the scanner looks for changes in the flow of blood with lots of or little oxygen to those specific regions.

The scanner pictures of the brain are divided into little cubes called voxels. The number of such cubes with oxygenated and deoxygenated blood is counted and the ratio of the two calculated.

It is assumed that the brain areas where neurons have just fired off will receive an inflow of oxygen-rich blood just a few seconds afterwards. Measuring the ratio of oxygenated to deoxygenated voxels supposedly shows which brain areas are most active during a particular mental activity.

As there is a lot of “noise” in voxel measurement, sophisticated statistical software is used to analyse the data.

However, the basic hypothesis that active brain areas receive more oxygenated blood is disputed. So is the question of which statistical method is best to analyse the data.

For now, fMRI is just a research tool when used to try to identify which brain regions are correlated with diseases or traits such as Alzheimer's, depression, addiction, compulsive gambling, racial biases, paedophilia, sexual orientation and so on. Published research on these correlations exists, but no undisputed proof has emerged yet.

Interesting ethical questions will emerge if proof does emerge one day to establish that a particular part of the brain is linked indisputably to certain illnesses or traits. If an fMRI scan can reveal one's compulsive gambling trait or racial biases, or paedophilic tendencies will its use open people up to new forms of discrimination?

Supposing you took part in a research study and underwent an fMRI to help scientists build up a “normal brain database” only to have it return incidental findings that you were hardwired to be an alcoholic, paedophile or sociopath, say. What do you do with such information?

While scientists may anonymise such data by stripping off names and birth dates of scans, there is computer software that can reconstruct the subject's face using the fMRI's underlying skull and face data. If this is done, your neurological conditions or behavioural traits may actually be linked back to you.

Employer or insurer discrimination against you aside, this revelation would lead to personal embarrassment and anxiety, and possibly fear and loathing from others.

More worrisome presently is the premature use of fMRI in the courts for lie detection. It has even been used to demonstrate specific memories of events and people, even though fMRI can't prove past mental states at the time a crime was committed.

There aren't even any psychological functions that can be identified on fMRI that indubitably map onto mental states such as intent to kill or cheat and so on, so the validity of the fMRI to prove a criminal state of mind is doubtful. Still, fMRI evidence has made its way to a few criminal cases in various US courts of appeal such as State of Washington v Marshall (2012) when it was offered as evidence of the convict's mental state at the time of the crime.

Though none of these appeals was decided on the fMRI evidence, the fact that it was considered admissible itself is cause for concern.

Meanwhile, greater public awareness of the potential abuse of fMRI brain scans is also warranted. - The Straits Times/Asia News Network

Tags / Keywords: Nation, News, Health, brain scan, employment

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