neuroethicsIn the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kate Winslet played a young woman who had all memory of her unsatisfactory love affair with Jim Carrey erased. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley imagined a place where citizens take a narcotic called “soma” to brighten their mood and promote social harmony. And who can forget the tortured part-human, part-machine cyborg played by Peter Weller in Robocop?

Science fiction and fantasy are full of these kinds of improbable plots, but each new discovery in the field of brain science is making stories like these more believable. Recent advances in neuroscience are also raising questions about the ethical implications of expanding our neurological knowledge and technological know how. Experts have coined a new term to describe the moral dilemmas surrounding human influence on the brain: neuroethics.

The History of Medical Ethics
Neuroethics builds on a tradition that stretches back to the ancient Greeks who were the first to really grapple with how doctors should practice medicine. The Hippocratic Oath, written in the 4th century B.C., was the first code that spelled out in some detail what physicians should and should not do. Any doctor who joined the profession back then swore by Apollo, Asclepius, Hygieia, and Panacea never to knowingly do harm to anyone.

The conduct of medical research really became an issue in the 20th century. After the experimental atrocities of Nazi doctors were exposed in the late 1940’s, standards for biomedical research were laid out, first in the Nuremberg Code, and then later in the Helsinki Declaration and the Common Rule. Today three basic principles guide all scientists who conduct experiments with human subjects: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice. Processes to protect and inform research subjects are also in place.

More recently, developments in the field of genetics have generated new ethical questions. For example, who should have access to genetic information? How might that information affect an individual’s chances for success and happiness? And, should we do genetic testing for diseases if there’s no treatment available? Numerous scholars, think tanks, and government offices spend millions of dollars each year researching questions like these.

Is it Right to Watch the Brain at Work?
Neuroscientific facts and findings have accumulated at a tremendous rate in the past decade, stirring up new ethical debates. According to University of Pennsylvania researchers Martha J. Farah and Paul Root Wolpe, many of the questions are linked to two key developments. First, there’s our ability observe the brain in action using neuroimaging techniques like positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalogram (EEG) tests. Second, we are actually developing ways of changing how the brain functions with drugs and technological interfaces.

Until fairly recently, brain imaging technology was primarily used for medical purposes such as diagnosing strokes or finding tumors. However, it hasn’t escaped the notice of enterprising “neuroprenuers” that the techniques have other potential applications.

Imagine specific parts of our brain are activated when we see products like cars or computers or clothes that we like a lot. Now imagine this pattern of brain activation is a sort of “buy button” that actually predicts our real life purchasing decisions. Neuromarketers say they could use information like this to help the companies they represent create better products and services for us. On the other hand, consumer advocates worry that if neuromarketers know what turns us on, they’ll just craft messages to push the button again and again, turning us into consumption junkies.

Neuroscience is nowhere near this level of sophistication. However, a recent article published by researchers at Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and the MIT Sloan School of Management reported that brain activation patterns captured by fMRI scans can be used to predict purchasing decisions, at least in laboratory studies.

Here’s how the experiment worked. Participants were each given $20, which they could either save for themselves or spend on priced products that appeared on a computer screen. The researchers discovered that the accumbens nucleus, which is part of the brain circuit that encourages us to engage in pleasurable experiences, was activated when participants were shown the products. Overpricing activated the insula, which plays a part in the experience of pain and emotions such as anger, fear and digust. It also deactivated the medial prefrontal cortex, associated with balancing gains and losses. The scientists were able to use these patterns of activation to accurately predict whether participants would choose to purchase each item.

Meanwhile, researchers at Baylor College of Medicine demonstrated that our purchasing decisions aren’t always rational; they are also based on how we feel about the way products are marketed and packaged, or “branded.”

The neuroscientists used taste tests and fMRI scans to understand at the neurological level why Coca-Cola consistently outsells Pepsi. Coca-Cola’s dominance doesn’t really make sense, given that both sodas are primarily composed of brown, carbonated sugar water. What they found was that when participants weren’t told which beverage they were drinking, nearly equal numbers preferred Coke and Pepsi. In a second taste test participants sipped two samples, one of which they knew was Coke. They were told the other sample, which was in fact Coke, might be either soft drink. Despite the fact there was Coke in all the cups, participants preferred Coke in the labeled cups to the Coke in unlabeled cups. Why? The brain scans showed increased activity in an area of the prefrontal cortex associated with thinking and judging when participants were shown a Coke can before tasting a beverage. The researchers concluded that brand information was significantly influencing participants’ preferences.

Scientists are quick to point out that increased brain activity in laboratory experiments probably doesn’t have much to do with what we buy in the supermarket or online. Nevertheless, neuromarketers are now using technologies like the fMRI to advise clients about how well their product branding resonates with consumers.

Guilty Knowledge Testing
Neuroscientists are also exploring how brain scanning technologies can be used to solve and prevent crimes. One technique that has received a considerable amount of attention is called “brain fingerprinting.”

The technique is based on the idea that the brain emits an electrical wave response, known as the P300/MERMER, when suspects recognize a word, picture or sound presented as a stimulus during EEG scanning. This MERMER response is virtually instantaneous and is not consciously controlled.

Here’s how the procedure works: First, insignificant but memorable details related to a crime are identified. These kinds of details are sorted into two categories, those known to the general public and those only known by police investigators and the perpetrator. For example, newspapers may have reported that the perpetrator kicked in a door to gain entry into a home, but only the perpetrator and investigators are aware he traversed tall grass to reach the crime scene.

During the scan, suspects wear a headband equipped with EEG sensors that measure brain-wave responses from the frontal, central and parietal areas. They are asked to press different buttons when they see or hear “target” and “non-target” stimuli.

Target stimuli, which consist of memorable details about the crime known to the general public, are used to establish a baseline MERMER response. Non-target stimuli include bits of irrelevant information that have nothing to do with the crime. But the crux of the examination depends on what happens when suspected criminals respond to non-target stimuli called “probes,” which present memorable details relevant to the crime that an innocent person would have no knowledge of.

The system mathematically analyzes the brain-wave responses and makes a determination of “information present” or “information absent.” Information present means that the probe responses, like the target responses, contain a MERMER. An absence of the MERMER response indicates that details of the crime are not stored in the brain.

So far, courts have been reluctant to admit brain fingerprinting results as scientific evidence. Critics point out that the technology only indicates whether information is present in the suspect’s brain in response to isolated stimuli, not guilt or innocence. Small studies have also shown that fMRI scans can detect neuropsychological differences between deception and truth, but no evidence has yet been found to indicate that any neuroimaging technique can effectively be used as a lie detector.

But that doesn’t mean scientists will never discover how to use brain imaging to interpret our thoughts. One day, will police be able to hook us up to a machine to read our minds? Will our bosses be able to scan our brains to see if we lied about being late for work? Neuroethicists will continue to grapple with questions like these, and we will continue to watch as more unbelievable developments in brain science become reality.

Knutson B, Rick S, Wimmer GE, Prelec D, Loewenstein G. (2007). Neural predictors of purchases. Neuron, 4;53(1):7-8. {PMID: 17196537}

McClure SM, Li J, Tomlin D, Cypert KS, Montague LM, Montague PR. (2004). Neural correlates of behavioral preference for culturally familiar drinks. Neuron, 14;44(2):379-87. {PMID: 15473974}

Jane Campbell Moriarty. Flickering Admissibility: Neuroimaging Evidence in the U.S. Courts, 26 Journal of Behavioral Sciences & the Law 29 (2008). University of Pennsylvania, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience: