It’s a long shot, I know. We’ll never see a Nature Neuroethics or a Trends in Neuroethics. But this week’s issue of Nature caught me surprised with the release of two articles on ethical aspects of neuroscience. It really demonstrates how hot and important this issue is.
Basically, both articles are on the application of brain scanners to detect lies. The first article is a bit broader in its scope, though. Here, the Nature editor looks more generally at the ethical discussions – or lack of such – in the neuroscience community. While other scientific branches, e.g. genetics, have made ethics part of their curriculum, neuroscience is lagging behind.
From the article:
Neuroscientists have reasons for their reluctance to wade into ethics. The questions raised are likely to be open-ended, and their arrival in the world outside the laboratory may be some way off. Whereas a genetic test can say something definitive about a particular genetic make-up, and therefore about predisposition to disease, for example, an fMRI scan is just an indirect measure of neural activity based on oxygenated blood flow. For now, neuroscientists have only the most basic grasp of what this says about how the brain processes information.
Is neuroscience really lagging behind? Is it not unfair to compare the ethical discussions following neuroscientific findings and genetics? While modern genetics has the better part of a century, neuroscience is basically in its infancy. In fact, do we really know with great certainty what we are looking at with the functional MRI scan? Well’, we know it’s a mixture of blood oxygenation, vasculare response and actions, but having the full understanding of what an activation blob really means is a different matter. Yes, your orbitofrontal cortex is lighting up when you’re lying. But why? And how? What does it signify?
Unless we have a clear answer, the message will be less clear and the implications will drown in technicalities.
The second article concerns a specific topic – lie detection – and I’m afraid I’ll muddle the waters a bit on this issue. The background is that two companies – Cephos and No Lie MRI – are founded to use MRI scans in order to detect lies. Martin has blogged about lie detection studies previously. Here, I’d like to remind you about a previous blog entry I did on the problems of doing group studies. Basically, the results we can find on a group level cannot be found in the individual scans. In group studies, we’re looking at a mean effect. Does that mean that a person with very high activation of the orbitofrontal cortex is a pathological lier? No! Mind you: two persons can have a very different BOLD fMRI signal, our measuring unit. It can be dependent upon several factors, such as hours of sleep, the vascular system and caffeine & nicotine use. Even within the same person, we find day to day (and hour to hour) changes in the baseline BOLD signal. So it’s indeed very hard to move from a group level to an individual. At this stage, I think it’s impossible – and it should be avoided.
From the article you can read that Judy Illes says something similar:
Until we sort out the scientific, technological and ethical issues, we need to proceed with extreme caution.
Better still, Sean Spence of the University of Sheffield, UK says
On individual scans it’s really very difficult to judge who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.
Finally, the same problems with the polygraph persist: we don’t know what a lie really is, why people lie, and we won’t catch those who don’t think that they are lying. Today, doing any kind of lie detection is a risky business. And I wouldn’t put my buck at Cephos or No Lie MRI. Honestly.