Brain under high surveillance

Neuroethics: finding a balance between risk and benefit

Imagine that by probing your brain, you could adjust your consumption habits or help with a job search by measuring your ability to withstand stress or your aggressive tendencies. Science fiction? Hardly, given the current pace of technological advances in the field of neuroscience and some of their applications.

Neuroscience studies the structure and functioning of the nervous system to the very centre of the brain. It is a popular field that provides lots of ground for dangerous shortcuts. This is where neuroethics* comes in. It is a relatively new area of research that focuses on ethical issues* associated with neuroscience, such as the slippery slope created by functional neuroimaging technology.

“The technology is attractive because it allows us to represent brain activity in a visual form that we all think we understand, when in fact the images are highly simplified reconstructions of the complex workings of the brain,” warns Éric Racine, a SSHRC-funded bioethics researcher.

“For example, the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain is very complex from a technical viewpoint,” he explains. “If the subject moves or cooperates to some extent while deliberately thinking about something else, the results will be unclear.”

Therefore, any interpretation of the results is delicate. It would be premature to consider submitting the findings as evidence in court, for example, because it would risk a breakdown of justice and unfair treatment of a defendant.

From a medical viewpoint, there is no denying the potential of neuroscience, but the spectacular advances reported in the media sometimes suggest the miraculous, raising false expectations. The job of neuroethics is also to find a balance between the risks and benefits of these advances for the general public.

Racine has a PhD in applied social sciences and studied neuroethics during a postdoctoral fellowship. He is director of a neuroethics research unit at the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal. Along with researchers at The University of British Columbia’s National Core for Neuroethics as well as at Dalhousie University, the University of Calgary and the University of Toronto, he is one of a group of researchers who are helping Canada play a leadership role in this field.

* In French only