Some fear loss of privacy as science pries into brain

Boston Globe Online / Nation | World / Some fear loss of privacy as science pries into brain.

A marketing research company is already starting to use the machines to gauge consumers' unconscious preferences by looking at the pattern of brain activity as they respond to products or messages. Though brain scientists are nowhere near reading minds, their mounting success at mapping brains is sparking a discussion that echoes recent debate about preserving the privacy of people's genes. The issues of brain privacy, however, hold the potential for even more heat, say scientists and ethicists who are beginning to address them.

''Everybody's worried about genetic privacy, but brain privacy is actually much more interesting,'' said Steven E. Hyman, Harvard University's provost and a neuroscientist.

The need for discussing brain privacy is urgent, said Arthur L. Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics. ''If you were to ask me what the ethical hot potato of this coming century is, I'd say it's new knowledge of the brain, its structure, and function.'' Most people feel a much greater sense of privacy about their brains than their genes, Caplan and other ethicists say. Genes play critical but complex roles in what people become, while ''your brain is more associated with you,'' Caplan said.

Brain-scanning is too new and imperfect to have engendered real-life tales of invasion of brain privacy, but controversy is easy to imagine. What if a court, a potential employer, or a suspicious spouse wants to scan an individual's brain for telltale signs of something she would prefer not be known or something the individual may not even know about himself?

What if scans could be used to check a soldier for homosexuality? Or a potential parolee for lingering violent impulses? Or a would-be employee for a susceptibility to major depression?

Such questions are part of neuroethics, as the field is called by many participants in the fast-growing discussion of ethical implications of the explosion of knowledge about the brain.  [Privacy Digest]

Leave a comment