Your brain and you: Forecasting the ethical challenges ahead for neuroscience and society

PHILADELPHIA Are we ready for a future where brain scans invade our private thoughts? Will we have to alter our brains chemically to keep competitive at our jobs? Could science determine that "souls" do not exist, and, if so, what does that mean for how we think of ourselves as human beings?

The cover story in this month's edition of the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, released today, tackles these questions about the growing influence of neuroscience on 21st-century life. University of Pennsylvania researcher Martha Farah outlines advances in knowledge about the brain and how new technology enables us to monitor and manipulate it.

"What the late 20th century was for molecular genetics - a time of great scientific breakthroughs and unprecedented ethical challenges - the early 21st century is proving to be for neuroscience," said Farah, a professor in Penn's Department of Psychology and director of Penn's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. "There is so much activity in this area now, it has gotten its own name, separate from bioethics more generally. It's called 'neuroethics.'"

Breakthroughs in functional neuroimaging have enabled researchers to study cognitive and emotional processes as they unfold in a person's brain. This is a potential boon for psychologists and neuroscientists, but is also being used in the service of corporate profits. In "neuromarketing," researchers use functional MRI to gauge a person's desire for particular products and the effectiveness of advertising campaigns. Brain imaging is also being explored as a substitute for lie detectors, which could be used to screen employees and travelers or even to assess the truthfulness of legal testimony.

"These applications of brain imaging are not ready for prime time," Farah said. "By and large the neuroscientists understand this, but, when laypeople read about these new methods, the scientists' cautions and qualifications often go unnoticed." Othe

Contact: Greg Lester
University of Pennsylvania

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