The ACLU has filed a request with federal security agencies under the Freedom of Information Act to determine if the government is using brain-scanning technologies for lie detection. From the ACLU press release:
"There are certain things that have such powerful implications for our society -- and for humanity at large -- that we have a right to know how they are being used so that we can grapple with them as a democratic society," said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Project. "These brain-scanning technologies are far from ready for forensic uses and if deployed will inevitably be misused and misunderstood."
The most likely technology to be used for anti-terrorism purposes is Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which can produce live, real-time images of people's brains as they answer questions, view images, listen to sounds, and respond to other stimuli. Two private companies have announced that they will begin to offer "lie detection" services using fMRI as early as this summer. These companies are marketing their services to federal government agencies, including the Department of Defense, Department of Justice, the National Security Agency and the CIA, and to state and local police departments.
Here's the link to the FOIA request.
I am pleased to spread news of the formation of the "Neuroethics Society," an interdisciplinary professional organization dedicated to all things neuroethics. At its website, you will find information about its mission, its brief recent history, and its governance.
The organization seeks to attract a wide range of people interested in legal and ethical issues related to the neurosciences. Neuroethicist Martha Farah, at the University of Pennsylvania, tells me that:
We are really open to a diversity of perspectives and want our society to serve the field as a whole. Of course we want "the usual suspects," many of whom helped found the society and have already made contributions to the field of neuroethics. But we also want the smart, inquiring neuroscientists, lawyers, clinicians, humanists, engineers, and students . . . people who are interested in the issues of neuroethics and can help move it forward by bringing their new ideas and perspectives into the field.
The society has partnered with the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience and with the American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB) to bring you more of the latest in neuroethics. In 2007, AJOB will expand from 6 to 12 issues annually; 3 of these new issues, collectively titled AJOB-Neuroscience, will be devoted to neuroethics.
I am told that the first two meetings of the Neuroethics Society will be held as satellite meetings of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society in mid-April 2008 in San Francisco and mid-April 2009 in NYC. In addition, the organization has plans to host some events at other meetings in 2006-2007.
According to Martha, "There are so many of us working on problems related to neuroethics, in such a range of different disciplines, that we need a forum where we can talk together, exchange ideas, and learn from each other. I am hoping that people will sign up and participate fully." Speaking of which, you can find out more about membership here. The website is expected to support PayPal registration in a few weeks.
Michael S. Pardo (Law, University of Alabama) has posted Neuroscience Evidence, Legal Culture, and Criminal Procedure on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Proposed lie-detection technology based on neuroscience poses significant challenges for the law. The law must respond to the science with an adequate understanding of such evidence, its significance, and its limitations. This paper makes three contributions toward those ends. First, it provides an account of the preliminary neuroscience research underlying this proposed evidence. Second, it discusses the nature and significance of such evidence, how such evidence would fit with legal practices and concepts, and its potential admissibility. Finally, it analyzes the constitutional protections that may limit the compelled production of such evidence.
(Hat Tip: Legal Theory Blog).
Nature Reviews Neuroscience has just published an article on neuroimaging, entitled "Decoding Mental States from Brain Activity in Humans" (download the pdf for free!). Here's the abstract:
Recent advances in human neuroimaging have shown that it is possible to accurately decode a person's conscious experience based only on non-invasive measurements of their brain activity. Such 'brain reading' has mostly been studied in the domain of visual perception, where it helps reveal the way in which individual experiences are encoded in the human brain. The same approach can also be extended to other types of mental state, such as covert attitudes and lie detection. Such applications raise important ethical issues concerning the privacy of personal thought.
(Thanks to Larry Hinman for pointing me to the article.)
Earlier this week, the NYT reported on interesting research related to the ways in which we evaluate medical risk. Here's the catchy opening:
The situation is imaginary, but the dilemma it illustrates is quite real. A deadly influenza moves across the world from Asia, finally arriving on our shores.
There is no cure, and your doctor tells you that you have a 10 percent chance of dying from it. An effective vaccine is widely available, made from a weakened form of the virus. But it has an unfortunate side effect: there is a 5 percent chance that a patient will die from the less serious form of the flu it can cause. . . .
Judging by the numbers alone, there is a clear answer to this hypothetical problem: a person is much better off taking the vaccine. But people do not always arrive at health decisions by applying mathematical models, and in some cases the numbers may be less important than other considerations.
In a new study published in the June issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine, researchers found that the answer depended on which role the person was asked to assume. Only 48 percent of the participants said they would take the vaccine themselves. But 57 percent said they would give it to their children; 63 percent said that if they were doctors they would give it to patients; and 73 percent said that if they were the medical director of a hospital they would recommend the vaccine for all patients.
Today's WSJ has an article (subscription only) on controversial research by Bruce Lahn at the University of Chicago. The research concerns the evolution of certain genes in humans that may be linked to brain size and intelligence. The article describes just how sensitive this area of research is; based on Lahn's recent comments, it appears that he wants to move away from the field because of the controversy it engenders.
Here's a link to a post on this blog from last September about Lahn's work when it was published in Science.
Today's NYT has an article summarizing findings about the myriad features of our personalities that are influenced by our genetic endowments. The article raises many of the issues related to personal responsibility that show up in neuroethics debates. The juiciest part of the article comes at the end:
Others fear that when certain behaviors once ascribed to personal choice are seen as genetic, the next step will be not tolerance for difference, but support for intervention. On a "fat-acceptance" e-mail list, several members suggested recent research will lead only to new ways for them to lose weight through genetic alteration, rather than be accepted as they are. And when scientists caused fruit flies to pursue flies of the same sex by altering a gene last year, some gay-rights advocates worried it would lend credence to the notion that homosexuality could be "cured."
People could also find their genes being held against them. Already, some scientists suspect a specific gene plays a role in violent behavior, for instance, and a discussion has already begun over how people bearing such genes should be treated.
"If we find a murder mutation, are we going to be more accepting of murderers, or are we going to lock them up even more tightly?" asked Jeffrey M. Friedman, director of the Starr Center for Human Genetics at Rockefeller University. "The more we find genes that play a role in determining all sorts of attributes, the more we're going to face these kinds of ethical issues."
Of course, for traits that are socially desirable, people may not be as eager to accept genetic explanations that seem to trivialize their skills or accomplishments. When scientists this year found two gene variations that appear at higher rates in professional dancers than in the general population, many dancers bristled at the news. In online message boards for the ballet magazine Pointe, several writers said success in dance was the result of hard work, passion and good mentors. "Being a dancer requires so much more than what's there in your body, an emotional strength," said Virginia Johnson, editor of Pointe and a former principal dancer with the Dance Theater of Harlem.
"That genes can't really — well, I guess that's genetic, too, isn't it?"
The Reed College magazine has this piece on efforts by Reed faculty/students/alums to create "artificial cells". Here's an excerpt:
Thirty years later, Bedau and Packard are on a quest for answers. Surrounded by powerful computers and sophisticated equipment in a high-tech industrial park on the outskirts of Venice, Italy—and bankrolled with millions of euros—they are trying to produce actual cells. The two Reedies are part of a long-shot entry in the race to create artificial life.
Bedau, a philosophy professor at Reed, and Packard, a physicist known for his entrepreneurial success at applying computer models to predict financial markets, are the founders of ProtoLife, an eight-employee biotech startup. ProtoLife is in turn part of a multi-national research consortium funded by a four-year, $10 million grant from the European Commission. A steady stream of Reedies have been involved in the work of Bedau and Packard over the years, contributing to every aspect from computer simulation to bioethics research (see Reedies on the Artificial Life Trail).
Bedau, who is on leave from Reed this spring, believes that the surest way to resolve life’s basic questions is by building a basic life form from scratch. It may sound futuristic and even quixotic, but his is only one of several well-funded research groups vying to create an artificial cell capable of living off its surroundings, multiplying, and evolving.
Hat tip to AJOB Editors Blog, where the article is described as follows:
Reed Magazine has a great interview with the guys at ProtoLife in Venice who are building what they see as artificial cells. A philosopher and a financial analyst, lead a group that were it not so interesting and productive would seem like a snake oil team.
The Sundance Channel has been repeatedly running an hour-long documentary entitled, "The Human Behavior Experiments." Despite its extremely broad title, it focuses on some famous experiments and events that emphasize the surprisingly powerful effects of situational pressures on our behavior. The program covers such studies as the Milgram obedience experiments and the Stanford prison experiment (with great documentary footage) along with discussions of the Kitty Genovese incident, a recent fraternity hazing incident, events at the Abu Ghraib prison, and more.
Overall, I think it's a good program. It no doubt glosses over a lot of detail, however. See, for example, this recent MindHacks post that suggests that the conventional wisdom about the Kitty Genovese incident greatly oversimplifies what happened.
Michael McCann (Mississippi, Law) discusses the psychological testing of professional athletes over at his Sports Law Blog. Here is the disclosure that starts his post and prompts a discussion about the privacy of prospective employees:
In a recent interview with NBA.com, Portland Trail Blazers President Steve Patterson discussed why he opted to pass on Al Jefferson with the 13th pick in the 2004 NBA Draft:
We had to fly a psychologist down there for him to take a test. He had difficulty with it. There were some other things that weren’t positive about him that I’m not going to talk about in the interview.
Joel Garreau, writing in the Washington Post, has this interesting piece on the widespread use of prescription pharmaceuticals to improve the scholastic performance of ordinary students:
Seen by some ambitious students as the winner's edge -- the difference between a 3.8 average and a 4.0, maybe their ticket to Harvard Law -- these "brain steroids" can be purchased on many campuses for as little as $3 to $5 per pill, though they are often obtained free from friends with legitimate prescriptions, students report.
These drugs represent only the first primitive, halting generation of cognitive enhancers. Memory drugs will soon make it to market if human clinical trials continue successfully.
There are lots of the first-generation drugs around. Total sales have increased by more than 300 percent in only four years, topping $3.6 billion last year, according to IMS Health, a pharmaceutical information company. They include Adderall, which was originally aimed at people with attention-deficit disorder, and Provigil, which was aimed at narcoleptics, who fall asleep uncontrollably. In the healthy, this class of drugs variously aids concentration, alertness, focus, short-term memory and wakefulness -- useful qualities in students working on complex term papers and pulling all-nighters before exams. Adderall sales are up 3,135.6 percent over the same period. Provigil is up 359.7 percent.
In May, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America issued its annual attitude-tracking study on drug use. It is a survey of more than 7,300 seventh- through 12th-graders, designed to be representative of the larger U.S. population and with an accuracy of plus or minus 1.5 percent, according to Thomas A. Hedrick Jr., a founding director of the organization. It reported that among kids of middle school and high school age, 2.25 million are using stimulants such as Ritalin without a prescription.
That's about one in 10 of the 22 million students in those grades, as calculated by the U.S. Department of Education. Half the time, the study reported, the students were using these drugs not so much to get high as "to help me with my problems" or "to help me with specific tasks." That motivation was growing rapidly, Hedrick says.
Hat Tip: BoingBoing.
New Scientist has an interview with psychologist/primatologist Tetsuro Matsuzawa (may require subscription for full article). He describes a number of ways in which chimps can outperform humans on cognitive tasks, especially certain tests of short-term memory. They're also better at recognizing upside-down faces, a skill that might be more helpful to a chimp (that spends time upside-down hanging from a tree) than to a human. He also states that ". . . wild chimps make use of about 200 plant species out of 600 in the forest. They can discriminate - they have a botanist's memory for these plants, their seasons, locations and their uses."
And, here's an interesting tidbit related to chimp color perception:
In many ways, chimps' perception and interpretation of the world is as developed as ours. For example, chimps recognise the same boundaries on the colour spectrum as humans. I can't say anything about their subjective experience of colour, just as I can't say anything about yours, but chimps trained to call the primary colours by their English labels attach those labels to the same parts of the visible spectrum that humans do.
Here's a link to a note I wrote at Stanford Law School on legal and ethical issues related to great apes, like chimpanzees.
Much of the debate around neuroethics is a subset of a larger debate about human enhancement (essentially, efforts to make our bodies, not just healthy, but better than well--more fit, more durable, more aware, etc.).
(photos from Wired)
An article in Wired magazine describes people who have implanted a magnet under the skin of their ring fingers in order to develop what is described as a "sixth sense" ability to detect magnetic materials and electromagnetic radiation:
Todd Huffman, a graduate student at Arizona State University with a background in neuroscience, joined the project and brainstormed with Jarrell and Haworth about how, and where, to best implant a powerful magnet. He helped come up with the most effective design for an implant, and eventually became the first recipient. "The fingertip was chosen because of the high nerve density, and because the hands are constantly interacting with the environment, increasing the chances of sensing electromagnetism in the world," Huffman says.
. . . .
According to Huffman, the magnet works by moving very slightly, or with a noticeable oscillation, in response to EM fields. This stimulates the somatosensory receptors in the fingertip, the same nerves that are responsible for perceiving pressure, temperature and pain. Huffman and other recipients found they could locate electric stovetops and motors, and pick out live electrical cables. Appliance cords in the United States give off a 60-Hz field, a sensation with which Huffman has become intimately familiar. "It is a light, rapid buzz," he says.
By way of "don't try this at home," the article also describes lots of the dangers of doing such a thing. (Hat tip: Boing Boing).