pcsbi

Medical experiments on humans

IN 2010, THE FEDERAL government funded 55,000 experiments worldwide on human subjects. Ethical and operational controls adopted over four decades have eradicated the most abominable experiments, such as those in which U.S. researchers infected unwitting Guatemalans with sexually transmitted diseases during the 1940s. But the sheer number of ongoing projects and the absence of a centralized record-keeping system argue for additional safeguards.

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Read your mind? Not in a ‘million light years’

The members of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues received a primer today on recent advances in the use of medical technology on neuro-imagery. It was a session that Dr. Gregory House of the TV show House would have found fascinating – especially the multiple uses of MRI machines to help detect hard-to-diagnosis diseases. The Commission is considering whether to embark on examining ethical issues surrounding the uses of neuro-imagery and genetic testing.

A panel of scientists said that one cutting-edge ethical issue now involves how private companies could use this technology for what they called “neuro-marketing” in order to advance the sale of products. But one issue not on the table: whether new technology can help read minds — because it can’t. Such technology “is a million light years away,” said Dr. Martha Farah, the Walter H. Annenberg Professor in Natural Science and Director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. Science isn’t close to enabling researchers to read the thoughts of others, Farah said in an interview. Still, though, she knows people fear that it will happen. She said she gets asked about it frequently.

“We are nowhere near being able to read sentences or thoughts that are the equivalent of sentences,” Farah said. “But it is the case that we can derive a fair amount of personal information including current mental states, such as mood, intentions, and desire to buy an object” from Functional MRIs, or fMRIs.

But the interpretation of brain imagery, captured in fMRIs, was far from perfect, she said. “There is a lot of significant personal information from fMRIs. It is with a degree of accuracy that is far from perfect, but is well above chance.” That leads Farah to be wary of neuro-marketing. “The biggest ethical issue to me is the fact that many of the most exciting new applications of brain imaging are being developed entirely with private corporate funding for commercial purposes,” she said. “I don’t think that is going to give us the best new contributions to society, and I don’t think that is going to lead to the greatest transparency concerning what these scans can do.”

February 28, 2011

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