As our ability to peek inside the brain—and to alter it—expands, the field of neuroethics is beginning to emerge (with the help of a few Penn Scholars) to study the implication for society and the individual. By Susan Frith

The technology is already here.

It’s called optical imaging, and it can detect cancer, stress—possibly even deceit. At least that’s the opinion of Dr. Britton Chance CH’35 Gr’40 Hon’85, who calls it “a cheap window on the brain” that’s also noninvasive. And one day, he believes, it might be used in airport security to look for terrorists. But the question is, will it finger a flying-phobic soccer mom instead?

Chance, professor emeritus of biochemistry and biophysics, who celebrated his 90th birthday in July, is a pioneer of biomedical optics whose accomplishments leap across fields as far ranging as radar technology, enzyme research, and magnetic resonance spectroscopy. More recently, he has amassed six years of data on how neural networks are activated in the prefrontal cortex when high-school students learn to solve problems.

After the September 11 tragedy, he turned his attention to the brain’s activity during other states, such as distress, fatigue, and deceit. “We are interested in airport security and whether or not malevolent intent could be detected readily,” he says, sitting in his lab in the School of Medicine’s Anatomy Chemistry Building. “Remote sensing of brain functions is one of our major projects in this laboratory. We’ve shown it’s mathematically possible and made a preliminary design of the apparatus. It would scan the appropriate region in the brain, and reflected and diffused light from that area would be collected by a sensor in the distance.”

Dr. Paul Root Wolpe C’78, senior fellow at Penn’s Center for Bioethics, criticizes the idea of scanning brains for terrorists and predicts that any attempt to ferret out malevolent intent would yield a lot of false positives and negatives.

What can technology reliably tell us about the workings of the human mind—and conscience? And who has a right to use this information? How far should we go in treating or enhancing the brain? Those are a few of the concerns that make up the emerging field of neuroethics.

Over the past few years, a small group of scholars—including Penn bioethicists Arthur Caplan and Wolpe, and psychology professor Martha Farah—has begun to look at the ethical issues arising from advances in the neurosciences. “Just as the human genome is being mapped, the brain is being mapped,” says Caplan, director of Penn’s Center for Bioethics and Trustee Professor of Bioethics in Molecular and Cellular Engineering. “It doesn’t have a project and a federal budget and companies racing to do it; it’s taking place in many fields and places, but it raises as many ethical issues as the new genetic knowledge does.” Unlike the link between one’s genes and one’s behavior, which is “fairly complicated,” he says, “the link between brain and behavior is pretty tight, so it becomes more problematic when you start to have information in real time about the brain.”

Penn hosted what was perhaps the first conference on neuroethics in February 2002 after arranging a series of meetings (funded by the Greenwall Foundation) to outline the basic issues with a working group of national leaders in the neurosciences. Members included Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker (author of The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature), Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist Eric Kandell, and Steve Hyman, formerly director of the National Institute of Mental Health and now Harvard’s provost. Since then neuroethics has been the topic of conferences hosted by Stanford and the New York Academy of Sciences as well as a flurry of journal articles and speaking engagements. (The term itself was coined by New York Times columnist William Safire.)

“I think if neuroethics didn’t get born at Penn,” Caplan says, “we’re at least one of the two or three places where it started.”

As functional MRI and other technologies have provided an increasingly detailed picture of the brain, pharmaceuticals and treatments have provided new ways to manipulate it. “Science is way ahead of the ethics and social policy on these issues,” says Wolpe, who is also an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and sociology and chief of bioethics at NASA. He notes that he is not opposed to the technologies themselves, in most cases, but concerned about their potential misuse.

Brain scans can provide clues about whether someone is an introvert or extrovert and, in some cases, reveal whether a person has the cravings of a recovering drug addict. New versions of lie detection are emerging that could leave the polygraph behind. And even certain new surgical techniques—such as implanting electrodes in the brain to treat motor-loss in Parkinson’s disease patients—may raise neuroethical issues .

This convergence of technologies has “implications for how we think about ourselves, because in our [Western] culture, at least, we think of ourselves as brains,” Wolpe says. “We think of our brains as the locus of our identity.”

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/19/04

Who’s Minding the Brain?
By Susan Frith
Illustration by Jon Sarkin

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