I have recently been in Cambridge for a really interesting workshop, organized by the International School of Advanced Studies (SISSA-ISAS) of Trieste. Aim of the meeting was to analyze the scope and limits of brain imaging technologies, their impact on patients’ lives as well as on society. We discussed, for example, how brain imaging may influence the public perception of mental illness (thus reducing the stigma which affects service users); how these technologies shape the patients’ expectations about their diagnosis; how they can be used in the legal context (for example to prove the individual non-responsibility); how and if it is necessary to regulate their application.
In other words, it was a nice occasion to discuss about the impact of a new technology in an interdisciplinary way: not by chance this workshop was part of the Brains in dialogue project - coordinated by SISSA and supported by the 7th Framework Programme of the European Commission - which is aimed at fostering the ethical debate on science research.
After three days of talks and discussions which involved neuroscientists, service users, lawyers and experts in ethical issues it was very clear that neuroimaging is not simply a diagnostic tool. First of all brain imaging technologies contributed to the identification of mind and brain (so called “mind embodiment”), disseminating, even among clinicians, an almost Lombrosian vision of brain function: to each lesion or change corresponds a precise functional damage and therefore a particular behaviour. In reality, this is not the case since there are many individual variables and the brain is a highly plastic organ, whose functions are modulated by the environment.
The nice colourful images that we became used to through the latest functional imaging studies are in fact a sort of perceptual trick: they represent a sum of brains which can be very different from one another. It is therefore a rough estimate of the regions which are activated by a given stimulus or a certain movement. Not to mention that many actions are controlled in the brain by inhibition (i.e. blocking the activity of certain areas and thus their control onto others), while neuroimaging only shows the regions which increase their metabolism but not those that decrease it.
by Daniela Ovadia