Can brain imaging allow us to read minds, and if so, how should we regulate its use? Are there significant behavioural side effects of deep brain stimulation? What is the use of predictive genetic tests for brain diseases which are still incurable? The European commission’s science and society action plan indicates that to promote public awareness and shed light on such controversial issues, a dialogue must be established between science and society involving a wide range of stakeholders, including researchers, media, policymakers and citizens.
Fostering such dialogue is the goal of the three-year brains in dialogue (Bid) project, supported by the commission’s seventh framework programme and coordinated by the interdisciplinary laboratory of the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) of Trieste, Italy. The project aims to provide information and encourage debate on the scope and limits of new technologies in neuroscience and their impact on society, focusing on
brain imaging, brain devices and predictive medicine. With a scientific and communicative mission, Bid organises international workshops and public events, and manages the Neuromedia corner – a website where experts and citizens can find original news, scientific content, interviews, research centres, events and useful links.
The first Bid workshop, brains in dialogue on brain imaging, was held at Clare College in Cambridge, UK on 17-18 March 2009. More than 40 participants – including scientists, lawyers, philosophers, delegates of the European commission and the European Brain Council, science communicators and other experts from nine European countries – gathered to find a common language and discuss state-of-the-art brain imaging in psychiatry and its broader implications. The meeting started off with a critical introduction to functional imaging technologies, explaining what the colourful blobs really represent and emphasising the possibilities and limitations of these methods, with examples of different neuroimaging applications for the treatment and understanding of psychiatric conditions. Moving from the laboratory to the clinic, the discussion also involved clinicians and service users: should everyone with mental illness have a brain scan? And what are the expectations of users having a scan for diagnostic or research
purposes? A former scientist with a diagnosis of schizophrenia presented her personal experience and the testimony of other users in the UK, highlighting the importance of adequate communication with users and the general public. It was apparent that a lack of clarity and consistency regarding the process of informed consent and the management of incidental findings persists across institutes and countries.
Sociologists and lawyers emphasised that brain imaging – and more broadly neuroscience – is reshaping the social world and the socio-political practices, questioning the social definition of human and influencing the law. Clearly many challenging issues are raised, not only by the clinical and commercial applications of brain imaging but also by the potential use of these technologies by the state as part of its regulatory apparatus. Some of these concerns were discussed further in small heterogeneous groups, where participants had the opportunity to directly compare the different perspectives and identify issues that need consideration or even specific recommendations. It was suggested, for example, to broaden the training of scientists with courses on ethics and
science communication to raise awareness of the ethical dimension of their research, and encourage easier communication with the media.
Overall it was two days of lively debate which – although it could not be exhaustive – enlarged the attendees’ perspective. As one participant commented: “The brains in dialogue workshop was a very worthwhile experience. Very rarely do clinicians, basic scientists, sociologists and patients have a frank discourse about the various aspects of neuroimaging, and the implications of novel techniques... It has definitely influenced my thinking.”
The debate was open to the general public during the Café Scientifique can we read minds? discussion, which was also part of brain awareness week and the Cambridge Science Festival. It addressed the scope and limits of brain imaging technologies for mind reading and their potential use for non-clinical applications, like lie detection. A similar event was organised in Trieste with the round-table, called ‘imagine the mind’ where scientists, delegates of patients’ associations and citizens discussed the promises of neuroimaging for early detection of Alzheimer’s disease, and the practical and ethical implications.
The dialogue on brain imaging continues on neuromedia corner with articles, video-interviews and reports posted by some of the participants. Moreover, a special topic by Frontiers in Human Neuroscience with contributions from some of the Cambridge speakers is in preparation. Brains in dialogue will continue its activity for two more years. The next international workshop will focus on predictive medicine in neuroscience and will take place in Trieste in January 2010.
by Chiara Saviane