Sunday, May 08, 2005

Will fMRI ever really breach our privacy?

The New York Times has an article discussing privacy issues that could arise from a development in the technique (although the bulk of the article highlights some interesting work done with more traditional research methods.)

"In the current issue of Nature Neuroscience, however, Frank Tong, a cognitive neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University, and Yukiyasu Kamitani, a researcher in Japan, announced that they had discovered a way of tweaking the brain-scanning technique to get a richer picture of the brain's activity. Now it is possible to infer what tiny groups of neurons are up to, not just larger areas of the brain. The implications are a little astonishing. Using the scanner, Tong could tell which of two visual patterns his subjects were focusing on -- in effect, reading their minds. In an experiment carried out by another research team, the scanner detected visual information in the brains of subjects even though, owing to a trick of the experiment, they themselves were not aware of what they had seen."

Is being able to tell what picture someone is looking at really "reading their minds?" Although some fear that fMRI will be the next pre-employment screening (like drug screening is today), with its ability to uncover racism and other potentially undesirable personality traits, will it ever really pan out in the future? Why aren't we drawing everyone's blood to test for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, etc. to see if they will be a burden on company insurance plans? I have heard the argument that fMRI will soon be used to replace pen and paper tests of personality used in certain employment areas. Afterall, you can't "lie" in the scanner. But fMRI is expensive, complicated to interpret, and isn't ready for individual level analysis in most cases. So, is fMRI really a potential invasion of our privacy? Well, if you're concerned that someone can tell what picture that you are looking at (without looking at your eyes), maybe. But if your concern is at a broader level, sit back, because we wont be anywhere near that point for awhile.