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Quantum Leaps

Pioneering Neuroscience Research Cause for Excitement and Caution, Say Experts

Neuroscience advancements are profoundly changing the way we understand consciousness; Technological leaps in brain understanding will be adopted in healthcare and legal sectors in the future; Medical breakthroughs in neuroscience also raise questions about the privacy and cognitive liberty

Dalian, People’s Republic of China – Quantum leaps in the way we understand the brain open up a range of exciting possibilities in the future, from the use of mind-activated prosthetic limbs to reconsidering fundamental consciousness, a leading panel of experts told participants at the Annual Meeting of the New Champions, which opened in Dalian yesterday.

A noted professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences described one profound example of how new applications of functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) – which measures blood flow in the brain to detect areas of activity – are able to identify before-unbeknownst levels of consciousness.

“Until recently, we didn’t have good techniques; but with functional MRI, it has become possible to instruct patients to imagine they are doing something – like asking a patient to imagine she is playing tennis – and the results show her brain was lighting up. With that information, they were able to determine this person was not brain dead and retained some consciousness,” explained P. Murali Doraiswamy, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences, The Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS), USA.

Also on the neuroscience horizon, Ariel Garten, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Interaxon, Canada, spoke of how new technologies that can read the mind will allow a person with no motion in their body to move a prosthetic limb just by thinking about it, or help children with ADHD to better focus their minds. “There is a lot of possibility for impact,” noted Garten, “When we look at the improvements that we have been able to make in our bodily and physical health by trying to fully understand our bodies, the same opportunities exist for us in the mind,” she said.

But as we draw closer to a more nuanced understanding of brains and the thoughts running through them, the application of that technology also raises important questions about privacy and cognitive liberties, the panellists agreed. “Your brain,” cautioned Garten,” should be the last bastion of privacy.” Today, through consumer goods, we opt into all sorts of services that use our personal data; but companies are now using brain data in lie detector tests that may soon be used in courtrooms. “So far, these FMRI lie-detectors haven’t passed the gatekeepers, but it is just a matter of time,” noted Nita A. Farahany, Professor, Law and Philosophy, Duke University, USA.

I-han Chou, Senior Strategy Editor, Nature, Nature Publishing Group, USA, said: “We are all mind readers every time we interact with another person: we are trying to infer what that person is thinking and feeling. What’s new is that we are faced with the prospect of using technology to enhance that process.”

Panellists agreed that the consequences of new technologies have to be thoroughly debated and considered. “If we are talking about finding a person guilty of a crime, you want to have a very high degree of reliability of that,” said Farahany, “But if I want to dim a light or play a game on my phone, that seems to be a much lower threshold.”

In the age of non-communicable diseases, leveraging technology for diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders could be huge but there has to be a clear understanding of technological fallibilities, of technology can and cannot do, stressed Thomas R. Insel, Director, National Institute of Mental Health, USA. “How rigorous is the technology?” argued Insel, “It is going to depend on what the consequences of being wrong might be.”

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