The ripple effects of this research are enough to make one's mind spin. Will brain scans someday declare that sex offenders can't be cured? If a killer knows the difference between right and wrong but neurologically can't control his behavior, where does this leave us? How will fMRIs reframe the insanity defense? What about the right to be judged by our actions and not our thoughts? Questions like these have prompted the emergence of a whole new field of inquiry. In May 2006, the Neuroethics Society was formed to promote the responsible application of neuroscience through better understanding of its capabilities and its consequences.
With the addition of behavioral genetics, the questions may become even more controversial, says Judy Illes, PhD, professor of neurology and the Canada research chair in neuroethics at the University of British Columbia. She predicts that the hybrid science of fMRI techniques and genetics—"imaging genomics"—will become one of the most powerful tools of the decade. "We're looking at a technology that is poised to be a true revolution in both psychiatry and neurology," she says.
Illes believes that scientists may be able, for example, to decode a 7-year-old's genes and scan the brain to determine his or her risk for future criminal behavior. "The question is," she says, "What is acceptable accuracy? How do we respond to such children? What if we get it wrong? It might even turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy."
How would society handle a boy who has the potential to become a terrorist? Lock him up? What if the impulses never materialize into crimes? And then, would we require all 7-year-olds to get scanned, just in case—even though judging someone by what he might do, rather than what he has done, flies in the face of the very essence of our judicial system?
As technology hurtles forward along with such questions, a few words of wisdom from a scientist who shaped our lives for more than a century may be comforting. "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent," Charles Darwin reportedly said, "but the one that is most adaptive to change."
Five other predictions on how brain science may change the way we live:
We will see cures or vaccines for diseases of the aging brain, says Judy Illes, PhD, professor of neurology and Canada research chair in neuroethics at the University of British Columbia. In fact, better insight into brain function in general will lead to interventions for many diseases and an overall longer life expectancy.
Current technologies (such as video games) will merge with future ones (such as those involving neural feedback), so gamers might wear EEG-type caps that read their brainwaves and pick up their emotions. Conceivably, story lines would move forward in real time, the plot changing based on each person's responses, says Zack Lynch, managing director of NeuroInsights, a market research and investment advisory firm.
The more we understand the neurobiology of learning—how the mind develops, what to make of differences between individual brains—the better we can "sculpt" teaching methods. Lynch predicts that educational software will be tailored to students' individual brain patterns to improve math and language acquisition as well as creative thinking.
Drugs and devices that stimulate the brain to augment our performance and mobility (so that we can run farther and faster, for example) will someday help everyone from Olympians to paraplegics, according to Illes.
New tools such as real-time fMRI technology, Lynch says, promise to accelerate our capacity to access deeply meditative and spiritual states.