Press Release 06/2013

Does neuroimaging change the way we see ourselves?

This was the central question posed by the German Ethics Council during its autumn conference at the North Rhine-Westphalian Academy of Sciences, Humanities and the Arts, which was attended by over 250 people. What does neuroimaging reveal about a person’s personality, about what he or she is experiencing and about his or her behaviour? Can neuroimaging make a contribution towards the diagnosis of psychological ailments and the adjudication of offenders? What challenges arise in the field of medical ethics as a result of unexpected findings or untreatable ailments coming to light?

In her opening speech, the Council’s Chairwoman Christiane Woopen explained: “What especially interests us members of the German Ethics Council is the question as to how the new images of the brain affect our self-conception. Are we to expect a ‘cerebralization’ of the way we see ourselves — and what would be the consequences of such a development?”

Modern imaging techniques are seen as opening up ‘windows to the brain’. Gaining an understanding of the combined effects of 86 billion nerve cells together with their interconnections is seen as a major challenge for fundamental research which is attracting funding in Europe and the USA that goes into the billions. Not least amongst the expectations associated with the new techniques are those concerning our understanding and treatment of disorders. However, when one takes the step of connecting observations of the brain’s organization with specific behaviour patterns or a disorder, it is necessary to bear the cultural, societal and ethical dimensions in mind at the same time.

The large number of lectures and discussions held during the conference brought one point amply to the fore: neuroimaging can make a valuable contribution towards explaining those processes that take place within the brain in connection with emotional and cognitive functions. An important aspect of this can be seen in the need for interdisciplinary cooperation involving the fields of psychology, neurobiology, mathematics, psychiatry, philosophy and other disciplines.

Imaging techniques are already being exploited in psychiatric diagnosis in order to exclude the possibility of tumours, haemorrhages, inflammations and vascular damage as well as to detect neurodegenerative disorders. In the foreseeable future they may also be expected to play an important role in the diagnosis, therapy planning and prognosis of mental illness. However, these techniques require the establishment of an ethical framework, especially in order to ensure that predictive statements are dealt with responsibly. A similar need exists for cases in which so-called ‘incidental findings’ arise in the course of studies on healthy volunteers.

It is only a question of time until neuroimaging will be adopted as an instrument by defence lawyers in criminal cases. Here, uses such as for lie detection, for establishing degrees of criminal responsibility or for risk management in respect of offenders are likely. Nevertheless, neuroimaging techniques should never simply be used as substitutes for classical psychiatric expertise, but rather as supplements.

Regarding the significance of the brain for our self-image, a broad degree of agreement prevailed that neuroimaging techniques may lead to knowledge and intervention options that urgently need to be thoroughly thought through by the scientific community and society as a whole. It is also necessary to elaborate ethical criteria for the responsible use of neuroimaging in psychiatry and in court, for instance.

The programme of the autumn conference, as well as the lectures and contributions to discussions made by speakers and members of the audience, can be viewed here (in German).