Stanford Center for
Biomedical Ethics

Advanced Neuroimaging:
Ethical, Legal and Social Issues

PI: Judy Illes, Ph.D.
CO-INVESTIGATORS: Mildred Cho, Ph.D., Bruce Arnow, Tom Raffin, M.D., and Scott Atlas, M.D.
PROJECT DATES: pending
FUNDER: NIH/NINDS,NIIMH, NIA

New capabilities of advanced neuroimaging technology have created the possibility of evaluating and predicting complex human behavior and disease in unprecedented ways. Akin to genetic testing in the 1990s, these capabilities raise ethical issues about the conduct of research and clinical neuroimaging practice. The overall goal of this research is to delineate major ethical, legal and social challenges presented by these capabilities, with a focus on functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), and to develop an ethical framework and policy recommendations to inform continued research and responsible transfer of fMRI to the clinical environment.

(1) In the research domain, we will identify emerging trends in neuroimaging studies of complex human behaviors such as emotion and moral judgment and, through focus groups, surveys and personal interviews, characterize and anticipate ethical challenges. Together with a multidisciplinary Advisory Board, we will publish guidelines for use and interpretation of results, recommendations for communication of results that promote responsible reporting in the media and public understanding and awareness of complex human phenomena, and a casebook of anomalous functional brain activation findings in healthy control subjects.

(2) Building on Aim 1 and the methodological promise of fMRI in two major clinical areas, we will identify the benefits and risks of functional neuroimaging in providing quantitative diagnostic confirmation of mental illness, using Major Depressive Disorder as the model. We will examine how practitioners anticipate that functional activation images will change their practice patterns and how patients anticipate that images will change their perception about their own condition. We will further identify ethical challenges in predicting subclinical disease with fMRI, using Alzheimer's Disease as the model, and develop guidelines for appropriate testing groups, education, patient and family counseling, and responsible communication of technological capabilities and limitations to the public.

Results of our work will reach scholars, professional and patient-advocacy groups across the neurosciences, bioethics, law and policy communities. It is our view that the proactive development of ethics standards within the profession will have far greater acceptability and relevance than standards that may be developed through external regulatory processes, and will assure responsible use of new information.

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