Advances in neuroscience ‘may threaten human rights’

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Brain invaders: could cerebral imaging techniques such as PET scanning pose a risk to privacy? Credit: WILL & DENI MCINTYRE/SPL

Neuroscience is being increasingly recognized as posing a potential threat to human rights, just as another area of biology — research in human genomics — may lead to an excessive focus on genetic determinism and raises the spectre of genetic discrimination. This was one of the conclusions to emerge from the annual public meeting of the French national bioethics committee held last week in Paris on the theme of ‘Science and Racism’.

Jean-Pierre Changeux, the chairman of the committee and a neuroscientist at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, told the meeting that understanding the working of the human brain is likely to become one of the most ambitious and rich disciplines of the future.

But neuroscience also poses potential risks, he said, arguing that advances in cerebral imaging make the scope for invasion of privacy immense. Although the equipment needed is still highly specialized, it will become commonplace and capable of being used at a distance, he predicted. That will open the way for abuses such as invasion of personal liberty, control of behaviour and brainwashing. These are far from being science-fiction concerns, said Changeux, and constitute “a serious risk to society”.

Denis Le Bihan, a researcher at the French Atomic Energy Commission, told the meeting that the use of imaging techniques has reached the stage where “we can almost read people's thoughts”.

The national bioethics committee is taking such threats so seriously that it is launching a study to consider the issues and recommend possible precautions. The study will also cover more immediate issues such as the legal question of whether criminals are responsible for their actions; Changeux predicts an increase in defence arguments based on irresponsibility due to a genetic predisposition to certain types of behaviour.

In closing the meeting, Claude Allègre, the minister for national education, research and technology, hinted at the creation of a revamped parliamentary office of technology assessment, arguing that the national bioethics committee's approach in the life sciences needed to be applied to other areas of science.

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