All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for December 2003

Secrets of the mind must remain private property, says scientist

Thursday November 20, 2003
Ian Sample
The Guardian

One of America's top scientists is calling for a ban on insurance companies and other businesses gaining access to the brain scans of potential customers.

Donald Kennedy, of Stanford University and editor of the journal Science, said that the information contained in brain scans was too personal to be allowed into the hands of big business.

Brain scans may not only be able to reveal whether a person will suffer from various mental conditions in later life, but in the future might give an insight into their moral values, intentions and even their propensity to behave in a certain way, he said.

"If my stored brain images said something about my tendency to anger under different kinds of stress, or accounted for the ways in which I make moral choices, or how strangely I perform on certain intelligence tests, then I would be troubled," he said.

"I don't want anyone to know it, for any purpose whatever, including those offered in my own interest. It's way too close to who I am and it is my right to keep that most intimate identity to myself."

Some scientists believe brain scans can already be used to pick out people who are likely to develop multiple sclerosis and dementias such as Alzheimer's disease.

But scans are also increasingly revealing more about people's minds. Earlier this week scientists announced they had used a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to detect people harbouring racial prejudice.

America recently passed legislation preventing businesses from obtaining customers' DNA amid fears they could use it to discriminate against those deemed more risky. In Britain a moratorium is in place to prevent companies from accessing customers' genetic material.

Prof Kennedy told the Guardian: "There's a push to prevent genetic information being used by companies for adverse selection, and at least equal protection should be given to brain scan data."

Laws barring companies from requesting brain scans may be premature, as it is unclear just how well the images will be able to reveal the secrets of a person's mind.

"There's been quite a lot of studies showing that different parts of the brain correlate with different types of behaviour, but the real issues are what does that data mean, how predictive is it, and who should have access to it," said Sandy Thomas, director of the Nuffield Council for Bioethics. "Perhaps we've reached the point where this kind of information is distinctive from other kinds of information insurance companies can request such as x-rays, and if so, we should be having this debate."

Copyright © 2003, The Guardian