Hello and welcome to my blog! My name is Caroline and I am a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. My research project focuses on Striga - a genus of parasitic plants that devastates harvests by infecting food crops. I am exploring the defence reactions that can make host plants more resistant against Striga. Due to my ongoing battles with anorexia, I haven't made as much progress as I would have liked but I am determined to finish the course.

This blog charts the ups and downs of life in the lab, plus my dreams to become a science communicator and forays into public engagement and science policy....all while trying to keep my mental and physical health intact. Along the way, I'll also be sharing new plant science stories, and profiles of some of the researchers who inspire me on this journey. So whether you have a fascination for plants, are curious about what science research involves, or just wonder what exactly I do all day, read on - I hope you find it entertaining!

Thursday 25 July 2013

IUPS 2013: The ethics of brain scanning

'Mind reading is one of the most important survival skills for humans' Professor Hank Greely

But we're not very good at it, as shown by our failings in poker and romance. Nevertheless, advances in brain scanning technology, such as PET and MRI scanning, are allowing scientists to 'correlate physical changes in brain states to changes in subjective mental states'. The questions of what this could potentially be used for, and by whom, were discussed in the symposium 'Brain Imaging - An Ethical Time Bomb?'. Companies already exploit emotive reactions when promoting their products - think of McDonalds Happy Meals and luridly coloured sweets for children. It is a scary thought that companies could commission research to understand how to further stimulate cognitive pathways. One researcher even said her group had been approached by a gambling company asking how they could make the appeal of winning £1 outweigh the frustration of loosing £100. Could political parties use brain scanning technology to understand how to manipulate our emotions towards their agendas? Professor Hank Greely, a Professor of Law at Stanford University, asserted that the main use of brain scanning technology in the immediate future would be for prediction. This could have great potential medical benefit: apparently PET scans are now capable of detecting the build up of amyloid plaques that are the hallmarks of Alzheimer's. But this throws up a new snarl of dilemma - if you could have a test for dementia, would you take it? And if you did, who would you tell? Could health insurance companies or employers demand the result of a test if they knew you had taken one? Could they force you to have a test themselves? Given the considerable pressure companies are under to avoid discrimination ( such that they can't ask women if they plan to become pregnant), this seems unlikely, at least in small scale companies. It is more likely that brain scanning will take a dominant role in the courtroom, as a tool to predict the likelihood of re-offence. Greely was keen to stress that, even if these methods aren't 100% accurate, if they are more reliable than current methods (e.g. a defendant's say-so) then they may still be useful. How the information is presented could have a major effect however: a fluorescently coloured brain scan image is much more striking to a jury than a dry report read in a monotone. The issue of lie detectors was also raised - in the USA one can pay to have a test done privately which tests responses to a chosen list of questions. But if the result if unfavourable, the test company will conveniently forget it, allowing defendants to choose what to present in a court as evidence for their case. Greely described how brain scan imaging could be a potent tool in deciding cases where the claimant states they cannot work due to excessive pain. Can a court order someone to have a brain scan? Is there a 'human right' to not have a scan against a person's will?
Besides predictive applications, the use of brain scans for treatment was also raised. Reference was made to the 'paedophile tumour' case in the USA: before sentencing this child sex offender to jail, a brains scan revealed that he carried a brain tumour the size of a chicken's egg. When this was removed, his deviant cravings stopped. He was released on probation; when he reported the impulse to offend returning, a second scan showed that the tumour had returned. After surgery, he was again fine. Could psychosurgery be the future of criminal sentencing? Ablation of the nucleus accumbens can destroy an opiate addiction: could a judge thus sentence a drug offender to surgery? Or will guilty parties be presented a stark choice: go to jail or have brain surgery . Is this fair? Is it more ethical than the death penalty? What else could surgery change - sexual orientation? Should parent's have that power over their children?
A final point was made regarding memory enhancing pills. Will all exams in the future require dope tests? ( surely they are stressful enough?!) Would commercially available pills merely widen the performance gap between rich and socially disadvantaged groups? In that case, should everyone be given them? 
This is a debate that the public needs to be aware of and engage in now. So pleas elevate your comments below!

By far the most impressive aspect of this talk however ... it was given WITHOUT powerpoint slides! And intentionally (not due to equipment failure)! Very admirable in this age.


  1. Could health insurance companies or employers demand the result of a test if they knew you had taken one? yes i agree with you
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  2. By far the most impressive aspect of this talk however ... it was given WITHOUT powerpoint slides! And intentionally (not due to equipment failure)! Very admirable in this age.. haha
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