Noninvasive brain scans, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, have led to basic science discoveries about the human brain and have also been wildly misused, claiming to correlate everything from the biology of voting to ideas like that people with messy offices are racist.
Though fMRI-based claims get lots of mainstream media attention, along with most weak observational studies, the actual value for society hasn't been there.
But it could be, according to a review of other studies in Neuron. They even believe brain imaging can help predict an individual's future learning, criminality, health-related behaviors, and response to drug or behavioral treatments.
That could offer opportunities to personalize educational and clinical practices - or to stop crime before it starts, which worked pretty well in Minority Report except for that one instance.
Dr. John Gabrieli of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and colleagues describe the predictive power of brain imaging across a variety of different future behaviors, including infants' later performance in reading, students' later performance in math, criminals' likelihood of becoming repeat offenders, adolescents' future drug and alcohol use, and addicts' likelihood of relapse.
"Presently, we often wait for failure, in school or in mental health, to prompt attempts to help, but by then a lot of harm has occurred," says Dr. Gabrieli. "If we can use neuroimaging to identify individuals at high risk for future failure, we may be able to help those individuals avoid such failure altogether."
The authors also point to the clear ethical and societal issues that are raised by studies attempting to predict individuals' behavior. "We will need to make sure that knowledge of future behavior is used to personalize educational and medical practices, and not be used to limit support for individuals at higher risk of failure," says Dr. Gabrieli. "For example, rather than simply identifying individuals to be more or less likely to succeed in a program of education, such information could be used to promote differentiated education for those less likely to succeed with the standard education program."
Neuron, Gabrieli et al.: "Prediction as a Humanitarian and Pragmatic Contribution from Human Cognitive Neuroscience"