Tuesday, December 19, 2006

An aside on ethical dilemmas in brain research:

As research deepens our understanding of the human brain, it is becoming clearer that the distinctions between abnormal and normal brains and concomitant functions are getting more and more blurred. In many cases we are slowly proving that abnormal behavior manifested is due to either inbuilt genetic makeup or genetic changes forced due to conditioning of the human brain in particular environmental settings.

Distinctions between mental or psychiatric diseases and neurological disorders are lost as science progresses towards a more exact understanding of neurological phenomena and unifying explanations that seem to reduce the stigmas associated with psychiatric diseases. On the one hand it empowers the patient in the sense that patients seem to have a better understating of exactly why they are behaving in a certain fashion (abnormal to many but seemingly normal to the patient and the neurologist) down to the molecular detail. This gives the patient a new sense of confidence and in some cases causes reversal of the stated condition (a case of knowing the ailment modifying the behavior of the individual).

On the flip side, we now run the risk of having criminally violent individuals armed with new knowledge of what goes on inside their heads down to the molecular level portraying themselves as mere puppets of the neural machinery that they are endowed with and shaped by the environment. The extreme case of a newly-wed filing a £3.5 million compensation claim against employers, stating that his marriage was ruined because his sex drive spiraled out of control after he injured his head at work is a case in point.
As pointed out in numerous papers at the end of this post, research is revealing patterns of neural activity and gene lines that may be responsible for criminally violent behavior. How do we deal with individuals like this - blame ostracize the individual who committed the crime or blame the environment that the individual was placed in that modified his neural genetic machinery to make the person behave in a 'abnormal (read criminally violent)' fashion..? What about the future when neurologists can predict the predisposition of certain individuals to 'abnormal' behavior based on certain ‘environmental markers’ that could change their neural machinery in socially inappropriate ways? When would society decide to intervene and make changes in an individual’s life based on 'prescient' information about the nature of ones evolving neural machinery..
This is but of a host of minefields that will undoubtedly be uncovered as humankind goes deeper into unraveling the mysteries of what lies within our heads...

1 comment:

bioephemera said...

What a timely batch of papers - after the recent free will article in the Economist, I wanted to rustle up some primary literature, but you've already done the work! Thanks!