Bioethics Blogs

Brain Imaging and Neurofeedback: Has Fiction Become Reality?

By Carolyn C. Meltzer, MD

Dr. Carolyn C. Meltzer is a professor at the Emory University School of Medicine Departments of Radiology and Imaging Sciences, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Neurology. She is also a member of the AJOB Neuroscience Editorial Board.

“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
George Orwell, 1984

In the iconic geopolitical thriller “The Manchurian Candidate,” advanced mind control techniques are used on a Korean War prisoner to turn him into an assassin. As we move into an era in which functional neuroimaging may be applied in ways akin to “mind reading,” such as applied to lie detection and economic choices, this fictional work more closely mimics reality.

Functional neuroimaging tools have helped us to tease out neuronal networks and to better understand how we think and act in health and disease. With the exception of few specific instances of validated clinical use (such as mapping of exquisite cerebral cortex prior to resecting a nearby tumor), most behavioral functional imaging studies require group, rather than individual data.

New research has focused on exploiting brain-computer interfaces that address therapeutic approaches to neurological and psychiatric conditions in individualized care settings. Recording brain activity and using it to modulate behavior or motor activity – or to seek a specific therapeutic outcome – has spawned the field of neurofeedback. Initial applications have used invasive approaches, such as deep brain stimulation in movement disorders and medically intractable depression. More recently, emphasis has turned to non-invasive approaches.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.