Bioethics Blogs

Predicting Alzheimer’s Disease: Potential Ethical, Legal, and Social Consequences

(This post oriignally appeared, in very slightly different form,  in the Neuroethics Blog on June 17, 2014, here.)

Would you want to know the date and time of your death? Life-Line, the first published fiction by Robert A. Heinlein, one of the giants of 20th century science fiction, explored that question. The story’s protagonist, Hugo Pinero, had invented a machine that could tell precisely when individuals would die, but, as Pinero found to his distress, he could not intervene to change their fates.

Would you want to know whether you would be diagnosed with Alzheimer disease (AD)? This question is rapidly leaving the realm of science fiction; indeed, it already has for some unlucky people. Our ability to predict who will suffer from this evil (and I chose that word carefully) condition is proceeding on several fronts and may already be coming into clinical use.

This post will briefly note the ways in which AD prediction is advancing and what some of the ethical, legal, and social implications of such an ability would be, before asking “should we care?”

Science

Several different techniques are providing information about an individual’s risk of being diagnosed with AD, including genetics, biomarkers, and neuroimaging.

Genetics can predict AD with great confidence for about one person in a thousand. People who carry a mutated version of the PS1 gene (or, much more rarely, mutated versions of the PS2 or APP genes) are nearly certain to be diagnosed with AD, unless they die earlier from something else, and with an early onset version that typically strikes in one’s 40s or 50s.

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.