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Stanford's Hank Greely on Research Advances vs. Social Challenges

Advances in neuroscience research may bring tough questions.

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Hank Greely: I think neuroscience is going to be the most fascinating science of this coming century.. and it’s going to be the most socially important.

Announcer: Professor Hank Greely is the Director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University and a recent speaker at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda. Greely certainly accentuates the positive goals that drive neuroscience and the study of brain disorders. But he also sees a future filled with tough questions. Science may one day be able to predict mental illness in individuals but with scientific advancements come social challenges.

Hank Greely: I think issues of prediction, of mindreading, of responsibility, of treatment... with scare-quotes around it... and of enhancement are the issues that neuroscience is going to bring to us. The prediction issues are really what got me into the field because they are so similar to the issues in genetics. Most of the social issues of genetics come from the ability of genetics to predict the future for the living person, for a fetus, etc.

Announcer: For example, Greely looks at the possibilities surrounding Alzheimer’s research. Greely believes science may one day... perhaps ten to fifteen years from now... be able to reasonably predict which maturing individuals will eventually be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Hank Greely: But it raises tough questions. questions about discrimination, personal questions about family dynamics, psychology and so on. And I think one of the things neuroscience will do is, as we learn more about the natural history of disease, whether it’s Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, conditions like psychopathy, we will be able to predict better who will show those conditions in the future and that knowledge will have social consequences.

Announcer: In singling out psychopathy and its potential for violent behavior, Greely sheds light on a classic challenge. How to protect society at large, while at the same time protecting the rights of individuals.

Hank Greely: About one percent of adult males in the U.S. are psychopaths. But if you do that test in prisons about thirty percent of prisoners are psychopaths. Psychopaths seem to commit a disproportionate percentage of crime. What if we could figure out which ten out of a thousand twelve year old boys were going to be psychopaths? What would we do with that information? Would we lock them up and throw away the key? Would we do nothing? Would we treat them but we don’t know what treatment works… if any. Would we put a G.P.S. bracelet on them? Or would we warn the neighbors? If we can predict than that information causes a pressure to do something with it. It’s very hard for us to get information and not do anything with it. But what we do with it has implications that we really just beginning to think about.

Announcer: In the end, Greely believes neuroscientists can, and should, help influence… and exercise caution regarding the ways their technologies and insights are used.

Hank Greely: You know, I’m sure that there are vast advances going on in the understanding of the liver or the heart… and those are great for medical purposes. But when you understand the brain it’s not just for mental illness and neurological disease, our brains are in some important way us. And everything we learn about how brains affect and change human behavior affects all of our society.