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Decoding Your Brain

Publication Date: 
February 23, 2012
The Portland Tribune
Peter Korn

Professor Hank Greely was mentioned in an article for the Portland Tribune on brain technology and advances in neuroscience. Peter Korn filed the following report.

Eran Klein, a neurologist at Oregon Health & Science University, is seeing more patients seeking Aricept, a memory-enhancing drug intended for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementia diseases.

But many of Klein’s patients aren’t suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. Some find that their memories aren’t what they once were. Some have a family history of Alzheimer’s and are wondering if they are in a pre-dementia state. Some just want to improve their memories.


On Monday, Feb. 27, OHSU hosts Henry Greely, director of the Stanford Law School Center for Law & Bioethics, as part of a series of speakers on Brain Awareness. On March 19, Alan Leshner, executive director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, will speak about social and ethical issues resulting from advances in neuroscience.


Stanford’s Greely says that brain enhancement might be getting the bulk of attention — a trust aerosol is a bit hard to resist — but using brain imaging to predict the future may be more contentious in the long run.

Greely would like to see a government approach to at least some of the new brain technology, something along the lines of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which approves new drugs before they can be released to market. Brain imaging lie detectors and pain detectors are two advances he’d put into that category.

Two U.S. companies sell MRI lie detection services. According to Greely, two U.S. cases have come to court where MRI lie detection was performed. But in both cases, judges ruled the results were inadmissible.


Greely doesn’t believe brain imaging technology has been proven reliable enough yet for that to be allowed. But the U.S. firms that market their lie detection brain scans have patents on their technology and, he says, they aren’t about to allow objective clinical trials to determine the accuracy of their work.

As for Propranolol, Greely anticipates a few cases where witnesses whose memories have been dulled, erased or changed by the drug will make it to court. Prosecutors might claim that providing a rape victim with the drug constitutes tampering with a witness, and that widespread use might make it impossible for them to send rapists to prison.

Judges will have to set precedents that legislators can use to decide if they want to get involved in making new laws, Greely says. But already, some hospital emergency departments in clinical trials are asking women brought to the hospital after sexual assaults if they want their memories dampened by Propranolol as a means of avoiding PTSD.


Greely says brain imaging to determine whether someone is truly in pain is also on the way. That could be useful in hundreds of thousands of court cases, he notes. Car accident victims claiming whiplash might have to submit to brain imaging that could show whether they’re telling the truth. Imaging could tell whether people applying for social security disability for back pain are deserving by looking at the areas of the brain that process pain.

Also not too far in the future are brain scans that will tell 60-year-olds if they are likely to develope Alzheimer’s. They also could show parents which of their offspring will suffer from schizophrenia.

In both cases, Greely says, patients and physicians will have to decide the value of conducting the tests if there are no cures available, and if the tests are only, say, 90 percent certain.


Somebody needs to start answering those questions quickly, according to Greely. “The research isn’t stopping, it’s accelerating,” he says. “The knowledge is coming incredibly fast, and not enough people are thinking about this.”