Friday, March 16, 2007

Neuroethics And Neurolaw or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Molecular Medicine

Dear SSDs:

Since, so far as I can tell, no one is reading this blog I'll keep it breif. In the next few days my intrepid webmaster John Kingston will post a recent article from the NY Times on the emerging field of neurolaw. For those of you who can't wait, the article is called:

The Brain on the Stand
How advances in neuroscience could transform our legal system.
By JEFFREY ROSEN
It is in the NY Times MAGAZINE | March 11, 2007, and may be read/downloaded for free.

Since no one reads this blog, it is a bit difficult to see how this information will be helpful... but who knows, a new trend may emerge. Neurolaw is a minor manifestation of the global impact of Molecular Engineering (my term for nanotechnology) on medicine and health care. As such, the implications may be deduced from the nanomedicine piece I published in Salon.com a year or two ago.

Because the impact of neurolaw will be relatively immediate and certainly makes for a fun discussion... we will cover Rosen's article in the April Science Salon. However, the global impact of Molecular Engineering on medicine and healthcare is not much fun to consider if one is a humanist. Simply put, the more we learn about the molecular operation of the human machine the more we can tinker. In the area of human consciousness, researchers tend to talk about circuits. So, if we isolate and map the neural circuit for a certain form of mental behavior, say depression, we can quantitate it and begin to use these quantative data for a number of purposes:

1. The good guys (and of course gals) can begin to develop therapies to alleviate the suffering caused by depression. Dr. Bill Marks, a definite good guy, will talk to us today about his work on the cutting edge of using deep brain electrical stimulation to treat diseases such as Parkinson's and possibly depression.

2. The bad guys (and gals) will use this information to develop strategies for manipulating the human emotional state for purposes other than the alleviation of pain and suffering. Using inverted medical symmetry, one could visualize the development of a bioweapon that plunges people into an irreversible suicidal depression. We could get 'our' enemies to kill themselves off without firing a shot. What a savings in terms of the defense budget! But then again, who gets to define the term enemy?

3. The post modern guys (and gals) won't worry about good and bad. They will just keep developing molecular tools to manipulate the various circuits. These tools will be used by atavistic modernists (and undoubtedly ultra-atavistic religious fanatics) to further various conditions of goodness or badness as they define these terms.

4. Finally, the lawyers will get hold of these data and use them to defend or prosecute people accused of various criminal activities. As Jeff Rosen describes in his article, brain tumors and other medical conditions affecting the functionality of our our primary organ of consciousness are already being used successfully as evidence in trials. This is just a slightly more complex version of DNA 'fingerprinting'. Soon we will have the molecular 'fingerprints' for a wide range of medical conditions. If enough molecules are involved we will not call the data a fingerprint, we will call the data a circuit or pathway... but the principle is the same.

I warned in my Salon.com piece that the advent of molecular medicine means the end of any functional form of medical privacy. Soon, brain scanners will not only know our innermost thoughts, they will be able to manipulate them and, if necessary, put them on the witness stand. Perhaps we need an appendix to the 5th amendment that says our own bodies can't be compelled to testify against us. But then again, what about DNA fingerprints... to say nothing of the fingerprints that come from the end of our hands. When one steps in a trillion molecules, one is indeed on a a slippery slope!

Best of all, there is not a single thing you can do about it without becoming a scientifically informed citizen who participates actively in shaping the new laws that will emerge to regulate the products of molecular medicine. Since mind control techniques are the ultimate marketing tool, if you do decide to participate you will have to take on the MIRUC (Military-Industrial-Research University Complex... should be pronounced like murk). What do you think your chances are?

Cheers, AG

8 comments:

Anglican Avenger said...

I read it.
I'm wondering how the concept of personal responsibility will be affected. If I have a violent thought under scrutiny, will that be the same as acting on the violent thought? I could make an argument from the New Testament that it would be so, but I doubt a merely human judge and jury would show the same degree of mercy.

Anglican Avenger said...

I read it.
I'm wondering how the concept of personal responsibility will be affected. If I have a violent thought under scrutiny, will that be the same as acting on the violent thought? I could make an argument from the New Testament that it would be so, but I doubt a merely human judge and jury would show the same degree of mercy.

Dr. Goldstein said...

I assume when you say you "have a violent thought under scrutiny" you mean that you are thinking about a specific act of violence. If so you are asking about the possibility of being arrested for 'thought crimes'... as in George Orwell's 1984. Of course, I have no idea how our society will legislate in the area of Neurolaw, but I consider it highly probable that in the future it will be legal to treat people to attenuate thought processes considered dangerous or antisocial. We already do that to a significant extent now with drugs like Prozac. Conversely, we are encouraged to take drugs like Viagra because, presumably, this biochemical intervention will move us towards socially positive behavior, or at least behavior that produces happiness and/or satisfaction in the individual under treatment.

This is the beginning of a classic slippery ethical slope. Do we treat depression or do we eliminate it? If we eliminate it, do we go further and replace depression with a specific emotional state... say love of country or hatred of an accepted icon such as Emmanuel Goldstein (the universal Enemy of the State in the book 1984; no relation).
Dr. G

g said...

Hi, I am reading too!
As a lawyer, I can tell you that the law will not prosecute "bad thoughts". Acting and thinking are not the same under the law. Criminal law requires actus reas (act) and mens reas (intention). The final act isn't required for criminal prosecution, but significant steps toward the completion of the act are required. For example, attempted murder usually carries the same penalty as completed murder. So the real issue isn't whether thoughts will be prosecuted, but how thoughts will be used to further prosecution.

Dr. Goldstein said...

Dear G:

I am sure you are a first rate lawyer with respect to today's legal system... but we are talking about the (near) future. Molecular Engineering (a.k.a nanobiotechnology) will introduce new areas of knowledge that will require new laws. There was no need for a national nuclear weapons policy and laws governing use of radiation until we could split the atom. Likewise, brain-mapping and Molecular Engineering techniques (like neuroelectronic splicing) will create the need for new legislation and my require re-definition of cognitive processes in a manner that will make what we now call thought-crime possible. For example, what if brain mapping reaches the point that we could predict with 95% certainty that a person will become a violent child sex offender (the 5% probability level is a standard level that is scientifically accepted as beyond a 'reasonable doubt'... but feel free to substitute 99% or 99.9%). Will the law then mandate an implant or biopharmaceuticals treatment to modify that area of the individuals neural network? If so, then de facto this person has been tried, convicted and biomechanically or chemically 'jailed' for crimes not yet committed, i.e. thought crimes.
AG

g said...

Interesting, Doctor G.
However, in that case the real question is, why was this hypothetical future-sex offender having his/her brain scanned anyway? If it's being done, for example, routinely as part of a parole hearing or something after conviction/imprisonment, then perhaps it's not entirely dissimilar to the fingerprinting and DNA sample program for convicted felons. And I'm pretty much ethically okay with that - if a person acts in a certain way (ie: raping, killing, etc), that person has forfeited some of his or her personal liberties and privacy, perhaps forever.

However, if the brain-scan is done in connection with something other than post-criminal conviction, etc, that raises real Constitutional issues, having to do with privacy and civil liberties. I don't know if I'm that worried about it coming to pass about implants to "prevent behavior", etc, in light of Supreme Court precedent regarding forced sterilization, etc. On the other hand, of course, are the recent wiretapping cases and other precedent indicating an erosion of civil liberties and the Constitutional right to privacy.

The question of under what types of circumstances and upon what triggering events the government can use technologies like these is important. So also is the question of what constraints there might be on the use of these technologies on private citizens (ie: employers, schools, etc).

Dr. Goldstein said...

Dear G:

The points you raise are covered by my article on nanomedicine published in Salon.com and in even more detail in an article I have been unable to publish called "Cassandra and the Bell Curve". I suspect because it concentrates on the extremely dark side of the biotechnology and molecular medicine revolution.

The bottom line is that the advent of genomic medicine a.k.a. personalized medicine, a.k.a. targeted medicine will mean that we will routinely have gene scans and other molecular diagnostic procedures incorporated into our lives. Because of the vast, ongoing increase in computing power, the data generated by these molecular diagnostic procedures will be automatically integrated with these databases and analyzed by a process broadly known as bioinformatics. Therefore, the data about one's potential for diseases, disorders (including bad social behavior), &c will emerge automatically unless 'we' do something now to intervene in this logical trajectory.

Best, AG

Dr. Goldstein said...

Dear G:

Slight editorial correction: Because of the vast, ongoing increase in computing power, the data generated by these molecular diagnostic procedures will be automatically integrated with these [global] databases [complied by the NIH, healthcare consortia, etc.] and analyzed by a process broadly known as bioinformatics.

Bottom line, check out the nanomedicine article at Salon.com or on my web site.

Best, AG