Friday, June 20, 2008

Scanning the mind--a quacker or not?

Another one from that fits the sorcery or science mold (Brain Scans as Mid Readers? Don't Believe the Hype, Wired, May 19, 2008). The article deals with brain scanning using functional and structural tools to determine how 'healthy' the brain is. The writer believes it is sorcery, the doctor he reported on believes it is science. I think it is classic Edge science where both sorcery and science are involved. The scans show particular features of an individual's brains, but the reported argues that this is meaningless without the solid hypothesis generation and testing that is a hallmark of 'real' science. The comments to the article are also interesting in that you get hearty agreement from some that the guys is a quack, while others defend the good doctor with a much vigor. Science at the edge involves observation and tolerance of soft measures. Many are uncomfortable with this, and with good reason. But, it has to be done this way if new advances are to be had.
My take: the images give a doctor data that he can use along with regular clinical data to better form his opinion about what may be troubling the patient. It think the approach is probably more useful to understand brain irregularities when a patient has symptoms rather than just assessing overall brain health. The doctor's recommendation to take Gingko to improve activity in the brain is dubious and doesn't add to his credibility in my opinion. Edge science is by definition unproven. Benefits are often seen before they can be explained or clearly predicted. In fact, that is true of even pharmaceuticals if one takes the data on a person-to-person level. I'm reluctant to endorse these tools for marketing purposes but already we see them employed to this end. I don't know why i don't like it; it just feels a bit too predatory I guess.
I think we must remain open to the possibilities highlighted in Dr Amen's work for brain assessment as it accompanies more traditional psychological and psychiatric methods. The reporter is judging the work and his own 'diagnosis' by Amen based on reductionist values and he can't be blamed for that. Science has relied on these values since the Renaissance. We are now moving towards less reductionist approaches to science and medicine (we know too much to settle for pure reductionism in this day and age) and, provided we stay grounded in our objective of genuine enquiry, I think brain scanning in all its guises must be observed, debated, and eventually included (or not) as an important tool in the diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric brain dysfunction. It's role in marketing, however, requires some ethical debate. The article asks the right kinds of questions; the comments back show the polarized thinking that usually occurs at the Edges.
See: Wired Magazine 16.06 on 19th May 2008
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