Brain Scans May Offer Clues in Predicting Human Behavior
Brain scans may be useful in predicting a variety of helpful information, from challenges with learning and comprehension to how a person responds to medical treatment, according to a new report from MIT and Harvard Medical School (HMS).
The report, published earlier this month in the journal Neuron, stems from a review of more than 70 scientific papers on neuroimaging, the process by which the brain’s structure and function are studied. In evaluating these studies, researchers found a strong correlation between brain measures, known as neuromarkers, and behavioral outcomes such as a patient’s reading ability or reaction to medication or other therapies for psychiatric disorders such as depression.
John Gabrieli, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at MIT and the study’s lead author, says the research suggests that neuromarkers can predict a person’s future behavior more accurately than other available measures. Using this tool, he says, may help physicians more successfully personalize the care and treatment plans they can offer to their patients.
“In many areas, we know so little about what will help a person because people vary so much. There’s a lot of guesswork in the current approach,” Gabrieli says, adding that this “trial and error” method often results in worsened conditions or discouragement. “If you can personalize it, people can move much more directly to effective forms of support.”
Gabrieli explains that the neuromarkers are recorded by the brain scan while a patient is performing a certain task such as reading out loud or viewing anxiety-provoking images. By capturing the parts of the brain which are activated during the task, the scan helps clinicians decide on a course of treatment.
While researchers found the strongest support for the predictive power of brain scans in the areas of reading and mental health challenges, Gabrieli says he and his team also reviewed a smaller number studies which found correlations between neuromarkers and behaviors such as future criminality, substance abuse, and health habits including the use of sunscreen.
Despite the findings, Gabrieli says more research is required before this practice is implemented on a greater level. It’s also important, he says, for scientists to address the ethical concerns associated with the technique; brain scans should be used as a “guide for patients to get optimal help, not to simply sort people,” he says.
“It’s not as if this is ready to go tomorrow, but we think it’s realistic that it could become usable within five years,” Gabrieli says.