FMRI and DNA Gene Sequence Mapping Provide Promising Technologies with an Orwellian [1] Price Tag

I. Introduction


Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) and DNA sequence mapping provide technologies that offer society unprecedented benefits, but at a cost that we are only beginning to understand.  [2]  FMRI, for example, enables researchers to map the brain's neurons as they process thoughts, sensations, memories and motor commands. [3] This provides neurologists with the ability to detect early onset of Alzheimer's disease and other ailments without invasive surgery.  [4]  It also can be used as a next generation lie detector in that it provides an almost infallible insight into a person's thought process that detects deception, raising obvious concerns about our civil liberties and right to privacy.  [5]  

DNA sequence screening, on the other hand, involves the study of genes and the notion that they are determinative of an individual's behavior, character, and future medical problems.  [6]  Diseases such as Crohn's disease, night blindness, Lupus, and emphysema  and their associated genes are already patented [7], making genes a highly lucrative business commodity. [8]  However, should there be property rights associated with genes?  In the wrong hands, these potentially altruistic technologies may create an Orwellian society where the government and/or large corporations may legally infringe on our traditional notions of civil liberties in the pursuit of capitalist ends.  [9]  Where should we draw the line?


II. FMRI Technology – Promises and Lies

FMRI scans have uncovered a rough methodology of, for example, how our brains handle fear, memory, risk-taking, and romantic love.  [10]  Lie detection is possible because the hemoglobin in red blood cells react differently to the FMRI magnetic fields depending on if the cells are carrying a molecule of oxygen.  [11]  Active regions of the brain use more oxygen, and the fMRI scanner can pinpoint the busiest regions of the brain in real time with no danger or discomfort to the subject.  [12]  Subjects that lie showed increased brain activity in areas such as memory, judgment, planning, sentence processing, and inhibition. [13]  In contrast, those that told the truth that utilized less mental resources; thus, the liars exerted more mental processes to lie than truth tellers, making for fail proof determinations of deception.  [14]

Two startup companies called No Lie MRI and Cephos have emerged, promising to bring deception detection to the market.  [15]  Because of the highly controlled, sensitive, and cumbersome non-portable testing environment, their primary customers are those that seek to exonerate themselves from their convictions.  [16]  However, new derivative infra-red technologies that can still achieve a 95% accuracy rate, are under way that could enable discrete scans from across the room, applicable to situations like airport screening or military interrogations without the need for consensual participation.  [17]  

The potential uses are vast; beyond determining if someone is a law-abiding citizen or a security threat, this technology could be used, for example, in employee hiring procedures or even if to determine if your partner is faithful or not.  [18]  This raises obvious questions of 4th and 5th amendment rights – is an involuntary FMRI scan an illegal search and seizure since something (your thoughts) was taken from you without your consent?  [19]  The intrusion into one’s thoughts would arguably violate one’s constitutional right not to incriminate yourself if people could ask you questions that you cannot deny or refuse to answer.  [20]

III. Gene Sequence Screening and Health Coverage

Genes have become a major business commodity, with venture capitalists and patent procurements aimed primarily at the development of drugs and diagnostic tests.  [21]  Almost 20 percent of the entire human genome is "owned" by patent holders and investors mostly focused on human disease and biological pathways.  [22]  While the benefits of the technology show unprecedented promise in fighting disease, the benefit may be at some cost to our privacy with genetic information.  [23]

Insurance companies have already denied health insurance to patience because of genetic screening.  [24]  For example, an HMO stated that it would pay for an abortion of a fetus with a genetic defect, but would not provide financial coverage if the fetus was brought to term.  [25]  Even healthy people have been denied coverage despite their disease prevention measures because of genetic screening.  A healthy child who carried a gene that predisposed him of a heart disorder was rejected for health coverage despite his medication that eliminated his risk of heart disease.  [26]  This poses the question as to whether insurance companies should be able to charge higher premiums based on genetic screening when predisposed but controllable ailments are detected.  [27]  The protection and privacy of our genetic information will certainly be hotly debated in the years to come.

IV. Conclusion

FMRI and Gene Sequence Screening offer many benefits to society that can revolutionize and greatly enhance, among other things, our medical and security capabilities.  However, if left unchecked, the capitalistic ends may test our traditional notions of civil liberty.

[1]  GEORGE ORWELL, 1984 (Plume 2003) (1961).
[2]  Intrepid Liberal Journal, Brain Fingerprinting and Civil Liberties,  May 23, 2006 (last visited Nov. 20, 2007).
[3]  Id. 
[4]  Id.
[5]  Id.
[6]  Philip Bereano, Does Genetic Research Threaten Our Civil Liberties?, Aug. 2000 (last visited Nov. 20, 2007).
[7]  Greta Lorge, Everybody Wants a Piece of You. One-fifth of Your DNA is Now Owned (As in Patented) by Someone Else, Jan. 2006 visited Nov. 20, 2007).
[8]  See Bereano, supra note 6.
[9]  Steve Silberman, Don’t Even Think About Lying.  How Brain Scans are Reinventing the Science of Lie Detection, Jan. 2006 (last visited Nov. 22, 2007).
[10]  Jeff Wise, This is Your Brain…This is Your Brain on an fMRI Scan, POPULAR MECHANICS, Nov. 2007, at 64.
[11]  Id.
[12]  Id.
[13]  Id.
[14]  Id.
[15]  See Silberman, supra note 9. 
[16]  Id.
[17]  Id.
[18]  See Wise, supra note 10.
[19]  Id.
[20]  Id.
[21]  See Lorge, supra note 7.
[22]  Id.
[23]  See Bereano, supra note 6.
[24]  Id.
[25]  Id.
[26]  Id.
[27]  Id.