Brain imaging may help predict future behaviour

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Non-invasive brain scans, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, have led to basic science discoveries about the human brain, but have had only limited impacts on day-to-day lives. A review article published in the journal Neuron, however, highlights a number of recent studies showing that brain imaging can help predict an individual’s future learning, criminality, health-related behaviours, and response to drug or behavioural treatments. The technology may offer opportunities to personalise educational and clinical practices.

John Gabrieli of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA, and his colleagues describe the predictive power of brain imaging across a variety of different future behaviours, including infants’ later performance in reading, students’ later performance in math, criminals’ likelihood of becoming repeat offenders, adolescents’ future drug and alcohol use, and addicts’ likelihood of relapse.

“Presently, we often wait for failure, in school or in mental health, to prompt attempts to help, but by then a lot of harm has occurred,” says Gabrieli. “If we can use neuroimaging to identify individuals at high risk for future failure, we may be able to help those individuals avoid such failure altogether.”

The authors also point to the clear ethical and societal issues that are raised by studies attempting to predict individuals’ behaviour. “We will need to make sure that knowledge of future behaviour is used to personalise educational and medical practices, and not be used to limit support for individuals at higher risk of failure,” says Gabrieli. “For example, rather than simply identifying individuals to be more or less likely to succeed in a programme of education, such information could be used to promote differentiated education for those less likely to succeed with the standard education program.”

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