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BRAIN DRAIN

07-12-2009

Birmingham neurologist Dr David Nicholl examines the evidence for a new kind of lie detector test - using MRI scans.

Sometimes one hears an idea so odd that one has to do a double-take.

Last month, I was approached by a group of US psychologists to take part in a conference call to discuss ethical issues in relation to the War on Terror. They were interested in my experience of highlighting the controversies over the management of detainees in Guantanamo with the forcefeeding of prisoners on hunger strike.

There has been considerable controversy amongst psychologists in the US, as their professional association has stated that it was OK for psychologists to participate in interrogations, even though this raises considerable ethical quandaries, as a minimum.

Military psychologists had previously developed many of the techniques used in interrogations as part of a SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) programme to assist captured US military resist and survive interrogations.

Post 9/11, the Pentagon in its wisdom, thought that using such psychological techniques in reverse would be a good way to get intelligence from Al Qaeda suspects. We know now that the techniques included methods tantamount to torture, including stress positions, sleep deprivation and water boarding.

Anyhow at the end of a lengthy conference call to my colleagues in the US, there was an almost throw-away line from one of the speakers, who was a former US military interrogator. “What, as a neurologist, did I think of fMRI as an interrogational technique?”

“Easy, it isn’t one and wouldn’t work if anyone was daft enough to try it.”

“Don’t be so hasty, believe me someone WILL be trying to use this”.

So what is fMRI? Most of you will be aware of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) as an imaging technique, which has revolutionised the investigation and management of neurological disorders over the last 20 years.

fMRI or functional MRI is currently largely in use as a research technique and requires the use of a much more powerful magnet than a conventional MRI to look at subtle changes in metabolic uptake in different brain regions in real time. This then leads to developing interesting experimental work looking at which areas of brain function relate to particular tasks.

A simple model would be to take someone and ask them to lie down in the fMRI scan and ask them to think about a particular task (e.g. think about moving your right index finger) and then measuring the area of activity on the fMRI by looking at Oxygen use within that brain region.

So far, so good- this is fine as a research exercise to get pooled data that will further our knowledge of brain function.

This, however, has not stopped some researchers going just that little bit further, without, actually having any evidence.

Some commercial companies in the US have set up fMRI as a modern day lie detector with such buzzing names as NoLieMRI. They hope that fMRI will be the 21st century polygraph- never mind that there is considerable controversy surrounding the utility of the polygraph as a lie detector tool (it is not used in any UK courts).

Bizarrely, earlier this year, one case is actually going to court based on fMRI evidence in an attempt to prove that someone accused of sexual abuse is innocent.

So this is what is happening in the US courts, but is anyone really daft enough to use such an experimental neuroimaging technique in interrogating suspected terrorists?

Its one thing to assess brain function in an experimental paradigm and quite another to use this technique in a suspected terrorist to ask complex questions as part of an interrogation.

I have spoken to former detainees and lawyers involved with Guantanamo and none of them have reported the use of fMRI, although other forms of neuroimaging have been used (Prisoner 063 had a CT head scan during his interrogation when he became unduly drowsy whilst being held dehydrated and sleep deprived as part of his interrogation).

Both Jonathan Marks, a human rights lawyer who has written extensively on the medical ethics of the War on Terror in a paper entitled “Interrogational neuroimaging in counterterrorism” and Dr Melissa Whitfield in a paper entitled “Constructing the Organ of Deceit The Rhetoric of fMRI and Brain Fingerprinting in Post-9/11 America” have laid out the evidence how fMRI as an interrogational tool is a fallacy.

It is worth remembering, as we go through the Iraq War enquiry, a war that took place, largely, at the very least, through dodgy intelligence. Do we really need the use of a very expensive and unproven technology, such as fMRI, to add to the garbage from poor quality interrogations.

Perhaps this is all fanciful thinking, but if I was a researcher in fMRI, I would be asking some very searching questions if the Pentagon was offering research money- “don’t use my research as a jumped up lie detector” for starters. Every single neuroradiologist I have spoken to has said that using fMRI would be a hiding to nothing as an interrogation technique.

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