Imagine if you could accurately predict the future language skills of an infant who cannot yet utter a word. This capability may become a reality thanks to advances in neuroimaging that enable us to predict a wide range of future behaviors based on brain scans alone.
In a review of more than 70 scientific papers on brain structure and function published in Neuron, researchers at MIT and Harvard Medical School found that brain patterns can be correlated with future learning capability, criminal behavior and responses to medical and behavioral therapies. These correlations have been revealed even at a very young age.
Magnetic resonance images (MRIs) of infants can predict future use of both expressive language (the ability to communicate wants and needs) and receptive language (the ability to understand or comprehend read or spoken language). Findings in a study of 19 infants published in Brain and Language showed that early concentrations of gray matter and white matter in certain parts of the cerebellum, midbrain and hippocampus (at seven months of age) correlate with higher language scores at 12 months.
These findings may help facilitate earlier interventions in those with potential learning disabilities. “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,” notes MIT professor John Gabrieli, one of the authors of the review in Neuron. “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.”
Scans could also help identify people who are most likely to commit violent acts. Research reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that neuroimaging data help predict whether a criminal will break the law again once released from prison. A study of 96 male inmates found that a return to crime was much more likely in those with a damaged anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a portion of the brain that plays roles in error processing, monitoring of conflict, response selection and learning what to avoid. Inmates with relatively low activity in the ACC were twice as likely to re-offend than inmates with high activity in this region.
“These results point the way toward a promising method of neuroprediction with great practical potential in the legal system,” says Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, a philosophy professor at Duke University who collaborated on the study.
Taking “focus groups” to a whole new level
Advertising agencies can hardly contain their excitement over the potential of brain imaging to help create campaigns that will motivate buying behavior. This potential was made clear in a study by UCLA researchers of brain activity in 20 people, most of them college students, as they listened to or watched public service announcements on the importance of using sunscreen. The participants were then asked about their opinions of sunscreen and whether they planned to use it more often. Those with heightened brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (an area of the brain that plays key roles in motivation, desire and self-awareness) were found to be much more likely to use sunscreen the following week. Interestingly, there was a greater correlation of sunscreen use with the brain scans than with the predictions of the participants.
The implications for market research as well as health education based on these findings are clear. “A problem with standard focus groups is that people are lousy at reporting what they will actually do” says Emily Falk, one of the UCLA researchers. “We have not had much to supplement that approach, but in the future it may be possible to create what we are calling ‘neural focus groups.’”
It’s no surprise, of course, that we don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do. We all make assumptions about what we’ll accomplish in different situations and are often taken aback when we come up short. No matter—now we have brain scans to serve as more reliable soothsayers.