Advances in fMRI Technology and Ethical Concerns

In 2007, Time warned us that advances in brain-imaging technology were raising serious ethical concerns (Russo, 2007). The article mentions how advances in our understanding about the mind have led many people to question what limits should be placed on this technology. It gives the example of CEPHOS, a company claiming to perfect a lie detection test using brain scans with a 90% accuracy rate. Two years later, a psychologist hired CEPHOS to conduct this test as part of his defense (Lowenberg, 2010). Although many researchers have expressed serious doubts about the accuracy and the ethics of these kinds of brain-imaging applications, we are living in a world where our thoughts are quickly not remaining our own. We must be careful of the impact of brain-imaging technology on our daily lives.

Research suggests that our thoughts correspond to specific patterns of brain activity, but there is a lot about the human thought that we still don’t understand (Goldstein, 2011). Scientists capture images of brain activity with an fMRI scanner and then they use a computer program to make sense of images they collect. Scientists can now recognize the pattern of brain activity of a person thinking or seeing an object. One study has even demonstrated how similar the patterns of brain activity are between different people. However, human thought involves more complicated patterns of activity than the perception of a simple object.

Despite the limitations of the fMRI, CEPHOS tried to use brain scans to provide expert testimony in a federal court case (Lowenberg, 2010). In 2009, psychologist Dr. Lorne Semrau was charged with defrauding Medicare, a federal crime. To prove he was telling the truth, he underwent a lie detection test conducted by CEPHOS. CEPHOS used an fMRI scanner to compare the activity in the doctor’s brain when he claimed to be lying with the activity when he claimed to be telling the truth. In order to be considered expert testimony, the scans had to be scientifically valid. However, the presiding judge concluded that the fMRI lie detection test did not satisfy all of the necessary criteria for scientific. The judge also cited an article, authored by researchers affiliated with CEPHOS, explaining that the fMRI “is currently not ready to be used in real-world lie detection (Lowenberg, 2010).” Even CEPHOS researchers could not prevent their company from attempting to use brain-imaging technology for applications it has not been proven capable of performing.

This is just one example of the concerns that fMRI scans raise. The case of Dr. Semau involves a defendant who asked for a scan. Time warns of the potential for criminal suspects to be forced to undergo brain scans “like a search warrant for the brain (Russo, 2007).” After all, criminal law allows police to draw blood after a suspected drunk driving accident. Of course, there is no reason to assume that all applications of fMRI scans are designed to encroach on our freedom, but this technology does raise questions that require answers—and soon.

We must encourage the skepticism of the CEPHOS researchers cited by the judge in Dr. Semrau’s case. Otherwise, we risk putting too much trust in technologies that already have an increasingly large impact on our lives, including how we serve justice and protect individual liberty.


Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Cognitive Neuroscience. In Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research, and everyday experience (3rd ed., pp. 39-43). Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Lowenberg, K. (2010, June 10). FMRI Lie Detection Fails Its First Hearing on Reliability [Web log post]. Retrieved September 15, 2015, from

Russo, F. (2007, January 29). The Brain: Who Should Read Your Mind? Retrieved September 15, 2015, from,9171,1580378-2,00.html

3 thoughts on “Advances in fMRI Technology and Ethical Concerns

  1. Xueqi Guo

    It is very interesting to use fMRI technology for lie detection. The technology of fMRI is truly a helpful method to measure the brain that it could not only show functions, but also offer detailed spatial map. Based on that, if a person lies, theoritically the brain area, which is responsible for the function of lying, would show more blood flow. In that way, fMRI could detect the person lied. However, a problem is that there is no specific area in the brain which is simply related to lie. Lying is a behavior which could be connected to various regions of the brain. It would be very hard to tell if the person is lying when there are many regions of the brain activated. The article on Time which you talked about stated that the new technology detects lie by searching if the person’s brain activity functions as normal. However, how to define “normal?” There was a technology called “Layered Voice Analysis (LVA),” which was claimed as “effective” for lie detection just like the fMRI this time, showed low accuracy. It could not detect lying among prisoners. When the prisoners were asked if they took drugs recently, LVA failed to detect the lies. Those who were found “not lying” later were found that they had taken drugs through urine test (Newroskeptic, 2013). Also, there was another traditional lie detector called “polygraph.” Polygraph detects a person’s physical changes. For example, breathing, blood pressure, and pulse. Polygraph was found lack of accuracy as well. In 2003, there was a murderer named Gary Ridgway who killed 49 women in the area of Seattle. He passed the lie detector in 1987 and another innocent person failed to pass the test (BBC News, 2013). Many types of lie detectors have shown invalid results. Therefore, the effect of fMRI lie detector is quite questionable. Although brain imaging technology could actually detect brain activity, people’s thought is very complex. Also, since fMRI is a method to detect physical changes, it does not have much difference with polygraph. There still could be ways to deal with fMRI lie detector, just like to polygraph. For example, if a man is under detection and a pretty woman comes in, will fMRI truly detect the “abnormal” brain activity is due to lie or sexual impulse? After all, it could be very hard to seperate a particular type of emotion from many other activities in the brain. Just like Gerain Rees, the director of the UCL InstituInstitute of Cognitive Neuroscience, says, “What we can’t do is say that because a particular area of the brain is active someone was doing something like lying. Any brain area does multiple things. (BBC News, 2013)”

    Neuroskeptic. (2013). More Bad News For Voice “Lie Detection.”Retrieved from
    BBC News. (2013). The curious story of how the lie detector came to be. Retrieved from

  2. Felicia Maria Tavarez Puntiel

    I agree with (ejy5033), brain imaging are vulnerable to misuse. The article below states that if used in the court room, jurors can misinterpret the images. The outcome could be detrimental to the accused. Not only it will inhibit our privacy, and freedom of, but if allowed in the court rooms it use can turn someone’s life for the worse. One of the reasons why lie detector test are not allow in the court room, it’s because they are not 100% accurate. What tells me, that someone is not lying when they “read” the brain imaging? Where do (We) the people draw the line?

  3. ejy5033

    This is definitely worrying. For the longest time, I really wanted to study criminal psychology, and this is troubling to me for a few reasons, 1) Like you said, this might fall under unreasonable search and seizure. If this technology becomes too advanced and the laws too liberal, police could one day be caring around portable fMRI machines and be questioning people for speeding tickets! 2) I have always been suspicious of so called “lie detectors”, as I’ve always felt that everyone reacts to lying different externally (some people blink, some sweat, etc.) so why not internally too? This reminds me a lot of Edward Snowden’s whistle blowing a few years ago, because it again raises the question: at what point do we have the right to privacy? How much does the Constitution protect this right, and how much should we push the boundaries?

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